Lab students and Dr. Curotto during the summer 2018. Photo provided by Amy Stringer (center, pink shirt).
Biochemistry major Amy Stringer ’20, ’21M has known since she was a child that she wanted to be a doctor. But after three years in the lab with Dr. Manny Curotto, professor and chair of Chemistry, she’s set her sights on a different career track: pathology.
She’s still planning to go to medical school, but now Stringer will pursue a Ph.D. to continue medical research. She’s also added a step in the plan and will graduate with a Master of Science in Forensic Science in 2021 through the University’s 3+2 program.
“I absolutely don’t want to give up the research,” said Stringer. “Before I started working with Dr. Curotto, I knew I wanted to study medicine, but I had never entertained pursuing research. Now, I want to earn a Ph.D. too.”
This spring, Stringer will be the first student to graduate with a Biochemistry degree at the University. She credits Dr. Curotto as the conduit for making it happen—he worked as a mediator between the Biology and Chemistry departments and helped craft the curriculum so Stringer’s degree will be recognized by both departments.
“I had an adviser in college who gave me a research project after I wanted to change to chemical engineering,” recalled Dr. Curotto. “What he did changed my life. It’s what got me hooked into research-based learning. I bring students in on real problems, not concocted ones. The real-world impact to the community is one thing that’s important to the students. Once students feel they can contribute and make an impact, it’s amazing what they’ll learn.”
Dr. Curotto’s lab, which focuses on the fundamental research of electrolyte mixtures in lithium batteries and explores questions around the structure and mixtures, has been funded by an American Chemical Society grant for the past four years. He’s also been awarded four Petroleum Research Fund grants for his research with electrolytes.
Over the course of the four years, eight students have spent their summers working in the lab. They spend 40 hours a week for 10 weeks conducting theoretical experiments, which include learning to code, fixing bugs, and deriving equations for supercomputers. Dr. Curotto said some of the data sets on which students work are so large that they can take up to six months to process on these machines.
Dr. Curotto doesn’t expect students to know how to run these experiments at first; he’s published a book on his inverted pyramid training for students. Each student is provided their own inverted pyramid training program based on the work they’ll be doing, and for the first month, they learn and study from not only textbooks but from students who have worked on the project before them. After their inverted pyramid curriculum is completed, they present what they’ve learned to other students in the lab and pick up where the project has left off. At the end of the project, students explain their steps by writing research papers that are used by the next students who work on the project, all as part of the inverted pyramid curriculum.
“It comes full circle,” said Dr. Curotto. “When students write about their projects, they make connections and understand at a deeper level. Writing is a big part of this because they need to be able to communicate their findings to their lay peers, so the next student should be able to pick up what they’ve written and replicate it.”
Through this process, eight papers have been published by students working in the lab in the past four years. Stringer was a co-author on one of those papers, which was published by Chemical Physics Letters earlier this month.
“I think the lab has driven a lot of us into research,” said Stringer. She credits Dr. Curotto’s lab as the reason she was hired by Fox Chase to conduct research on enzyme kinetics with the P53 protein found in many cancer cells. “Dr. Curotto’s dedication to one-on-one teaching led me to follow research. It’s what got me into Fox Chase. He really helped me.”