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Jonathan Szczerba

For some students, summer break presents the perfect opportunity to laze idly by the pool or earn a few bucks working a part-time job.

For others, the warmer months are spent pursuing academic goals. Jonathan Szczerba, a senior biochemistry student from Mt. Victory, Ohio, is one such student.

In fact, this 2016 Ruth E. Weir Memorial Award for Research recipient spent last summer synthesizing new fluorescent molecules under the mentorship of Dr. Jake Zimmerman, associate professor of chemistry.

Szczerba was bitten by the research bug his freshman year and began working in Zimmerman’s lab this past spring. A sophomore can earn one credit per semester for doing research, but his or her hours in the lab are capped at three per week. In the summer, there are no such restrictions on students, and so Szczerba is spending closer to 40 hours per week in the lab.

“You don’t get as far during the semester because your time is limited and you are so focused on classes,” he says. “But when you are here in the summer, you actually feel like you are making progress because you are doing research full time.”

In Szczerba’s case, it’s easy for him to see his progress as well. The research he’s doing involves synthesizing new molecules that fluoresce under ultraviolet light when they come into contact with certain chemicals. This phenomenon makes them excellent chemical detectors, as the results are instantaneous and easy to detect with the naked eye. A potential application for this research is in a detection system to keep the public safe from currently difficult-to-detect hazards such as chlorine and lead.

“The reason that I wanted to be a part of this research group is that I saw the potential for new scientific discoveries to be made, and I really wanted to be a part of that,” says Jonathan. “I’m very thankful to the Weir family for sponsoring me this summer because this is such an excellent opportunity.”

In fact, his experience last summer changed his perspective on research from something he liked to do to something he would be happy dedicating his life to. While his ultimate goal is to attend medical school and become a physician, if that doesn’t work out, he has no problem pursuing a research career.

“I woke up every morning excited to go to work,” he says. “I would be more than happy to do this for the rest of my life.”