Senior's Desire to Research Leads to Churchill Scholarship

Katherine Deigan, a UNC senior majoring in chemistry, has received a 2009-10 Winston Churchill Scholarship for graduate work at the University of Cambridge in England, valued at $42,000 to $50,000.

Deigan was one of 14 college students chosen nationwide by the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States for the one-year award. Colleges and universities nominated 99 candidates. She is the 14th Churchill Scholar from Carolina since the first awards were made in 1963.

Recipients are American undergraduates planning to pursue graduate studies in science, mathematics and engineering. They are chosen for their academic and extracurricular accomplishments. Candidates also are evaluated on academic work, Graduate Record Examination scores, capacity for original and creative work, character, adaptability, and demonstrated concern for critical problems of society and good health.

Deigan, of Cary, graduated from Clayton High School in 2005 as a National Merit Scholar. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in pathology at Cambridge, then seek a doctorate in pathology or biochemistry. She hopes to become a research professor.

For the past two and a half years, Deigan has conducted experiments designed to find ways to determine the structure of RNA – a molecule that controls all aspects of cellular and human biology. In the long run, medical researchers could use such findings to learn how to treat or cure diseases caused by many kinds of viruses, including HIV/AIDS.

“I hope not just to undertake research, but also to tackle ambitious, important problems,” Deigan said. “The opportunity not only to work with world-class researchers on some of science’s unsolved mysteries, but also to roam the halls of the university where the structure of DNA was elucidated, and the splitting of the atom was first realized, is intoxicating.”

Inspired to relish solving mysteries by a high school calculus teacher, Deigan came to Carolina bent on a research experience. She wound up in the lab of chemistry Professor Kevin Weeks, who studies RNA and retroviruses.

“I was surprised that this brilliant professor was taking his time to explain to me the very basics of his research, from hydrogen bonding to nucleotide structure,” she said. “His enthusiasm was infectious, and I became intensely excited by both the experiments he was proposing and his obvious passion for his work.”

Results of Deigan’s ensuing work in the lab landed her name in a prestigious journal.

“Katie is the first author on a paper describing her research results that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Jan. 6 issue],” said Peter Mucha, an associate professor of mathematics and chair of the nominating committee for Churchill candidates from UNC. “Katie’s intensive research experiences really helped her application stand out in the on-campus nomination process and, presumably, in the national competition as well.”

A travel grant from UNC’s Office of Undergraduate Research and a Beckman Scholarship from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation enabled Deigan to present her research results in July at the annual meeting of the RNA Society in Berlin. She plans to present her work again in April at the annual meeting in New Orleans of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and in July at the annual Beckman Scholars Symposium in Irvine, Calif.

Deigan has volunteered at the UNC Children’s Hospital and for President Barack Obama’s campaign. She played clarinet in the UNC Symphony and Ceremonial bands for two years. She remains interested in classical music and attended numerous concerts while studying abroad in London.

Soon, she’ll be ideally situated just 50 miles north of that cultural center, laying the foundation for a career in science.

“Katie is a great scientist, because she is intellectually brave in the face of uncertainty,” Weeks said. “She is eager to try new things and is experimentally tenacious. She’s had a tremendous influence on the lab and on me.”

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