Wheaton College Student Emma DiBernardo Honored with NIST SURF Fellowship

May 18, 2017

Wheaton College junior Emma DiBernardo of Pearl River, New York, was recently selected for a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). The NIST SURF program is designed to encourage undergraduate students to pursue STEM-related careers through 11-week paid research internships. About 150 students are selected for the fellowship each year.

DiBernardo, a biology and chemistry major, will spend the summer at the NIST Physical Measurement Laboratory in Gaithersburg, Maryland.  Alongside NIST scientist Dr. John Kasianowicz, she will conduct research on the protein alpha-hemolysin. Her summer fellowship will continue the research she started at Wheaton in the lab of Guest Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Lisa Burden and Professor of Analytical Chemistry Dr. Daniel Burden.

“Emma is curious, intelligent, and passionate about science,” Dr. Lisa Burden says.  “She has been fueled by the challenges of research and has significantly developed her scientific intuition and problem-solving capacity.  She also works hard and has acquired a set of competencies that will allow her to contribute to the research going on at NIST.”

Although the protein DiBernardo studies, alpha-hemolysin, is a natural toxin, she is working to transform it into a compound that could be used for healing. The research lab at NIST has the capability to make sophisticated measurements that will deepen DiBernardo’s understanding of the movement of currents across the cellular membrane of the protein.

“I have known that I wanted to be a researcher since I was 12 years old, so I am very excited to be doing lab work for 11 weeks,” DiBernardo says. “This program is special because my mentor at NIST, Dr. John Kasianowicz, also mentored Dr. Daniel Burden. This relationship allows me to continue researching proteins from the Burdens’ lab using instruments in Dr. Kasianowicz’s lab.”

In addition to her lab work at Wheaton, DiBernardo is also a cabinet member of the Voice for Life club and a Discipleship Small Group leader. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a Ph.D.

The NIST SURF program is open to undergraduate students enrolled at U.S. two- and four-year institutions who are majoring in chemistry, computer science, engineering, materials science, fire research, nanotechnology, information technology, mathematics, biology, manufacturing, statistics or other STEM disciplines. Applicants must be nominated by their college or university. The fellowship offers a stipend and reimbursement for housing and transportation costs.