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Student Highlights

Degree being sought: Polymer Science BS, Chemistry & Biology minors
Institution: University of Southern Mississippi 
Research group: Morgan Group 
Area of study: Synthetic Polymers/Biomedical 
Hometown: Hattiesburg, MS

Give a brief synopsis of research/work being done:
Antimicrobial peptides are small biopolymers produced naturally by multicellular organisms that selectively eliminate bacterial cells. My work focuses on creating synthetic polymer mimics of these peptides to reduce the prevalence of hospital-acquired infections and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We have successfully synthesized statistical copolymers via aqueous reversible addition-fragmentation chain transfer (RAFT) polymerization that have exhibited antimicrobial activity and low eukaryotic cell toxicity. I am currently investigating how structural variations of these mimics affect their respective mode of activity. Ideally, we hope to gain insight into the mechanisms of these polymers to potentially design systems for targeting specific bacteria in the future.

From your current perspective, what do you see as an ideal fit for your skills, goals and career moving forward?
The biological realm of polymer science has always fascinated me. I hope to pursue a career in the medical field, focusing on biomedical applications of polymers.

What's an interesting (personal) fact about yourself?
During my sophomore year in college, I discovered my passion for traveling. Because I lived in a small town for the majority of my life, I was unaware of much else outside of the South. By participating in a an exchange program with the University of Exeter in Exeter, England, and a research internship in New Delhi, India, I realized that I enjoyed interacting with new people, being exposed to different cultures, and seeing what the rest of world has to offer. During my travels I have climbed into the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, walked up the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and explored the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, just to name a few adventures. I hope to travel to even more places and meet more interesting people in the years to come.

Why did you choose USM?
Initially, I was unsure of what I wanted to do after high school. My mother was the first person to enlighten me about USM’s prestigious polymer science department. I decided to attend USM and major in polymer science to learn more about this specialized field. Being a first-generation college student, attending a university was a big deal in my family. Additionally, USM is relatively close to home, and I can easily visit my family when needed.

What USM-related scholarships did you receive?
I was awarded USM’s Presidential Scholarship, which covers the cost of tuition, campus housing, meal plan, and textbooks for four years. I also received the Coatings Industry Education Foundation Sidney Lauren Memorial scholarship in 2011.

Awards won
Amgen Scholar Intern at Washington University in St. Louis (2013); Barry M. Goldwater Scholar (2012); Alpha Lambda Delta: James G. Stemler Study Abroad Scholar (2012); National Science Foundation: Polymer Science India Internship Recipient (2011); USM’s President’s List (2010-2013); The Society of Protective Coatings Scholar (2010); USM’s Most Outstanding Freshman Male (2010)

Paslay, L. C.; Abel, B. A.; Brown, T. D.; Koul, V.; Choudhary, V.; McCormick, C. L.; Morgan, S. E., Antimicrobial Poly(methacrylamide) Derivatives Prepared via Aqueous RAFT Polymerization Exhibit Biocidal Efficiency Dependent upon Cation Structure. Biomacromolecules 2012, 13, 2472-2482.

Paslay, L. C.; Abel, B. A.; Brown, T. D.; McCormick, C. L.; Morgan, S. E., Novel synthetic mimics of antimicrobial peptides prepared via aqueous RAFT polymerization. Polymer Preprints 2012, 53, 626-627.

Paslay, L. C.; Abel, B. A.; Brown, T. D.; Koul, V.; Choudhary, V.; McCormick, C. L.; Morgan, S. E., Outlining the effect of cation structure on the antimicrobial efficiency of polymethacrylamide derivatives that mimic antimicrobial peptides. Polymer Preprints 2012, 53, 452-453.

Main USM extracurricular activity – why is this important to you?
Prospective and current students struggle with many questions about college life, academics, and programs offered by the university. By being an ambassador for the Honors College, College of Science & Technology, and the International Department, I assist these students that have specific needs or questions. During my undergraduate career, several senior ambassadors have made significant impacts on my life, including introducing me to the field of research and encouraging me to study abroad. I chose to become an ambassador in these various departments to “give back,” in a sense, and leave Southern Miss better than I found it.

Your most profound turning point while at USM?
While conducting research with the Morgan Research Group at USM, I was granted the opportunity of furthering my research project at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in New Delhi, India, during winter break of my sophomore year. This National Science Foundation-funded internship was conducted under the guidance of Dr. Veena Choudhary and Dr. Veena Koul at IIT along with three graduate students from USM. Living, researching, and traveling in a third world country opened my eyes to a world I had never seen before. This experience greatly enhanced my drive to conduct biomedical research in order to increase the welfare of individuals worldwide.

What are your plans for next year and beyond?
After completing my undergraduate career, I plan to acquire a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering to design new and innovative therapeutics, specifically in drug design and biomaterials. I hope to join the research and development division of a biotechnology company after the completion of my future studies.

While at USM, what other accomplishments/activities are you most proud of? 
During the summer of 2013, I was accepted into the Amgen Scholars Program at Washington University in St. Louis (Wash U). Up until this point, most of my research had focused primarily on synthesis and was heavily chemistry-oriented. To be exposed to more of the biological side of research, I chose and was granted the opportunity of working in Dr. Sheila A. Stewart’s laboratory. My summer research project focused on why aging is the primary risk factor associated with cancer. 

I specifically analyzed the microenvironment of senescent, or “old,” cells to help explain what factors were present that promoted tumor growth. With this internship I also attended an Amgen Scholars Research Symposium at the University of California, Los Angeles, to present my research and learn about the various summer projects of my fellow colleagues.