DALLAS TWP. — While some college students spent summer soaking up some rays, interning or traveling, Misericordia University senior Amelia Poplawski was doing all three.
The Plains Township resident, and 2010 Coughlin High School graduate, was one of 16 students to participate in an elite National Science Foundation internship at the University of California’s Irvine campus.
The biochemistry major spoke giddily as she detailed her summer, spent using the “Gaussian computational chemistry program to build virtual molecules and compounds, and performing calculations on energy, frequency and optimizing the structure.”
That might be a hard phrase for non-science types to say, much less comprehend, but her enthusiasm makes it sound fun.
“Computational chemistry allows you to investigate properties of a compound that could not be done in a wet laboratory because they are too unstable,” she said. “The more theoretical information we compile on a molecule, the more it helps us determine the mechanism behind the molecule and what makes it work.”
The daughter of Denise and Richard Poplawski, Amelia traces her love of science back to her days at Coughlin High School. Specifically she cited biology teacher Joan Blaum for igniting her interest in biology during her freshman year and then Advanced Placement chemistry teacher Michael Cooney for sparking her appreciation of chemistry.
“Amelia is one of those students you never forget … one who makes you happy to be a teacher,” said Blaum, now retired. “Even as a freshman, she was an exceptional student — a hard worker. She is definitely one of the most dedicated students I ever had.”
Once Poplawski got to Misericordia, her interests in multiple branches of science were able to be combined when she opted to major in biochemistry. It’s a field in which women have made increasing strides.
Poplawski said she gets puzzled looks when she tells some people her major, but she said it’s a sign of the times and notes she will graduate with a math minor, too.
But general science is one thing, computational chemistry is another.
Poplawski said thanks to technology and medical breakthroughs over the past generation, computer-based research is quickly becoming a norm in the field and, while not as glamorous as working with microscopes or vials, it is just as important.
Anna Fedor, an assistant professor of chemistry at Misericordia, traced Poplawski’s interest in pursuing research in computational chemistry, in part, to her time in one of the university’s physical chemistry classes.
By having applied for and been accepted to what Fedor called one of “the elite internships in the nation,” Poplawski has shown the type of research and education being undertaken at Misericordia, the professor said.
Poplawski said the research she’s doing combines “my curiosity and passion of knowledge and science coupled with my compassion toward people. This is the perfect marriage.”
The idea that she could be part of the cutting-edge of medical research, though she’s only 21, makes all the hours in the lab worth it.
“It may take decades of research, but the idea of finding a biochemical reaction related to diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s is something I hope to see in my lifetime,” Poplawski said. “If it happens, I know that my time in the lab will have been well spent.”