Bioengineering Major Earns National Recognition for Research

March 10, 2015

Alexis Peña, a junior in the bioengineering program, has received two outstanding research awards for her poster presentations at two notable conferences. At the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) in November, Peña was earned a research award for her poster, “Computational investigation of tight junctions.” She was one of just 17 students out of 17,000 to receive an award for engineering, physics, or mathematics research in 12 sub-disciplines of the biomedical and behavioral sciences. Tight junctions are cell-to-cell adhesion structures found in human tissue that protect us against infections, toxins, and even cancer. Peña uses homology modeling, molecular dynamic simulations to predict the structures of proteins within tight junctions call claudins. When claudins become altered or disrupted, cancer and other diseases may develop. It is critical to understand the structures of claudins to help develop drug delivery methods with the mechanistic elements in mind. At the Emerging Researchers National Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics conference in February, Peña was awarded first place for her research, “Antimicrobial peptide interaction with bacterial membranes,” in the biological sciences category. Peña presented with more than 400 undergraduate and graduate students. Here, using similar molecular dynamic and self-assembly simulations, she focused on understanding antimicrobial peptide interactions with gram-negative bacterial membranes as a potential alternative to antibiotics. With the ever-increasing multi-drug resistant microbes, most commonly referred to as superbugs, this research is critical and highly relevant. Peña’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience and Mentoring (REM) Emerging Frontiers in Research Innovation. On top of these honors, Peña’s commitment to her academic success continues to open doors for her. She has recently accepted an offer to complete a summer undergraduate research program at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. The program is highly selective, offering spots for just 20 students. Professor Shikha Nangia, Peña’s advisor, applauds her hard work and accomplishments. “Alexis has made incredible progress in research and her spectacular performance is testament for her passion for science.”