Pomona College senior Gabriella Heller, a mathematics and chemistry double major from Chicago, IL, has been awarded a prestigious Churchill Scholarship, which supports graduate study in the sciences, mathematics and engineering at the University of Cambridge. Only 14 Churchill Scholarships were awarded this year.
Churchill Scholars are selected based on exceptional academic talent, outstanding achievement, and a capacity to contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the sciences, engineering or mathematics by pursuing original, creative work at an advanced level. The scholarship covers tuition and all fees (currently about $25,000) and living and travel allowances. The total award is approximately $60,000. Heller is Pomona's fourth Churchill Scholar, following Daniel Hickstein '07, Michael Gormally '11 and Will Fletcher ‘12.
Heller will use her award to earn a Master of Philosophy degree in chemistry and conduct research with Michele Vendruscolo on combining Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and computational methods to enable novel atomic-scale description of biomolecular processes.
"Independently, these approaches are limited," explains Heller. "When combined, however, their faults and strengths are complementary, potentially allowing their association to yield valuable information about protein movement. At the University of Cambridge, I aim to explore the relationship between NMR-generated chemical shifts and protein conformation to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms of malfunctioning proteins involved in disease.
"The development of this new method may transform our views of life and illness at the molecular level. If successful, it will become possible not only to ‘see' the molecular structures underlying key biochemical processes, but also to ‘watch' these mechanisms directly. I believe this new information will enable the design of novel strategies to modify aberrant molecular behavior that results in disease."
At Pomona, Heller has conducted research with Chemistry Prof. Malkiat Johal studying protein-ligand binding interactions using a surface technique called Quartz Crystal Microbalance with Dissipation Monitoring. She has also worked with Prof. Ami Radunskaya, in mathematics, and Prof. Karl Johnson in neuroscience. Last summer, she worked with Chemistry Prof. Matthew Sazinsky to study a protein involved in iron transport and its relation to diabetes.
Heller is currently working on two theses. For chemistry, she is working with Sazinsky on "Fragment Based Lead Discovery of Antibiotic Primase Inhibitors," using crystallography methods to help design a new antibiotic drug against staphylococcus infections. For her math thesis, she is working with Prof. Erica Flapan on "Topological Complexity in Protein Structures." Heller has also found time to serve as a mentor for the new Pomona Science Scholars program, which supports underrepresented students in the sciences.
Originally from Highland Park, Ill., Heller, is a resident of Chicago and is the daughter of Leon Heller and Loren Harris-Heller. Her career plans include graduate school and a PhD in chemistry.
The Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States was founded in 1959. The first Churchill Scholarships, three in number, were awarded in 1963.