Student Profiles

Student Profiles

2021 Matriculant 

Kalina Tsolova

While at Princeton University, Kalina used binding assays, crystal screens, and circular dichroism to elucidate how the conformation of the SNARE Vam3 and its binding interactions with two subunits of the HOPS tethering complex affect efficient SNARE bundle assembly in the endolysosomal system.

One reason she decided on Duke is that the Biochemistry Department has a tradition of being “open-door” and the faculty, students, and staff are friendly and resourceful. Her second reason was that even though she has eclectic scientific interests, she’s a mechanist at heart and her training will help her employ structural and biophysical methods to unravel interactions and molecular dynamics that affect human health and help her identify targets for therapeutic development.

Coming from Sofia, Bulgaria, with a population of 1.5 million, Kalina was drawn to Durham’s urban side with its many entertainment venues and restaurants. If she wants to relax a little, her favorite spot, Duke Gardens, is a quick walk from the biochemistry building on West Campus.

2020 Matriculant


Alex Hofler

Alex came to Duke from SUNY Potsdam where she received her BS in Biochemistry and BA in Mathematics. There, her scientific research focused on investigating alternative roles of degradation proteins in the DNA damage response and mRNA processing. Changing course slightly, she is now interested in understanding how translation is regulated, particularly the localization of translation machinery and nascent peptides to the endoplasmic reticulum. The many classes Alex can choose from will teach her relevant information and skills to become an independent researcher who can communicate biochemical findings—particularly to stop the spread of misinformation.

Like most students who started their PhD in 2020, the pandemic made adjusting to graduate school a bit more challenging. But Alex found that even though she wasn’t on campus as much, the biochemistry department worked hard to make her feel welcomed and supported.

As for living in Durham, Alex has never been disappointed by a single restaurant. She has also found plenty to do in the city and within an hour's drive—activities like hiking, sports games, breweries, museums, and more. 

Marek Zorawski

For his undergraduate degree in chemistry, Marek went to Pomona College—the first of the Claremont Colleges in Southern California. As an undergrad, he studied chemical biology and non-coding RNA and will do the same as an MD/PhD (MSTP) student, but in relation to cancer. His goal is to push forward our understanding of the interplays between cancer and non-coding RNAs using chemical tools.

Marek is glad he chose Duke—it was the welcoming nature of the MD program that drew him in, and the Biochemistry Department has proven to be the same with its strong sense of collegiality. He also enjoys everyone’s intellectual curiosity and that faculty and students alike ask probing questions—from the fundamental workings of biology to using that knowledge to help patients. He’s excited to be around so many great minds that come together to help move mountains.

As for Durham, Marek thinks it has so much to offer—from its bustling downtown to scenic hiking spots, to top-of-the-line restaurants and fantastic coffee (he has subscribed to biweekly whole bean deliveries from a Durham favorite, Cocoa Cinnamon)—it really has it all. Durham has grown on him quite a lot in these last three years, and he’s sure it will continue to do so in the years to come.

2019 Matriculants


Grace Hooks

Durham is a little different than Las Cruces, New Mexico where Grace Hooks majored in biology and minored in biochemistry at New Mexico State University. As an undergraduate, she studied cancer biology and toxicology. Now as a PhD student, she’s focusing on protein structure and function and multi-drug resistance while expanding her experimental training and sharpening her scientific acumen. Grace’s experience is that the Biochemistry Department is committed to taking care of its students. And beyond the amazing science being done in the labs, she finds the people kind and willing to provide help and support. To her, the Duke Biochemistry Department feels like home.

Grace thinks Durham has a lot to discover—the city’s many parks and hiking trails, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, and it's cool downtown with wonderful restaurants. But what she really likes most about Durham is that it’s pet-friendly.

Carly Sciandra

At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Carly majored in biology and minored in Chemistry. Her undergraduate research studied the structure of the HIV-1 RNA 5'UTR and the dynamics of the Gag polyprotein using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. Now at Duke, she hopes to research the structure and dynamics of biopolymers and in a broader sense wants to apply different biophysical methods to her project, formulate more thought-provoking questions in her personal research and weekly seminars, and learn to communicate her research in any setting.

Carly loves Duke's sense of community and the opportunities she has for collaboration and research growth with other departments at Duke, companies in nearby Research Triangle Park, and with UNC and NC State. She finds the biochemistry department is especially close and feels comfortable asking professors and students for help. There really is an overall feeling within the department that everyone should succeed.

Being a graduate student, it’s no surprise Carly appreciates Durham’s lower cost of living, the plethora of great local breweries and restaurants, and access to a variety of outdoor activities. She can cycle year-round, as well as hike, kayak, and play disc golf all within 20 minutes of her apartment. She loves Durham’s central location, with the airport being just 20 minutes away, the beaches within a two-hour drive, and the mountains within three.

Huanyu (David) Zhu

Before he came down the road to study for his PhD at Duke, David Zhu, was a biochemistry major at UNC Chapel Hill. There, he was interested in a mixture of analytical and organic chemistry, and the synthesis of new nitric oxide-releasing molecules as therapeutics to combat various bacterial infections. Now in the Meyer Lab at Duke, he’s optimizing DARTseq (a genotyping-by-sequencing platform), a tool to identify N6-methyladenosine RNA modifications in stress granules.

A PhD can be a period of transition, so David appreciates the department’s welcoming atmosphere, as well as the collaborative environment and high quality of research. The biochemistry professors are dedicated to student mentoring to help them reach their research and publishing milestones.

David will contribute to his field by publishing and by becoming an accomplished science communicator. In addition, he hopes to become a better mentor and teacher. To do this, he’s taking advantage of the opportunity to TA Biochem 301 and will be mentoring undergraduates who work in the lab.

Although David went to school just 30 minutes away, he finds Durham’s living expenses are cheaper than Chapel Hill’s—an important factor in choosing where to attend graduate school. Plus, he finds Durham is just the right size, with plenty of outdoor activities like hiking the Eno River trails and visiting various breweries like Fullsteam and Hi-Wire.

2018 Matriculants

Skyler Cochrane

Skyler Cochrane came to Duke from Rhodes College in Memphis, where she studied synthetic organic chemistry with a focus on drug development. Her work involved the synthesis of dopaminergic derivates to investigate the specificity and activity of SULT1A3, a sulfotransferase that processes dopamine in the body. She’s now working in the Zhou Lab and takes a chemical/structural biology approach to try and understand the mechanisms of Lipid A biosynthesis and, consequently, how to target therapeutics to treat gram-negative infections.

Skyler’s motivation to become a scientist is rooted in her desire to give back and make a difference in the world. She knows that by studying at Duke Biochemistry, she will gain the skills and techniques necessary to become a better chemist and biochemist, and a more well-rounded scientist. She believes scientific discovery and medical-based research is the path to accomplishing these goals. And even if she’s not the one to, let’s say, find the cure for cancer, she hopes others will be inspired to build on her research to find it themselves.

Skyler loves that Duke, and especially its science departments, encourage collaborations. This ethos goes hand-in-hand with her belief that the best, most complete scientific narratives and discoveries can only happen when researchers are willing to look outside of their own specialty. Thus, she’s been able to work closely with a variety of chemistry faculty who, because of their different lab and life experiences, can solve problems in ways she wouldn’t think of.

Coming from Memphis, Skyler has had to adjust to life in a smaller city, but does love the dichotomy of Durham. When it comes to day-to-day life, it can feel very quiet, but if you know where to look, you can find a bustling community with tons of activities, concerts, and art. Plus, she doesn’t have to go far to find amazing food, local breweries, and thrift stores!

Sarah Ermatinger

As a biochemistry undergraduate at NC State, Sarah Ermatinger focused on predicting phenotypes from genotypes in Dr. Seth Faith's forensic science lab. During summers, she continued her lab work and analyzed virulence factors of pathogenic bacteria at the Research Triangle Institute in Dr. Cavanagh’s microbiology lab.

She came to get her Ph.D. at Duke right out of undergrad, and now working in the Oas Lab, focuses on Staphyloccoccus aureus biofilm infections and evaluating their mechanisms. Sarah’s long-term goals are to contribute to how S. aureus biofilms are formed and to build a wide network with other scientists in her field.

Most importantly, Sarah feels the department provides a wealth of support for everyone’s research and success and fosters a real sense of community. Its small size allows students and faculty to get to know one another, especially during biochemistry social gatherings (during non-COVID times). Outside the department, there are Duke groups that connect students across the university.

Sarah has taken advantage of living in Durham. She enjoys the calm downtown bar scene and can drive 30 minutes to Raleigh or Chapel Hill if she wants something a bit rowdier. Being someone who likes the outdoors, Sarah has also discovered lakes and bike trails in and outside the city.  But when she wants to get away from the pressures of school, Durham is an easy drive to the beaches of Wilmington and mountains of Ashville.

Stephanie Gu

Stephanie Gu came from Caltech, where she studied chemical engineering, specifically DNA’s non-biological properties and their ability to be leveraged for cancer detection. At Duke Biochemistry, she wants to obtain a predictive understanding of DNA dynamics and DNA replication, which is a crucial property in cell division.

Stephanie has become quite comfortable in the biochemistry department where she takes advantage of the highly collaborative environment and feels that everyone is open and available for discussion. She does research in the Al-Hashimi Lab, which doesn’t have expertise in proteins. But Stephanie wants to understand DNA dynamics in the context of polymerases—proteins that make sure DNA replicates. With the department’s open-door policy and the close proximity of the labs, she is solving problems with help from another PI, Maria Schumacher, who has experience in protein-DNA complexes. There, Stephanie’s most basic questions are discussed, such as when to induce protein expression, while Maria ensures she firmly grasps the concepts.

Now that Stephanie has been on the east coast for a while, she’s taken a liking to Durham. After 22 years in Los Angeles, she finds that Durham has a better cost of living, is quieter, has less traffic, and cleaner air. She also thinks the food can be just as good when you know where to look. And location-wise, Durham is pretty central—the mountains, the ocean, and other states are only a few hours drive, making it easy to get out and have fun whenever she has time.

2017 Matriculants

Catherine Ehrhart​

Catherine received her Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Biochemistry at Old Dominion University as well as her Master of Arts in Chemistry with a concentration in Biological Chemistry at the University of Virginia. As an undergraduate, she studied the effects of binding an inhibitor to a human rhinovirus' protease using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance in a structural biology lab. As a Master’s candidate, she furthered her interest in thermodynamics and broadened her structural biology skills in a crystallography lab.

She is now working towards a PhD in biophysics and structural biology, with an interest in computational protein redesign. She joined the Donald Lab because of the opportunity to learn both computational biology skills and the third main structural biology technique—Cryo-EM. She is currently studying the binding mechanism of broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs) to the membrane proximal external region (MPER) of the HIV-1 glycoprotein 41.

Catherine thinks Duke’s Biochemistry department is a great fit for her, considering the number and diversity of structural biology laboratories. It will also help her achieve her long-term goals—to acquire new biophysical skills and specialize in the fields of HIV and cryo-EM research while collaborating with world experts. Duke and the department also foster a collaborative environment, and she has no doubt that while here, she will have many valuable opportunities to network and prepare herself to work in industry after graduation.

She thinks Durham is a great place to live—there is always something interesting to do, and it’s not expensive or crowded! There are many young professionals moving to the area, and there are direct flights to Paris when she returns home. Plus, as a hiking and scuba diving enthusiast, she’s always less than 2 hours away from her next outdoor adventure.  

​Yuze Hou

In Yuze’s first year, he’s rotating through 3 labs to expose himself to different fields in biochemistry. He’ll eventually choose one to do his research, but right now, his goal is to work hard and learn new techniques, analytical methods, and interdisciplinary research.

Yuze came from the prestigious Peking University in Beijing, having majored in pharmaceutical sciences. He thinks Duke is a good fit because there are people from all over the world. About the program—he finds everyone is friendly. There is happy hour every Friday where he can socialize with different labs and sometimes with famous scientists that come discuss their research.

He likes Durham—it’s the antithesis of Beijing’s urban jungle. It’s quiet, with beautiful scenery and fresh air—plus Yuze thinks the food is pretty delicious. 

2016 Matriculant

Megan Kelly

Parasites were Megan’s passion at Washington University in St. Louis where she was a biology and chemistry major. Now at Duke, she’s part of the MD-PhD training program, studying chemical biology and drug development and hoping to build technologies that discover novel RNA-binding chemical scaffolds and accelerate the field of RNA-targeted small molecule drug development.

What does Megan love about Duke? Well—it’s the people. The students, faculty, and administration create an incredibly fun, engaging, and supportive environment, both inside and outside the lab. And living in Durham isn’t bad either.  There’s lots of great food, dancing, music, and nature’s close by. Being in the middle of the state, it’s only a few hours to the beach and a little more for her to enjoy the mountains.

2015 Matriculants


Blanca Rodriguez

Blanca wants to be an independent researcher and to do this, she’s learning to approach scientific problems from an interdisciplinary perspective. Currently part of the Kuehn Lab, her focus is on making discoveries that contribute to our understanding of how bacteria secrete RNA and DNA to modulate host-cell functions. Specifically, she’s examining the production of membrane vesicle-associated nucleic acids by pathogenic bacteria and the mechanisms by which those nucleic acids are recognized by recipient cells.

Her interest in biochemistry started as an undergraduate when she worked in a lab that elucidated the molecular mechanisms driving the assembly of small nuclear ribonucleoproteins in the spliceosome. Progressing in her studies, Blanca’s Master's thesis project determined the binding affinity of different types of synthetic RNAs to nanoparticles as potential gene-delivery platforms.

There were two reasons Blanca was drawn to Duke’s Biochemistry program—the stimulating research and collegial relationships between faculty and students. But where Duke really stands out in her eyes, are the efforts made by the Biochemistry Diversity & Inclusion Committee to create a welcoming and equitable environment for everyone. At the graduate school level, there are also BioCoRE and SACNAS, organizations that foster a supportive space for underrepresented students in biomedical research. They’ve both given Blanca the tools to fight against the ever-present Imposter Syndrome, which has helped her develop a strong sense of belonging at graduate school.

Blanca was pleasantly surprised when she arrived in Durham from Texas. It has cultural diversity, reflected in the variety of food options, especially the abundance of tasty and cheap Mexican restaurants and there’s the city’s beauty, especially Duke’s campus. There’s one activity that tops her list though—attending Duke Basketball games.