Inaugural LSU Beckman Scholars Complete First Summer of Research
The LSU College of Science is among the select group of 14 universities that received
the prestigious Beckman Scholars Award in 2023. Supported by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, the program provides a unique opportunity for exceptionally talented undergraduate
students to engage in cutting-edge research projects under the guidance of renowned
faculty mentors for two summers and one academic year. The college will be supported
through 2026, with two scholars being named in each of the next three years.
This competitive institutional award is a limited-submission, invitation-only program. Participating institutions are carefully selected by the Beckman Foundation through a rigorous application process, and typically include elite universities and colleges renowned for their dedication to scientific research and education. Importantly, this marks LSU's debut in securing funding from The Beckman Scholars Program.
LSU’s proposal to the Beckman Foundation was led by the College of Science Dean, Dr.
Cynthia Peterson. “Our program is focused on developing scientific leadership”, says
Dean Peterson. “Scientific leadership is not only about being good at the bench and
understanding how to do experiments. It’s about understanding how to work in a group,
how to develop ideas together, and how to be problem solvers. Importantly, we want
to help our students to develop skills as both technical and adaptive problem solvers,
pushing the boundaries in terms of creativity and innovation, to think about problems
in ways that have never been thought before, moving science forward”.
Lexi Cheramie and Dykia Williams are the inaugural awardees of the LSU Beckman Scholars program. Lexi and Dykia are juniors majoring in Biological Sciences, with Dykia also being part of the Ogden Honors College. Their mentor is Dr. David Vinyard, Associate Professor in the LSU Department of Biological Sciences and an expert in photosynthesis. Recognizing his exceptional contributions, Dr. Vinyard received the Rainmaker award in 2022—an accolade that acknowledges faculty who effectively balance teaching and research while extending the influence of their work beyond academia. His work focuses on unraveling how the enzyme Photosystem II transforms sunlight and water into molecular oxygen. Despite its pivotal role in producing atmospheric oxygen, much remains unknown about the intricate molecular mechanisms of this enzyme.
While working in Dr. Vinyard's lab, the scholars aim to uncover the continuous and efficient operation of Photosystem II and its associated challenges, including the accidental production of reactive oxygen species (ROS). These ROS can damage cellular components, including Photosystem II itself. Notably, photosynthetic organisms such as cyanobacteria, algae, and plants have sophisticated repair mechanisms that protect cells from ROS-induced damage. While both Beckman Scholars are researching the damage and repair of the extensive protein complex constituting Photosystem II, their projects focus on distinct questions within their chosen model systems. Lexi is working to identify proteases involved in repairing Photosystem II in green algae, while Dykia is exploring the damage to Photosystem II in cyanobacteria by examining degradation byproducts. Both will employ CRISPR technology to manipulate genes of interest through knockdown or transcriptional blocking techniques.
The program grants chosen scholars a stipend for 15 months and also covers certain
costs associated with scientific materials and travel. Mentor selection involved careful
consideration of their research achievements, established track records in guiding
undergraduate researchers, and dedication to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion
(JEDI) principles. Research focus areas span across the fields of biological sciences,
chemistry, and medical physics.
“Science takes time”, says Dr. Vinyard. “One of the great things about this program is that students are given the time and resources to do good and independent science. It also provides them with professional development and skills that make them well rounded and competitive for the next step in their careers.”
After conducting research under Dr. Vinyard's guidance during their freshman year, both Lexi and Dykia were fully confident in continuing their collaboration with him. His exceptional mentoring approach, which fosters independence among undergraduates, left them with no doubts. "I chose to be a student part of Dr. Vinyard's lab because his mentoring style made it an ideal fit for my goals to grow as a student and scientist" emphasizes Dykia.
For Lexi, the program’s focus on mentorship is a particular aspect she deeply values, stating, "I especially appreciate the emphasis on personalized mentoring. Having a mentor who can guide me academically and professionally is an invaluable experience that has helped me enhance my skills across various areas beyond research alone."
Beyond gaining research experience, LSU Beckman Scholars benefit from a wide range of professional development opportunities. These include personalized mentoring, fostering a sense of community, expert guidance in effective science communication, and leadership development that integrates JEDI principles. The program's foundation is strengthened by collaborating with established and acclaimed programs and partners within LSU and the College of Science, including the LSU Discover program, LSU Communication across the Curriculum (CxC), and SCI Lead (Leadership Learning Laboratory). This multifaceted approach ensures that scholars not
only excel in their research endeavors but also develop essential skills to thrive
in their academic, professional, and leadership pursuits.
As recipients of the Beckman Scholars award, all scholars are expected to participate in the annual Beckman Scholars Symposium. This event provides them with the unique opportunity to showcase their scientific work during their second summer in the program. The symposium fosters networking opportunities among exceptional scholars nationwide and offers a valuable chance to establish connections with mentors from renowned institutions.
Lexi and Dykia had the opportunity to attend their first Beckman Symposium from August 3-5 in Irvine, California. "I'm grateful to have been able to attend during the beginning stages of the program, and it was especially helpful to get a preview of what presenting my own research will be like next summer. It was also really nice to meet both first-year and second-year scholars from across the country and learn more about everyone's particular areas of research," shared Lexi. Dykia also highlighted the symposium's significance, stating, "It was an invaluable experience where I was able to meet other Beckman Scholars and discuss science. I am excited to present at next year’s Beckman Symposium." This symposium not only provides scholars like Lexi and Dykia with a sneak peek into their future endeavors but also fosters interactions that enhance their academic path and expand their horizons.
Applications for the upcoming cycle of the LSU Beckman Scholars program are scheduled to become available in the spring of 2024.