2021-2022 Illinois Scholars

The Illinois Chapter of ARCS® Foundation has granted awards to a total of nine scholars for academic year 2020-2021.  These scholars were selected from the five institutions that are our Chapter's Academic Partners:

  • Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Loyola University of Chicago Stritch School of Medicine
  • Northwestern University
  • The University of Chicago
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Awards were presented at the Virtual Scholar Awards Reception held on October 21, 2021.

Our Academic Partners  identify qualified scholars  who then go through a detailed vetting process before they are matched with  those donors who support named scholars, or before they are chosen to be awarded from the general Scholar Award Fund.  This year and in recent years, each scholar receives an annual award for a maximum of three years, and becomes a welcome member of the ARCS® Illinois family.

Loyola University of Chicago Stritch School of Medicine
Rasa Valiauga

MD/PhD in Neuroscience
ARCS® Foundation Scholar

My research is focused on the molecular mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases. My dissertation work is investigating the role of diet in the progression of Alzheimer's disease, specifically as it relates to inflammation. Our laboratory has developed a caspase-1 biosensor mouse model, which allows us to visualize the activation of the NLRP3 inflammasome in living animals. This grants me the ability to track changes in peripheral and central inflammation over time, and to monitor the progression of Alzheimer's disease as the rodent diet is modified.

Northwestern University
Rebekah Reynolds

PhD in Chemistry
Aileen S. Andrew/ARCS® Foundation Scholar

Even in the present day, there is a significant gap between large-scale drug production and the current limitations of synthetic chemistry. Our ability to access even conventional medication hinges upon the ability to synthesize these molecules on a large scale. The majority of bioactive molecules possess a sterically hindered, fused polycyclic scaffold, and these skeletons are often the most difficult to construct, especially at a large scale, thereby limiting the breadth of drug structure available for medicine. My research addresses this clear need, and allows for access to these molecules with relative ease. I am pioneering a novel “couple and close” strategy that leverages an efficient photochemical method to provide concise routes towards the construction of desirable molecular scaffolds. These reactions require only a catalyst and light, and thus are highly accessible, scalable, environmentally friendly, and versatile. This method has already worked for the construction of both highly complex and sterically hindered molecules, and I am continuing to develop a molecular library to illustrate the scope of its abilities. Soon, we will apply our methodology to the synthesis of promising bioactive molecules, most specifically the anticancer compound (+)-quassin.

Roger Smith

MD/PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
ARCS® Foundation Scholar

A hallmark of cancer is the mutation of genes that drive uncontrolled cell growth, metastatic dissemination and drug resistance. The immune system, aided by new treatments called immunotherapies, is capable of finding and killing cells with mutated proteins, but cancer cells often find ways to hide their mutations from the immune system making these novel treatments less effective. Thus, there is an urgent need to understand the mechanisms by which this process of hiding mutations occurs, including how tumor cells help the mutated proteins fold “correctly” – preventing their degradation and presentation to the immune system. My work seeks to uncover how tumor protein quality control machinery is hijacked to hide these signals from the immune system. These studies will identify which proteins function in this manner in order to develop new drugs targeting them. These drugs will have the potential to sensitize tumors to improve immunotherapy response rates and patient survival.

The University of Chicago
Daniel Smith

PhD in Physics
Alan Schriesheim/ARCS® Foundation Scholar

My research in astroparticle physics centers on developing the next generation of experiments to detect the highest energy neutrinos in the universe. The ultra-high energy neutrinos produced in astronomical sources serve as a probe of the structure and evolution of the universe while also revealing information on the properties of the elementary particle itself at energies outside the reach of human-made sources (> 1 EeV). Neutrinos at these energies are exception- ally rare, requiring that the detectors be some of the largest to date. We will accomplish this by looking for the radio signal emitted by a neutrino interaction in ice, allowing for sparse antenna stations to monitor > 100 km3 of Greenland and Antarctica ice. More specifically, I work on the hardware development for signal amplifiers, antennas and triggering for the RNO-G collaboration, electromagnetic simulations for the ANITA collaboration, and I have worked independently on a search for the source of the IceCube collaboration’s already-detected (but lower-energy) astrophysical neutrino flux. My broad work portfolio for multiple experiments has a common aim: I develop experiments and analyze data to find, study and utilize astrophysical neutrinos to probe the fundamental properties of the universe.

Anthony Hung

MD/PhD in Genetics, Genomics, and Systems Biology
ARCS® Foundation Scholar

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a complex disease affecting cartilage and bone in joints and is a leading cause of disability globally. Genetic studies have identified dozens of locations in the human genome associated with susceptibility for OA, but it is unknown how these genetic factors contribute to disease. In Anthony's research, he uses an alternative approach to better evaluate the effects of biomechanical strain and genetic variation on the cellular expression of genes in OA. Using cellular reprogramming techniques, he generates cartilage and bone cells from human blood. He then applys mechanical strain-based treatments that are known to induce an OA-like condition in these cells in the lab and study their responses. This work will allow Anthony to identify genetic variants that may underlie the inappropriate responses of bone and cartilage cells to mechanical stress in OA, opening the door to diagnostics and treatments.

William Koval

PhD in Ecology and Evolution 

ARCS® Foundation Scholar

My research focuses on the question of how genetic variability affects incidence of a fatal, naturally occurring insect virus in Douglas-fir tussock moth populations. Douglas-fir tussock moth is a destructive pest of ecologically and economically important timber in the Pacific Northwest, where I have collected data on the rates at which tussock moth caterpillars are killed by two virus strains. Although the two strains compete fiercely to infect caterpillars, I have shown that coexistence occurs across various forests. My data directly contradict standard epidemiological models, which predict that ecologically similar pathogens cannot coexist. By understanding virus coexistence, and constructing more accurate predictive models, I hope to advance both disease ecology and forest health protection.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Breanna Lucero

PhD in Astronomy
Helen S. Brach/ARCS® Foundation Scholar

I do research in observational cosmology. Currently, I am using space-based telescope data to analyze various regions of the sky and identify faint sources of light that could be galaxies from the very early universe. Observing these types of galaxies can help astronomers better understand the nature of the universe at the time these galaxies formed and evolved, which contributes to overarching questions in cosmology such as “What did the early universe look like?“ and ”How does dark matter influence galaxy formation and the large-scale structure of the universe?”

Sam Grayson

PhD in Computer Science
ARCS® Foundation Scholar

Programming multiple computers to cooperate on a task (parallel computing) is challenging to do correctly—even for experts. The current set of programming tools is oriented around a style of programming that works well for a single computer but not for systems of cooperating computers. Sam's goal is to revise these tools so that they are more suitable for parallel computing. This does not consist of tweaking the existing tools; this involves rethinking how the tools work fundamentally. Not only will this enable software engineers to be more productive, redesigned higher- level tools might prove more efficient than the old way.

Jason Karakehian

PhD in Plant Biology
ARCS® Foundation Scholar

My research is in the systematics, taxonomy and ecology of several unrelated groups of wood-decaying microfungi that inhabit dead, suspended branches and twigs of broadleaved and coniferous trees. This is a harsh habitat to occupy because these substrates are poor in nutrients, often desiccated, and are frequently exposed to damaging ultraviolet radiation. As an ecological group, these fungi are interesting because they have evolved similar morphological and physiological traits. These include the production of long-lived, tiny, spore-producing bodies that are erumpent through dead wood or bark. Some are highly melanized and open like clam shells after rainfall to discharge large spores. Many of these fungi are slow-growing, and it is suspected that they may be latent decayers – persisting within the tissues of living, apparently healthy trees until these senesce, whereupon these fungi begin to proliferate and capture territory for nutrition and sporulation. Even though some of these fungi are ubiquitous denizens of temperate Northern and Southern Hemisphere forests, they remain understudied. My research will update their nomenclature, provide useful keys to species, and elucidate their evolutionary relationships using gene-based phylogenetic methods. With this stabilized taxonomy, I will then be positioned to use these fungi to study selection pressures on spore size and shape, and to broadly explore the ecological role that they play in the forested landscape.

Illinois Institute of Technology