Biochemistry student wins travel fellowship, making strides at Baylor

Senior biochemistry major, Alexandra Beard, is the recipient of the Medicinal and Bio-organic Chemistry Foundation’s Student Travel Fellowship. At Baylor, she not only focuses on her own studies and research but also is the teacher's assistant for organic chemistry. Courtney Doucet | Reporter

By Courtney Doucet | Reporter

Ankeny, Iowa biochemistry major Alexandra Beard, is the recipient of the Medicinal and Bio-organic Chemistry Foundation’s Student Travel Fellowship. She received a grant with the fellowship which allowed her to travel to a conference in Steamboat Springs, Colo. on Jan. 27 to present her research on complex molecule synthesis.

“It was quite exciting to be recognized by someone outside of Baylor as a good chemist. For someone to notice and recognize my potential in the future to be a chemist and rewarding me financially is a big honor,” Beard said.

Beard’s research is titled “Synthetic Studies Towards Dracocephalone A,” and it documents Beard’s attempt to create a chemical compound from natural commercially available starting materials.

“Natural products are things that are found in living organisms and nature and chemicals that are in plants,” Beard said. “Isolation chemist isolate those compounds. A lot of these compounds are used as herbal medicines, and [chemists] test them for biological activity after they are isolated. But, sometimes it’s not enough to test for biological activity. So, what we do is we make them from scratch and test them. You can buy these starting pieces online, and then take those and manipulate them to form the final compound.”

The compound that Beard is creating is a molecule that she hopes will advance the field of chemistry. She has crafted a theory that she believes will help her complete the molecule from the materials. She said there is no way of knowing what the molecule could be used for, but once she completes the compound she believes it will have the capacity to help other scientists with their research.

“I’ve come up with a 12 to 13 step [theory]. I’m on step six right now. I’ve had to start over, and this is my sixth or seventh attempt. It’s really fun,” Beard said. “A lot of the compounds we make aren’t very potent. Most of the time we just make them because they are chemically complex, and it’s a puzzle. It might not ever be used for anything, but we still go and make it just because we can, and to develop more chemistry along the way. As far as the actual molecule, you just box it up and put it in a fridge and start the next thing.”

Beard’s interest in chemistry started when she took Organic Chemistry II her sophomore year. She said that chemical processes came naturally to her and made her change her major from biology to chemistry.

She then did an internship the summer after her sophomore year at University of North Texas where she learned more about organic research and developed lab skills. The following semester she pursued lab work at Baylor.

“It just clicked for me. I could see this stuff in my head. I joined Dr. Wood’s research lab and have further developed my skills,” she said. “At Baylor, I’ve gotten the opportunity to have my own project. My natural product that I’m making is completely my own. To have my own as an undergraduate is a really big deal.”

Beard researches and studies as a part of Baylor chemistry professor, Dr. John L. Wood’s, research collaborative, The John Wood Group.

“Working with Alexandra has been great. She has an excellent understanding of organic chemistry and is extremely dedicated to her research,” Wood said. “Alexandra was operating at such a high level after her first six months that she was able to begin working on a project of her own design without the constant supervision of a more senior lab member. At this point Alexandra is contributing to the group as though she were a second or third year graduate student.”

Beard is the only undergraduate teacher’s assistant for organic chemistry at Baylor. Also, she teaches Dr. Neil Garg’s Organic Chemistry II course while balancing her own workload. She says that it is easier for the students to relate to her due to her being an undergraduate as well.

“You have to know your stuff really well and be solid because you don’t want to go up there and not know the answer to a question. I really enjoy it,” Beard said.

Garg says he appreciates working with Beard and sees how much the chemistry students enjoy having her as their instructor.

“Alexandra has been awesome to work with. She is currently a Teaching Assistant for my 3332 course (Organic Chemistry II), and the students love her. She is smart, has a great personality and represents the best of Baylor students,” Dr. Garg said.

Beard plans to further her academic career by pursuing a Ph.D in chemistry after her undergraduate studies. She has been accepted to every program she applied to including, Yale, UC Berkley, UCLA and the California Institute of Technology.