Chancellor's Fellow

2020 challenges: PhD student pivots to realize opportunities

Written: 1-19-2021

While many have a list of disappointments from 2020, Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow Chanez Symister has an arguably longer list of accomplishments and new opportunities that occurred last year.

Chanez Symister, a 6th year PhD student in Chemistry, was conducting research in Professor Timothy Wencewicz’s lab when the pandemic hit back in March. While disappointed that her lab was temporarily shutting down due to Covid precautions, Symister learned that she had been selected into the Edward Bouchet Honor Society, a network of preeminent scholars who exemplify academic and personal excellence and serve as examples of scholarship, leadership, character, service and advocacy for students and postdocs who have been traditionally underrepresented in the academy. Although the actual induction ceremony at Yale (planned for April) was cancelled due to the pandemic, she focused on celebrating the notable honor in front of her. 

In addition to her doctoral research, Symister had been looking forward to a summer internship at Merck’s Corporate Headquarters in Kennilworth, New Jersey, and was making plans to relocate for the summer to begin work in the area of computational and structural chemistry. By May, it was clear that the onsite internship would not be feasible. While this was a significant shift, Symister embraced the opportunity to take on a different role for Merck as they pivoted to reallocate their interns. Symister was asked to write a comprehensive review article to guide future formulations and techniques in monoclonal antibodies crystallization. She also designed a methodology for targeted competitor intelligence search for patent teams.  Although she had envisioned a summer of lab work at Merck, the virtual internship turned out to provide numerous unanticipated benefits for Symister. The international network of people she met virtually, the training that was offered, the audiences she presented to around the world – all were unplanned outcomes of the virtual internship that was created in real time. 

And to add to the growing list of accomplishments of 2020, in November, Symister received a patent inventor award for her team’s work in the area of inhibition and diagnostics of emerging tetracycline resistance enzymes. She was part of the Washington University team who discovered the first inhibitors that prevent specific enzymes in some bacteria from  destroying tetracycline antibiotics. This is important work as these inhibitors can rescue a class of antibiotics which are used against multi-drug resistant bacteria also called superbugs. “I was in the right place at the right time, as I joined a team of researchers and scientists who had been working on the patent before I arrived and everything just came together,” Symister said. She had looked forward to the official patent award ceremony that would have occurred in normal times. Instead, the award was mailed to her campus mailbox, and it was presented to her by one of her advisors in the staff office. “It wasn’t quite the fanfare that one might have expected, but the accomplishment and the scientific contribution are what matter,” said Symister.  

Symister is currently finishing up her dissertation, and will graduate this spring. She has an optimistic outlook for 2021 as she pursues both industry and government positions around the world. 

Patent info: 
Tolia, Niraj; Dantas, Gautam; Wencewicz, Timothy; Park, Jooyoung; Gasparrini, Andrew; Forsberg, Kevin; Vogel, Joseph; Reck, Margaret Ruth; Symister, Chanez T..; Markley, Jana L. Inhibition and diagnostics of emerging tetracycline resistance enzymes U.S. Pat. Appl. Publ. US10273468B2 A1. April 30, 2019 

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