May 18, 2012–Jessica Chopyk, a junior biological sciences major at the University of Delaware, has won a $5,000 American Society for Microbiology Undergraduate Research Fellowship.

Chopyk, of Hazlet, N.J., is studying the genetic composition of viruses found in deep-sea hydrothermal vents. She is advised by Shawn Polson, assistant professor in the departments of Computer and Information Sciences and Biological Sciences.

“Viruses play a vital role in maintaining life at deep-sea hydrothermal vents due to their interaction with the bacteria that drive the food web,” says Polson, who is a key member of UD’s Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology.

“By analyzing viral genes, we can begin to comprehend how viruses and their hosts operate effectively in some of the most hostile environments on Earth. In addition to learning more about the molecular ecology of these deep-sea environments, such knowledge could have biotechnological consequences, leading to the development of novel, more efficient enzymes.”

Although the ASM-supported work is Chopyk’s first independent research project, she is no stranger to research. Funded by Delaware EPSCoR, she has worked in the joint laboratory of Polson and Eric Wommack, professor of Plant and Soil Sciences, at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute. There, she participated in a project to optimize methods for enumeration and concentration of environmental viral assemblages.

After she graduates from UD in 2013, Chopyk plans to attend graduate school and continue her microbiology research. “I’ve always been interested in the small world,” she says. “I love studying things you can see only under a microscope.”

The ASM fellowship program is aimed at highly competitive students who want to pursue graduate research careers in microbiology. Fellows have the opportunity to conduct full-time summer research at their institution with an ASM mentor and present their research results at the ASM General Meeting in May.

ASM is the oldest and largest biological membership organization, with more than 40,000 members worldwide. Its headquarters are in Washington, D.C. For more information about the fellowship, visit the society’s website.

UDaily Article by Diane Kukich, Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson