One Step Closer, Visiting Postbacs Conduct Research to PREP for Ph.D. Program

February 20, 2023
Portraits of two women

A home health aide aspires to become a physician-scientist so she can help ease her patient’s symptoms. Elsewhere, a young girl decides she wants to resurrect dinosaurs after watching Jurassic World in the theaters. The dream to study science can spark in an instant, but the path to a Ph.D., for Valerie Ebenki, Hanin Sarhan, and many others, requires time and research experience.

Valerie and Hanin applied to Yale’s Emerging Scholars Initiative Post-Baccalaureate Research Program (ESI PREP) to gain hands-on research experience beyond lab coursework to strengthen their graduate school applications. They joined the Department of Chemistry and started the year-long program in May 2022.

Valerie, who received a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Mary Washington, joined Professor Sarah Slavoff’s lab at the Yale Institute of Biomolecular Design and Discovery on West Campus. Valerie is studying the structural and functional role of potentially small metal zinc finger proteins. She is expressing two proteins (YnfQ and YmcF) to better understand how they form in bacterial cells and to further quantify and characterize the protein structure. Essentially, she is determining whether these small proteins can contribute to biological functions.

“From the beginning of this program, I gained in-depth insight into how I can strengthen my qualifications in pursuit of an M.D.-Ph.D. program,” said Valerie. “Every day, I learn a new laboratory technique, and through that, I am learning to be confident in the science I conduct. I am extremely grateful for the learning experience as it propels me one step closer to my future career.

When she’s not in the lab, Valerie attends scientific talks and volunteers for the West Campus science festival.

“I like that I’ve been able to interact with a diverse community at Yale. I’ve made friends in several departments who have unique but like-minded goals as myself,” said Valerie. “This program has taught me to be a resilient woman in STEM.”

Valerie will present her research in a written report and at a cohort symposium in May.

Hanin’s interest in dinosaur de-extinction shifted to studying genetics in a pre-med track at Michigan State University. But she soon realized she enjoyed her organic chemistry class so much that she went on to pursue a bachelor’s in chemistry instead.

As a Yale ESI PREP participant, Hanin is jointly supervised by Professors Patrick Holland and Scott Miller, conducting research in both labs. She is developing an iron peptide catalyst for site-selective hydrogenation, which would enable scientists to develop new pharmaceuticals, or antibiotics that evade resistant bacteria.

Right now, she’s testing different coupling conditions to bring the two separate pieces of the catalyst together. A day in the lab for her is setting up reactions, purifying products, and figuring out next steps in the research.

In addition to presenting her findings in lab group meetings, Hanin had the opportunity to present her work at two conferences.

“The ESI PREP program provides me with the opportunity to expand my research background while simultaneously allowing me to work on the kind of research I enjoy,” said Hanin. “Moving forward, I will be applying for my doctorate in organic chemistry.”

While at Yale, she became a Chemistry DEI Advocate, a volunteer trained to help colleagues locate resources for equity, harassment, mental health, and other issues.

Outside of the labs, Hanin likes to explore the East Rock area, which she says “feels like its own little town within a very walkable city.”

About the Program

Chemistry has teamed up with Yale ESI PREP and the American Chemical Society (ACS) Bridge Program for the first time this year to provide the unique research experience to students.

“Initiatives like the ACS Bridge Program are concrete ways that our department can work to break down systemic barriers and create more equitable pathways to careers in chemical sciences for people from underrepresented groups,” said Professor Caitlin Davis. “The program provides our department an opportunity to support postbaccalaureate students who might not have considered pursuing graduate school and would not have competitive graduate school applications because they did not have the opportunity to pursue research as an undergraduate.

I connect with this program on a personal level because a postbaccalaureate research experience was defining in my development as a chemist,” she said. “I see the ACS Bridge Program as a way to pay it forward and provide participants the opportunity to fully engage in research, build confidence for graduate school, and explore new areas of research.”

The program was made possible by a successful application by Professors Caitlin Davis and Patrick Holland in collaboration with Yale Chemistry alumnae Emily Barth ‘22 Ph.D., Abi Heuer ‘23 Ph.D., and Shanelle Shillingford ‘22 Ph.D., who were graduate students at the time of program application.

“Just like the research we do here, teamwork between students, staff, and faculty was the key to our successful application,” said Professor Holland. “We especially appreciate that these three students took the time to gather data to support our application to the ACS Bridge Program. Then, the initiation of the Chemistry program came from the hard work of Kara Swenson, one of the graduate registrars for our department.”

The Yale ESI PREP, which is administered by the Yale Office for Graduate Student Development and Diversity, is a one-year program that provides participants with the knowledge and research skills necessary for success in Ph.D. programs. Participants experience life as graduate students at a major research university, taking courses, doing research, and receiving mentoring alongside first-year Ph.D. students. This initiative is open to recent college graduates who are within three years of completing their bachelor’s degree in all divisions (e.g., humanities, social sciences, biological and biomedical sciences, physical sciences, and engineering) and who have a strong desire to pursue a Ph.D., including first-generation college graduates, students from economically, disadvantaged backgrounds, and women in STEM fields. Chemistry students work alongside Yale faculty and graduate students, learn leadership skills, and participate in student groups focused on professional development, lab safety, diversity, and climate. They are also integrated into the ACS Bridge Program.

Learn more about ESI PREP at Yale Chemistry.