Author: Steve Mintz

Migrating to Mitochondria: Vincent Pellizzon’s Biochemistry Journey

Vincent Pellizzon
Vincent Pellizzon

High school students are often unsure of what major to select when applying to college. There are so many interesting fields to choose from. Even when you think you have settled on a degree path, exposure to different subjects and concepts in the first year can steer you in a different direction. Such is the case for Vincent Pellizzon, although the change from pharmaceutical chemistry to biochemistry is nuanced. Learn about Vincent’s journey to a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology with a chemistry focus.

Vincent Pellizzon’s Chemistry Attraction

Vincent Pellizzon’s interest in chemistry blossomed at Forest Hills High School in Grand Rapids. Energetic and exciting lessons, riddled with humor from Russell Chudy, drew Vincent into chemistry. His AP Chemistry teacher, David VonEhr pushed him to learn and succeed. “I enjoyed learning the more advanced concepts from Mr. Von Ehr. He showed me I had the talent for chemistry and motivated me to learn more about what I could do with it,” he says.

Vincent came to Tech interested in pharmaceutical chemistry (now offered as medicinal chemistry) but soon realized it was focused on designing and synthesizing medicines. He yearned for a broader curriculum. “After switching, I was put into a lot more bio classes, which I thoroughly enjoyed! Microbiology, molecular biology, and genetics were all classes that were not included in the pharmaceutical chemistry program. I realized I don’t want to learn about chemical synthesis and analysis as much as I want to study the properties of the resulting molecules and their impacts on biological processes. Of course, synthesis and identification will be a huge part of the job, but certainly not my focus!” he says.

Plus, a paper mill engineer he spoke to recommended he switch to a more general degree.  He enjoyed Andrew Galerneau’s Organic Chemistry Lab 1 class at Tech. He realized he was attracted to the biological and organic aspects of chemistry.  “Life is complicated and interesting. There are many mechanisms involved in different processes. We can now throw a chemical into a process to see how it impacts the process. As a biochemist, I can help develop therapies.”

Switching to Biochemistry

It was clear that first year at Tech, chemistry was a good fit. Vincent won the Outstanding Student in First Year Chemistry award. He switched to the Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.  Vincent loves biochemistry. He likes to see how compounds can impact a system. And he wants to dig into the how.  Vincent says, “Secrets are boring. I want to know the answers. Why can’t  I know?”

“After I began my summer research, I dove into some of the biological mechanisms that are involved in hypertension, specifically with oxidative stress. As we’ve continued, we began to focus on the mitochondria, the subcellular organs that make energy, as the main drug targets to alleviate hypertension. Will this compound reduce oxidative stress in the mitochondria? Then we would ask how does this compound affect oxidative stress in the mitochondria? What mechanism is it acting on? Directly by reducing harmful species, or by restoring function to a biological pathway that helps reduce the harmful species or otherwise benefits the mitochondria?” Vincent says.

Helping Peers in the Chemistry Learning Center

Vincent puts his knowledge of chemistry to good use for others as a Chemistry Learning Center (CLC) coach. “I love working in the CLC. It all started with AP chemistry in my junior year of high school. A majority of my classmates were struggling, and I found that I enjoyed explaining chemical concepts and helping others understand chemistry and be successful in their classes. I work in the CLC because I like helping students learn chemistry, no matter the level that they are at, and the feeling of reward knowing that I have helped someone makes it worth it,” he says.

“I personally prefer more informality than some coaches because I feel it creates a more comfortable environment for my students. Who wants to go into a stuffy learning environment where the coaches feel they’re superior to you? Everyone learns at a different rate and with a different style, that’s why we have the CLC and why we want to support our students,” he says.

Applied Learning Doing Hypertension Research in the Lab

Vincent in lab coat removing supernatant from a centrifuged sample
Vincent preparing a sample for Flow Cytometry

Applied learning in the lab augments Vincent’s biochemistry studies. He is working with Lanrong Bi and Zhiying Shan to alleviate hypertension.  Vincent says, “I chose this focus because hypertension is extremely common and is a major risk factor in many diseases, which affect millions of people every year. I have always had an interest in anatomy, particularly with the cardiovascular system and the vasculature, and after doing a paper in my second year about nitric oxide synthase I became aware of and interested in the effects of oxidative stress on the cardiovascular system. My dad is a cardiologist and when I was young I also wanted to be a doctor, so I guess I inherited his interest in the cardiovascular system and my mom’s interest in pharmaceuticals!”

Vincent’s research is tricky as there are many causes of hypertension. His research focuses on relieving oxidative stress, preventing damage in mitochondria, and helping the cell degrade/dissolve damaged mitochondria. He explains, “This research focuses on the solid-phase synthesis of peptide-based antioxidants that target the mitochondria. We have this core structure that consists of an antioxidant moiety (chemical group) called Tempo and three amino acids, RGD, (Arginine [R], Glycine [G], and Aspartic Acid [D]). The solid-phase part means we’re not synthesizing these in solution, but immobilizing it on a solid surface and adding each part stepwise.”

“What I’m doing is adding another antioxidant amino acid to that chain to make some Tempo-RGD with another amino acid appended onto the chain. We are analyzing how adding 5 different amino acids with antioxidant properties changes the antioxidant strength of the Tempo-RGD and its ability to localize to the mitochondria. The point of the antioxidants is to reduce oxidative stress in the vasculature’s mitochondria with the goal of relieving hypertension. Oxidative stress and hypertension are deeply connected, and essentially no matter how hypertension has been induced there is an imbalance of radical Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), and removing the ROS is increasingly proving to be a good way of mitigating hypertension. Dr. Bi’s lab is heavily focused on the phenomena called autophagy, or the process by which a cell recycles its own molecules and organelles,” he explains.

Growing Cells in the Lab

Vincent is learning how to better work with eukaryotic cells, living cells that contain membrane-bound organelles such as a nucleus, mitochondria, and an endoplasmic reticulum. He is learning how to grow these cells outside the body. It’s a fundamental tool to use in the biochemistry field. This way he can study processes that may be too dangerous to perform on a living thing, while still seeing how a chemical or drug impacts the cells. 

Vincent says, “By growing or synthesizing cells outside of the body, researchers can see the detail of how a process is progressing. It’s a baseline. Helps me answer the question:  do I have a good idea? Easy to find the first steps of what I am doing. And testing on living organisms gives you the best results. All of the assays (processes to measure the concentration or find something in a solution) I have learned about are also very interesting, and I hope I can interpret data from them as well as the experts in the field. In the lab here at Tech, I am learning from an expert about the chemicals they are using and processes.” Vincent is looking forward to blasting cells with a drug he is creating in the lab.

Expectations for Research

Vincent has great expectations for his research. “I truly hope that we can use mitochondrial-targeted antioxidants to eliminate hypertension,” he says. “Right now, drugs like calcium blockers and ACE2 inhibitors reduce blood pressure but do not necessarily treat the underlying problem. Antioxidants and other drugs that promote the removal of defective mitochondria are, in theory, much “closer” to the right way to treat this, in my opinion. I think the future of hypertensive therapy is going to be ace-inhibitor and antioxidant cotherapy. They will not entirely eliminate it but pragmatically can make a dent. It’s important because hypertension impacts many systems and organs, like the kidney, heart, and cardiovascular system.”

Research Has Its Rewards

In the Spring of 2022, Vincent was one of two undergraduate winners of The Songer Award for Human Health Research. The award supports students doing health-related research in the College of Sciences and Arts, thanks to the generosity of Matthew Songer ’79, BS Biological Sciences, and Laura Songer ’80 BS Biological Sciences. The $4,000 award, along with matching funds from the College of Sciences and Arts, helped him continue his research.

Tech Love, Tech Life

In talking to Vincent, it is clear he loves Michigan Tech for a number of reasons. “Michigan Tech is a wonderful community in which to study biochemistry. The academics are amazing. All these non-engineering STEM departments are small. There is a collective knowledge here I don’t think I could have experienced anywhere else,” he says. “It’s been amazing to see my own development. Tech has helped me to grow so much.” 

And it’s not just the academics. “The atmosphere and the environment- I just love Michigan Tech. I love my degree. I am quite content with life here, and I have fun with friends.” 

Vincent has accomplished a lot in four years at Tech. His hard work has led to many opportunities to make a difference in the Chemistry Learning Center and in the lab. He sees it all as part of an investment in his future. “If I am not working hard for my degree, I am just wasting time and money,” he says.

What’s Next For Vincent Pellizzon?

Vincent is graduating in the spring of 2023 with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology with a chemistry focus. He will enter the accelerated master’s in chemistry with Dr. Bi as his advisor and continue his hypertension research. “If you want to do research, getting your master’s is a great route to go. And Tech makes it easy to get your master’s with just one additional year,” he says.

“With my master’s I can embark on a career where I will have some influence over what we are doing and why. I can be more involved than I would otherwise be as a technician. I can lead projects and have more say in experimental design. I can get the experience faster. And maybe get a sponsor for a PhD afterward,” he says.

“I’m really heavily considering going for a Ph.D. now. I feel confident enough to accomplish it, and I finally realized that my childhood dream of being a scientist is so close to being realized. Being a PhD would allow for so much more flexibility in projects, and honestly, I love the school environment so I am also considering possibly becoming a professor since they are also leading experts in their fields. Regardless of whether or not I get my PhD, I am firmly set in my interests of ROS stress and hypertension and want to continue doing this for many years to come.”

It’s easy to envision the day students like Vincent will be sitting in his classroom. Or will be getting some extra help in the Chemistry Learning Center for the next exam from Professor Pellizzon.  Perhaps Professor Pellizzon will help many students to find the path that is right for them. And we look forward to the day when we will find a link to his latest research publication on PubMed.

Samantha Ludwick: Research, Coaching, and Internship! Oh My!

Talk about making the most of your college experience. If you’re thirs-year student Samantha Ludwick just studying medicinal chemistry at Michigan Tech isn’t enough. She is active on campus as a researcher learning how molecules interact, Chemistry Learning Center Coach, and VP of Philanthropy for the Delta Zeta National Sorority. Samantha also completed an internship last summer with Pfizer. Samantha spends lots of time in the lab, and she loves it. We sat down to catch up with Samantha about her research, internship, and the other things she has done as a student.

Samantha Ludwick
Samantha in the research lab

How did you get interested in research?

My interest in research stems from my Organic Chemistry 2 lab at Tech. In this class, we did a 5 week-long organic synthesis-based project where we had to come up with and execute a procedure to efficiently synthesize and characterize a target molecule. In the end, my group created the molecule but had a very low yield (namely, a lot less was made than was intended). Rather than feeling discouraged, I was energized by the problem-solving opportunity that this presented me with.

Failing and figuring out how to improve your experimental process is a huge part of research, specifically organic synthesis-based research. I ended up reaching out to my TA for that class over the summer and meeting with her to discuss potential research opportunities for me at Tech. I explored other labs, but ultimately joined my TA, and now research mentor, Monica Nyansa, in the Tanasova Lab doing organic synthesis research.

What kinds of things do you do in the Tanasova lab?

My current research is based on organic synthesis and characterization, with an application to biologically active molecules. In this lab, I have created procedures to develop and characterize novel molecules. One key distinguisher of biological molecules is in understanding the chirality, or orientation in space of the molecules. For molecules meant to interact within the body, one orientation of a molecule may be therapeutic, whereas the other orientation may potentially be dangerous. Oftentimes when molecules are synthesized, they are present in a racemic mixture of enantiomers, which is a mixture of both chiral orientations of the molecule.

To distinguish enantiomers, I learned a technique called Mosher Ester Analysis, which involves the synthesis of diastereomers of molecules and analysis via NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance). NMR is a machine that helps to identify and confirm a molecule’s structure. NMR can identify diastereomers and not enantiomers, which is why Mosher Ester Analysis is necessary. My key research goal has been to synthesize a novel molecule and determine its absolute stereochemistry (or orientation in space) via Mosher Ester Analysis. As I continue this research, I plan to take a more biochemical approach and characterize novel therapeutic molecules.

Some things that I do in the lab include setting up and carrying out chemical reactions, purification, and analysis. Each reaction is based on procedures that I’ve found in literature research and have modified to best fit my desired outcome. Purification typically involves column chromatography, or a technique to extract the desired product from various impurities based on polarity and the solvent utilized. Analysis manifests itself in a variety of techniques, with the most important one being NMR. Each day in the lab is slightly different, which keeps things exciting for me. Throughout my time in the Tanasova lab, I have greatly improved my laboratory techniques and have become a much stronger scientist.

Samantha Ludwick
Samantha snowshoeing on Mt. Baldy.

How do you think working in the lab has set you up for success in your after-graduation plans?

Becoming involved in undergraduate research has encouraged me to consider graduate education in chemistry. Before joining the Tanasova lab, I had never really considered pursuing a PhD in chemistry. Spending each day in the lab and learning more about the nitty-gritty of organic chemistry has helped me align my talents and passions with something that I enjoy doing. My technical and analytical laboratory skills and analysis have grown significantly since I joined the lab. I am certain that they will continue to grow as I continue my work. After I graduate from Tech, I have the potential to enter a graduate program with a strong understanding of organic synthesis.

What do you enjoy most about the research you do?

My favorite part about research is how challenging it can be. There are times when I obtain unexpected data, or a certain procedure doesn’t work, and I must determine a way to resolve the issue. Sometimes my proposed solution doesn’t work, and it’s back to the drawing board. This process can be lengthy yet has taught me the importance of perseverance. I enjoy solving problems and my research is a great outlet for doing so.

You’re a coach in the Chemistry Learning Center. What do you do? How has this helped you?

I coach students in Organic Chemistry and Chemistry 1 and 2 via weekly and walk-in appointments. I’ve learned communication skills and how to guide students as a mentor and coach. I’ve learned to approach each student differently as they have unique needs and different learning styles. I use analogies and explain things in a multitude of ways until the concept sticks. It’s my responsibility to get them comfortable to learn. Patience is key. I’ve learned to be more patient. In the end, I want them to succeed.

Samantha Ludwick
Samantha tutoring in the Chemistry Learning Center

You recently completed an internship as a Global Sterile Injectables Intern at Pfizer. What types of things did you do there?

At Pfizer, I worked with the documentation department of Chemical Quality and Quality Control Chemistry. Essentially, I got to see the types of testing and regulation that are done on a drug before it gets released to the market. My intern project concerned retain samples, or products that are pulled at the end of production to allow for future testing. With this project, I determined and standardized retain for 200+ products that were produced at my site. I implemented my procedure into a standard operating procedure (SOP) for future use by the company. Through this project, I gained a deeper understanding of applications of my degree and learned more about what corporate life entails.

How else did you benefit from this internship?

My internship with Pfizer exposed me to a lot of the pharmaceutical industry firsthand. I had the opportunity to meet with professionals in various areas of the company, including research and development, lab professionals, and manufacturing. I learned that there are many ways that I can apply my medicinal chemistry degree after I graduate, and that was very refreshing.

And there were other essential skills I developed. I gained independence and leadership skills due to my project ownership. I learned how to speak up and advocate for what I needed to complete the project. I became better at networking with company leaders. I was able to move a project forward that was important. I also had to move to North Carolina by myself and adapt to a new place. I’m very grateful for this experience, and am glad that I was given the opportunity to push myself outside of my comfort zone.

Plus, I learned what my degree looks like in the real world. I saw I could have a good-paying and enjoyable career.

What is next for you?

This next summer, I will be working as a Validation Intern with Pfizer. Again, I will be exposed to new areas of the pharmaceutical industry, and am very excited for this opportunity. I plan to continue doing research with the Tanasova lab throughout my senior year (Fall 2023-Spring 2024). Continuing to give myself a broad range of experiences will allow me to become more well rounded, while simultaneously deciding the best career path for me.

Call for Applications: 2023 Songer Research Award for Human Health

Undergraduate and graduate chemistry students are encouraged to apply for the 2023 Songer Research Award for Human Health. Matthew Songer, (Biological Sciences ’79) and Laura Songer (Biological Sciences ’80) established these awards to stimulate and encourage opportunities for original research by current Michigan Tech students.

Students may propose an innovative medically-oriented research project in any area of human health. The best projects will demonstrate the potential to have a broad impact on improving human life. This research will be pursued in consultation with faculty members within the College of Sciences and Arts. The Songers’ gift and matching funds from the College will support two awards for undergraduate research ($4,000) and two for graduate research ($6,000), for research conducted over the Summer of 2023 and/or the following academic year.

Learn more about who is eligible to apply, how to apply, and how the funds may be used.

Submit applications as a single PDF file to the Office of the College of Sciences and Arts by 4:00 p.m. Monday, April 24, 2023. Applications may be emailed to Any questions may be directed to David Hemmer (

Chemistry in Print

Chemistry Team Publishes in JACS Au

Congratulations to the team including Department of Chemistry Ph.D. students Shobhit Chaturvedi (lead author), Bathir Sathik, and Sodiq Waheed, and undergraduate students Jon Wildey (chemical engineering) and Cait Warner (biological sciences), and led by Christo Christov and Tatyana Karabencheva-Christova (Chem), whose article was published in JACS Au.

The article is titled “Can Second Coordination Sphere and Long-Range Interactions Modulate Hydrogen Atom Transfer in a Non-Heme Fe(II)-Dependent Histone Demethylase?” Christopher Schofield of the University of Oxford, U.K., is also a co-author of the article. This research is supported by NIH grant GM139118.

The study reveals how residues in the second coordination sphere and beyond drive and control the reactivity of the non-heme iron(iv)-oxo complex of the histone demethylase PHF8 to perform the key hydrogen atom abstraction reaction in its catalytic mechanism.

Chemistry Team Publishes in Chemistry – A European Journal

Ph.D. student Sodiq Waheed (chemistry) and Christo Christov (Chem) are participants in a collaborative experimental/computational study led by Nicolai Lehnert at the University of Michigan which was published in Chemistry – A European Journal.

The study, titled “YfeX – A New Platform for Carbene Transferase Development with High Intrinsic Reactivity,” focuses on a redesign of YfeX enzyme as a platform for carbene transferase reactions.

Victor Sosa Alfaro (lead author) and Hannah Palomino of the University of Michigan and Anja Knorrscheidt and Martin Weissenborn of the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, are co-authors of the manuscript.

NOBCChE Brings Chemistry to Baraga Youth

As part of its goal of outreach to the local community and promoting STEM — and chemistry in particular — to young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, the MTU student chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) recently organized an outreach event for the high school chemistry class of Baraga Area Schools.

A hands-on explorative activity on paper chromatography was the focus of the outreach event, introducing students to the wide array of applications of chromatography as a separation technique. After introducing students to the concept of chromatography, students were able to see it come alive by separating various colored inks into their constituents. After this introductory activity, students used their chromatography skills to do some forensic analysis on an ink sample and pens from various “suspects” to see who was responsible for defacing a very expensive book from the school library. Finally, the volunteers engaged the students in a discussion to synthesize their observations and draw out the big scientific ideas.

The students were very focused, interactive, and excited about the activities. Some of them, when asked to comment on the activity, noted that it was engaging and insightful. One even said, “This is so cool and fun.”

NOBCChE hopes to continue to get out in the local schools and open up the wide world of chemistry to area students. See photos from the outreach event.

Michigan Tech graduate students in chemistry and chemical engineering — Sodiq Waheed, Kobina Ofori, Parya Siacheshm, and Monica Nyansa — organized this outreach event with NOBCCHE advisor Jeremy Brown (Chem). The event was funded by the NOBCChE K-12 Initiative.

This post was originally published in the Michigan Tech Chemical Engineering News blog on May 26, 2022.