Penn State Berks students earn Erickson Discovery Grant to fund summer research

Written by Lisa R. Baldi, Director of Strategic Communications at Penn State Berks.

Two Penn State Berks students will spend this summer engaged in their respective funded research opportunities. Sophomore Daniel Abramov and senior Sydney Bankert received the Erickson Discovery Grant; they are two of 50 of the grant’s recipients.

The Rodney A. Erickson Discovery Grant program, named after Penn State’s seventeenth president, provides undergraduate students with the opportunity to participate in research, scholarship, and creative work with the help of a research mentor. The grant is funded by Penn State Undergraduate Education.

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Abramov, a biochemistry and molecular biology and psychology double major and dual citizen of Israel and the United States (residing in Brooklyn, New York), heard about the Erickson Discovery Grant from a friend when the two were discussing research opportunities on campus.

“Getting the practice of formalizing my research, putting my data together, and presenting it seemed like it would be a nice opportunity while also getting money to fund my project,” he shared.

His passion for science began in middle school while performing experiments like running enzyme assays to measure enzymatic activity of substances or using gel electrophoresis to separate biomacromolecules (DNA, RNA, or proteins) according to size. Abramov wants to go on to medical school after finishing his undergraduate degree.

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Lorena Tribe, associate professor of chemistry, is serving as Abramov’s adviser for his research project. When deciding on a topic, the duo worked together to integrate Abramov’s passion for medicine and biological systems with Tribe’s understanding of computational chemistry.

His research, “A Computational Study of the Interaction of Phenylalanine Hydroxylase with Phenylalanine in the Phenylalanine-Tyrosine Pathway,” examines how Phenylketonuria(PKU), a rare genetic disorder that causes the buildup of phenylalanine, an amino acid, in the body. PKU is caused by a change in the phenylalanine hydroxylase gene, which creates the enzyme needed to break the amino acid down. Signs of PKU include musty odor in the breath, skin, or urine, skin rashes, neurological problems like seizures, developmental delay, and unusually light skin, eye, and hair pigmentation to name a few.

“It turned out to be this interdisciplinary project where we’re using computational theoretical systems to study biological reactions. We thought it would be kind of straightforward to look at amino acids. We tried to find a new way of not repeating data that exists already, but to find a new way of looking at it,” Abramov said.

Abramov’s research is personal to him. It combines his passion for neuroscience and wanting to pursue a career in the medical field. Additionally, PKU, a neurodegenerative disorder, is prevalent in Sephardic Jewish communities, such as those on his father’s side of the family. “It brought all of these elements, all of these things that I’m interested in together,” he added.

For Bankert, a kinesiology major from Hanover, Pa., this is her first time conducting research. During the fall semester, Praveen Veerabhadrappa, associate professor of kinesiology, approached her about the grant and she decided to give the opportunity a shot.

Bankert’s passion for physical therapy stems from her experience of having physical therapy and wanting to give back in the same way her therapists helped her.

“Being able to help people, improve their quality of life, and getting them back to doing the things they love to do is very rewarding and is something that I love,” she said.

The 2022-23 school year was her first year at Penn State Berks after transferring from Kutztown University. Despite only being here for one year, Bankert has found that making connections with her professors has helped her feel at home.

“Throughout my time at Penn State Berks, Dr. Veerabhadrappa has always encouraged me to push my limits and try things I probably wouldn’t have otherwise done,” Bankert said.

Her research titled “Artificial Intelligence in Physical Therapy” examines how technology can assist patients in their exercises. Bankert’s inspiration for her research topic stems from the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased use of fitness apps.

“The fitness apps kind of gave me an idea of looking at how an exercise program could be incorporated into physical therapy,” Bankert said.

For her project, she will work at a local physical therapy clinic and recruit patients to participate in the study to test the effectiveness of an app called Exer Health, a motion AI platform that allows users to access at-home workouts.

Her research will span the course of six weeks. In the first two weeks of the study, patients will maintain their normal exercise routine. Then, during weeks three and four, patients will use the Exer health app to complete their workouts. The final two weeks of the study will have patients return to their exercises without the app. Throughout the process, Bankert will measure patients’ pain levels and range of motion when using the app versus when not.

“The results of this research could inform the future of physical therapy. Finding that AI could be a useful tool in physical therapy could mean that I and other physical therapists can use it with clients and improve their recovery outcomes,” Bankert shared.

Both students have plans to present their research: Abramov will travel to San Francisco to the American Chemical Society conference from August 13-17. Bankert will head to University Park to present her research in April 2024.

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