By Jess Dankenbring, ’17

Ezana Befekadu, ’17, vividly remembers his favorite science lab during his first year. “We were able to synthesize the antibiotic penicillin,” he says. “It’s pretty rare and unique for a freshman in the sciences to be able to experience doing a lab like that, so I remember being pretty excited.”

His love for the sciences and appreciation for research began in 10th grade when he took his first chemistry class. A few years later, he applied to the University of Richmond Integrated Science Experience (URISE) program before starting college, looking for the chance to conduct research and see if it was something he wanted to pursue.

“I got to learn lab techniques, and how to essentially do research and what the basics are,” he says.

The prospect of joining a community of scientists also excited him. Students in URISE are assigned a research mentor for five weeks and work alongside other students interested in scientific research. “I applied to the program to find a mentor to help guide me through my four years on campus,” he says.

His URISE mentor, chemistry professor Kelling Donald, helped him get started with his first research project the summer before sophomore year, and they are now completing the project and hope to get a paper submitted and published soon.

“My relationship with Dr. Donald is a very close one,” Befekadu says. “He helps me whenever I have problems or issues. The advice he has given me has really helped me progress.”

Befekadu’s research is called, "The Effect of Organic and Halide Substituents on the Stability of Dative Covalent Bonding in Borylene Species." He studies the stability of a dative bond, where two electrons are donated from one molecule, in different types of environments. The formation of this bond, he says, is highly dependent on its environment and his tests identify which conditions allow the bond to form. He hopes that his research and results can help others extrapolate more information about similar bonds.

After completing the URISE program, students join either the Integrated Quantitative Science (IQS) course or the Science, Math, and Research Training (SMART) course during their first year. Befekadu chose SMART, which introduces students to chemistry and biology while integrating calculus.

In the class, Befekadu studied diseases like HIV from several different scientific perspectives, ranging from genetics to cellular biology.

“It really helped me think in a collective way,” Befekadu says. “We spent a lot of time learning a wide range of things about HIV, ranging from why it has become such a problem to how it infects and hijacks the host’s cells to make more copies of itself.”

Another component of SMART is the hands-on lab that meets once a week for three hours. At the end of the semester, students combine lab and classroom work into an individual poster presentation.

“I enjoy being able to work on my own unique project with the help of my professor,” Befekadu says. “Being in charge of a project really teaches responsibility because if you want your project to make any progress, you have to go and do it yourself.”

As Befekadu approaches graduation, he’s looking ahead to medical school. But first, he plans on taking a gap year to get clinical and volunteer experience. When he begins applying to schools next fall, though, he knows that he can look back to his experiences in URISE and SMART. He wants to make sure that others know how beneficial these programs can be.

“URISE and SMART set me up to perform well in my subsequent biology and chemistry classes so I always try to recommend taking the course to any incoming freshman interested in the sciences,” Befekadu says.