Rowan Wooldridge is quick to tell you that his plans to pursue a master’s degree in biochemistry at Virginia Tech stem from the undergraduate research that, not only revealed his extensive passion for science, but also established the groundwork for his intended future career in biotechnology.

Wooldridge, who is also pursuing a minor in philosophy, was one of three recipients of the inaugural Undergraduate Research Excellence Award which was presented following the annual Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Conference in April 2020. The conference features student projects from all disciplines and areas of research.

Wooldridge was identified and named a finalist for the Undergraduate Research Excellence Award based on his completion of the Undergraduate Research Excellence Program (UREP). Wooldridge and two other recipients were recognized for their ability to communicate their research effectively to a broad audience as well as their creative use of visuals and technology to enhance their message in the five-minute presentation video they each uploaded for the conference.

“Rowan’s engagement in undergraduate research has really helped him develop holistically as a student,” said Keri Swaby, director for the Office of Undergraduate Research, on Wooldridge’s selection for the award. “He has fully invested in all stages of research from training and engaging through disseminating and reflecting, and even beyond as a peer mentor. But one thing that Rowan has mastered, which will be an invaluable skill for his future, is the ability to break down the complexity of his project and make it understandable and accessible to the general public.”

Even before starting at Virginia Tech, Wooldridge knew he wanted to engage in some sort of laboratory research. He joined the Scharf lab in Spring 2019 and was awarded a prestigious 2019 Fralin Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship and later, a 2019-20 Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship, to continue his project.

Through his work on in vitro characterization of methyl accepting chemotaxis proteins McpW and McpZ, Wooldridge sought to identify the specific molecules that bind to two uncharacterized receptors, McpW and McpZ. These two proteins, as Wooldridge describes, are part of the reason why bacteria moves toward alfalfa roots. His undergraduate research findings highlighted how a better understanding of this process could lead to a reduction in chemical fertilizer in developing naturally enriching soil with nitrogen.

“My experience working in the Scharf lab has been extremely rewarding,” says Wooldridge. “I was lucky enough to be allowed to be fairly independent while working on my project and it has undeniably confirmed that I wish to pursue research as a career. I have learned methods and equipment procedures that I will use in graduate school and beyond.”

Through his work and successes, Wooldridge also exemplifies the spirit of Ut Prosim [That I May Serve] in his role as an undergraduate research ambassador. “I realized that, since I owe so much of my college experience to undergraduate research, I felt a pull to get involved with the Office of Undergraduate Research as an ambassador,” Wooldridge said. As a result of Wooldridge’s dedication to serving as an ambassador, more students are given a greater opportunity to participate in research at Virginia Tech.

Through the Office of Undergraduate Research, all students are encouraged to get involved in research through the camaraderie built by the ambassadors. In his ambassador application, Wooldridge stated, “It is my opinion that undergraduate research is one of the most valuable things someone in college can experience, and I would love to share the passion I have developed.”

Wooldridge’s innate motivation to help others and support research endeavors are just a few of the great qualities he possesses in being a positive influence on other students.

Reflecting on his experiences mentoring younger students, Wooldridge says, “I think the most rewarding conversation I have ever had with a student was with a younger biochemistry major whom I was able to give a lot of advice including research, grad school, classes, and professors that I wish I had known when I was in her year.” Wooldridge believes that through his learning experiences with trial and error, he has been able to pass along key lessons to fellow researchers in a greater effort to help others.

With 2020 having been a unique year in the world of research, Wooldridge and his colleagues have had to quickly adapt to a new way of working in the lab. Although the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted his research earlier this year, that didn’t stop Wooldridge from continuing to explore more avenues of his studies such as research on the proteins causing bacteria movement in alfalfa roots.

The physical lab space, in accordance with university social distancing guidelines and policies, requires that Wooldridge and other students work in shifts to progress with their projects and studies.

“I have to plan my experiments much more carefully so I can respect the space of those who work later in the day,” said Wooldridge. “The great impact of research continues to flourish, even during the difficulties of the pandemic.”

Wooldridge says the greatest learning experience he has had is learning to persevere and be patient when plans go awry. “Research often tends not to go as planned or expected,” said Wooldridge. “This means you have to be able to troubleshoot things relentlessly until they work. The struggle of working through these challenges may seem daunting, but when a hypothesis finally succeeds, the experience becomes all the more rewarding.”

Written by Abby Mercatoris-Morrison and Rachel Corell