St. Petersburg Collegiate High School alumni Amy Rice was recently awarded the prestigious Pritzker Research Fellowship in the Ph.D. program in Physics at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago.
The Fellowship pays tuition, stipend and research funds totaling more than $200,000 over the four-year term of the award.
After earning her A.A. degree from St. Petersburg College in 2009, Rice transferred to IIT. Last year, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics.
“Biology was my first love,” said Rice. “It’s what got me interested in science in the first place.”
Looking back to her time at SPC, she remembers loving her anatomy and physiology class.
“The professor had a way of making the class incredibly interesting and bringing in his outside knowledge to make it more real to us,” she said.
Born and raised in St. Petersburg, Rice was homeschooled through eighth grade. In ninth grade she attended Veritas Academy and transferred to SPC’s Collegiate High School for grades 10-12.
“I have always been very motivated academically,” she said. “I thought it (Collegiate High School) would be a great program to be around others that took their education seriously.”
Like many Florida students, her plans were to stay in Florida and take advantage of the Bright Futures Scholarship she had earned. Her high SAT scores meant she was pursued by numerous colleges from around the country. A brochure from IIT caught her eye.
“I saw that they had a major in Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics and I thought that sounded like an awesome major,” she said. “It sounded like it would be very interdisciplinary.”
She applied for and got a full tuition scholarship and started her bachelor’s degree in the Chicago-based university the next fall.
During her undergraduate studies at IIT, she worked as a teaching assistant in biology and physics and a research assistant in microbiology and physics. She was involved in Alpha Sigma Alpha, the Honors Medical Society and competed on the university’s cross country and track teams. She was awarded the College of Science Undergraduate Summer Research Stipend in 2011 and 2013.
Entering the second year of her Ph.D., Rice’s research is focused on Computational Biophysics and is primarily computer based. While she has experimental collaborators that she works with, her research does not happen in a traditional laboratory.
“My project specifically is looking at a class of antimicrobial peptides produced by most animals,” she explained. “It is thought that bacteria don’t really become resistant to them. Not a lot is known currently as to why they work so well, but are not harmful to human cells.”
In Computational Biophysics computerized simulations are used to enable researchers like Rice to explore actions and reactions that happen within cells in very short time frames – nanoseconds – and very short distances.
“It’s hard from the experimental side to figure out what is happening on such small time and distance scales,” she said.
She is currently working with a team of researchers led by Dr. Jeff Wereszczynski at IIT. The Wereszczynski Group also includes two postdoctoral researchers and another Ph.D. student. This summer the group also has three undergraduate research assistants, two from a local community college. Rice is in charge of one of the assistants.
“I’m very excited to have an undergraduate student assistant!” said Rice. “I’ve been the undergraduate assistant to graduate students twice before, so it is really interesting and rewarding for me to be on the other side of that now and help mentor someone.”
Learn more about her research with the Wereszczynski Group at IIT.
Rice plans to continue her career in the same general field of research by teaching, working with graduate students and doing research.
“I love computational work,” she said. “It is a big up and coming field – new in the last 20-30 years. It’s exciting for me to think about where it will be in future when computers are even more powerful,” she said.
Her advice to other students is practical:
“Don’t be afraid to take risks and don’t be afraid to fail,” said Rice. “In science you fail a lot. I’ve had to start my research project over nine times now. The first eight times I failed. If you are not failing, you are not at the cutting edge of your field.”