By Brooklyn Brown
Western Carolina University’s chemistry and biology programs in the College of Arts and Sciences are tallying up doctoral acceptances at universities across the country, including Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Connor Larmore and Matteo Fratarcangeli are two of several students celebrating acceptance into doctoral programs. Both students were accepted at Duke.
Larmore is a biology master’s student from Morganton. Larmore will soon be a double alumnus of WCU with his undergraduate degrees in chemistry and biology. Larmore was recently accepted to the biology PhD programs at the University of Georgia, Duke and the University of Virginia. He’s still deciding where his next chapter will be, but he said he’s leaning heavily towards Duke.
Larmore said the interview process for applying to PhD programs has been pretty easy, but he has worked hard to be prepared. “My interviews with the schools I applied for have been very informal interviews. They weren’t like ‘gotcha’ interviews, they just asked me about my research,” Larmore said. “If you’re gonna do a PhD in chemistry or biology, it is essential that you have research experience. Prior research is a big component of your application and you should be able to explain your research experience well to the interviewers.”
Associate professor Jamie Wallen, who is on Larmore’s thesis committee, reiterates the importance of research experience. “It’s really important to show that you have the experience. I think one of the things we do really well here at Western is we have great faculty that provide research to our students,” says Wallen. “One of the hardest parts of a PhD is getting the PhD through the research. They want to see that you’ve done research, that you’ve enjoyed it, and more importantly, that you can talk about it.”
Larmore is studying two proteins in salmonella typhimurium, a bacterial pathogen that colonizes the intestinal wall of humans. “If you get infected with salmonella you end up with gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain,” Larmore said.
“Several years back, there were a couple of genes identified in this organism that are believed to encode proteins that function to produce a sugar called trehalose. There was a later study that found that if they knock those genes out, they can no longer grow the organism in the lab. Nobody has studied the proteins that are encoded by the genes. So, my work has been studying these proteins in this organism.”
Larmore wants to continue researching microbial genetics in his PhD, but his long-term goal is to return to academia. “I would like to become a professor somewhere where I can continue conducting research, but also teach,” Larmore said. “I have served as a graduate teaching assistant. I’ve taught several genetics labs, a principles of biology 1 lab, and this semester I’m teaching a couple of microbiology labs. I’ve really enjoyed those experiences.”
Larmore credited his research adviser Amanda Storm, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, his undergraduate research adviser Scott Huffman, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Physics, and his thesis committee including Wallen and Heather Coan, associate professor of biology, for preparing him for this next stage.
“The faculty have been really supportive. Dr. Storm read through my personal statement, looked at my CV, provided feedback and wrote recommendation letters. Positive recommendation letters are really important,” Larmore said. “When it comes time for applications, it’s definitely important that you have relationships with faculty who can write positive recommendation letters for you.”
Larmore also acknowledged the Department of Residential Living and the Office of New Student Orientation, where he worked as an RA, orientation counselor and coordinator. “Those offices gave me the opportunity on campus to develop a professional skill set,” said Larmore.
Fratarcangeli is a second semester chemistry graduate student earning his master’s through the 4+1 program. He is originally from Ariccia, Italy. He graduated from Smoky Mountain High School as part of a foreign exchange program and then pursued his undergraduate and graduate degree at WCU.
“My aunt is like me. She left Italy when she was 18 to come here. When she would come to visit, I always heard her stories from here,” Fratarcangeli said. “Since I was little, I was planning on coming here after I graduated from high school; it just so happened that I got here a little earlier than expected.”
Fratarcangeli has been accepted to chemistry PhD programs at Duke, UNC Chapel Hill and Purdue University. Like Larmore, Fratarcangeli said he is leaning toward Duke.
Fratarcangeli has also performed extensive prior research to prepare for his PhD. “My thesis is on europium complexes. Specifically, we have two projects: one is a computational project so everything is done on the computer studying how molecule structures affect europium,” says Fratarcangeli. “The other is in the lab where we study europium nanoparticles to hopefully one day image cancer cells.”
He has conducted nearly three years of research with Channa de Silva, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Physics. De Silva said Fratarcangeli’s ability to present research is a key component leading to his PhD acceptances. “Matteo has done a lot of scholarship in chemistry research. He has presented at two national American Chemical Society meetings and several Southeastern Regional ACS meetings,” de Silva said. “He also presented at an undergraduate conference at Harvard University, consistently doing research and presenting at graduate level competitive conferences.”
Along with de Silva, Fratarcangeli also said Scott Huffman’s chemometrics course and associate professor Carmen Huffman’s seminars have prepared him to successfully present research.
“A PhD is five years of research and if for some reason you end up not liking it, you’re gonna be miserable. Start doing research before then to see if you really like it,” Fratarcangeli said.
Like Larmore, Fratarcangeli is interested in returning to academia after working for a company. “I really like the freedom of research that academia gives you and I would like to train the next chemists,” he said.
Wallen wants Fratarcangeli and Larmore to be an example to other students of the limitless possibilities with a degree from WCU. “Our students can do whatever they want. They can go to medical school, graduate school, dental school, whatever they want to pursue,” Wallen said. “If you come to Western and you get an education here, the sky's the limit.”
De Silva agreed. “We can confidently say that we shape students so that they are ready for that competitive level of education,” de Silva said. “We have the infrastructure and the potential for students to choose whatever they want to do. They have a lot of options here, and we work one-on-one with students. We do it well and we are serious about it.”