Senior’s Heart Beats for Chemistry

Published: Feb 10, 2012
Tavya Benjamin ’12 has been working with assistant professor Eric Werner for about a year researching metals that contain magnetic and luminescent properties.
Tavya Benjamin ’12 has been working with assistant professor Eric Werner for about a year researching metals that contain magnetic and luminescent properties.
Tavya Benjamin ’12 is a problem solver.

As a chemistry major with a pre-medicine concentration, she prefers to work uninhibited in the lab as an assistant for Eric Werner, assistant professor of chemistry, than working through textbook lab experiments for class.

“I like research because of the freedom,” said Benjamin. “In class, you know what you have to do and you reproduce it. In the lab, you have more opportunity to experiment. It’s cool to problem solve; I ask about the process a lot.”

Benjamin, along with Melanie Madsen ’12, has been working with Werner for about a year researching metals that contain magnetic and luminescent properties. A major goal is to develop better metal-based compounds to be used with MRI to make images easier to read and to improve on the existing agents used to enhance contrast and make the images more distinct. Then physicians would be able to detect tumors or other abnormalities at earlier stages of development.

“I like to connect things and figure out all the steps in between,” Benjamin said. “I like being a part of the process. It’s cool to see the impact.”

Benjamin, who is 19, discovered her love of chemistry in Werner’s class and attributes her passion not only to Werner but to Rebecca Bellone, associate professor of biology, and Steven Hendrix, associate professor of chemistry.

“They’ve invested a lot in me and allowed me to see their love for science, too,” said Benjamin. “I think the professors here helped me love what I’m doing. UT was the best choice I’ve made.”

Through her affiliation with UT’s Skull and Bones organization, she was put in touch with a doctor in Miami looking for research interns. She is now providing online data research on the side effects of a weight loss medication.

Last summer, Benjamin spent eight weeks in Arizona shadowing cardiac surgeons and cardiologists as one of eight interns with the Arizona Heart Foundation’s Cardiovascular Summer Student Program. She toured the clinic, saw how doctors diagnose their patients and refined her own reasoning skills through regular question-and-answer quizzes about diagnoses. She even watched some open heart surgeries.

“To see the heart beating was amazing,” said Benjamin, of Palm Harbor, FL. “I absolutely loved it.”

She was given an open invitation to return to Arizona this summer which she hopes to do.

Werner said this kind of experiential education is highly beneficial for students. In his lab, he said he helps his research assistants develop ideas and provides training, but that they are encouraged to take ownership of their research as they gain experience.

“They are the ones in the lab getting their hands dirty and at times taking the projects into new directions that interest them,” said Werner.

“Because it’s so hands on, they get it. They understand the whole scope of the project from initial design to presenting results at conferences and in publications,” Werner said. “They get to be involved in every single aspect.”


Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer
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