Published: August 01, 2017

A UT biochemistry student is studying new ways to use charcoal as a filter on a molecular level that could change the way the world drinks water.

Under a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program hosted by Princeton University, Regina Visconti ’19 is researching interactions between micropollutants and graphene oxide.

“Essentially, I am investigating the use of charcoal as a filter on the molecular level,” she said. “This research is to help give meaning to experiments investigating the same concepts, which could change water treatment plants internationally.”

Visconti is conducting her cutting-edge research with a group of seven other students in the molecular biophysics REU at the Czech Academy of Sciences under Babak Minofar, a researcher at the University of South Bohemia. Their lab is located in an early 19th-century château in the Czech Republic, where Visconti is learning as much outside the château walls as she is inside.

“I love being able to experience the culture here. It is so different from the U.S.,” said Visconti, citing a quieter people who appreciate the outdoors and each other’s company.

She has kept her weekends busy with trips to Linz and Vienna, Austria; Prague, Czech Republic; Munich, Germany; and Rome, Italy. She plans to add Budapest, Hungary; Wroclaw, Poland; and Antwerp, Belgium; before the summer is over. There is an international summer school at the institute she is working, so she is meeting students from all over the world and attending nightly lectures by professionals from across Europe.

“I have met so many interesting people in my travels and here at the institute,” Visconti said. “I love to hear the stories and wisdom they have to offer.”

Visconti won the two-part internship last year. As a first-year student, she had gone home to Newington, CT, for winter break and was questioned by her aunt as to why she hadn’t already applied to internship programs.

“She said I should just apply for everything. So I had a panic attack and applied for a whole bunch of undergraduate research experiences,” Visconti said. “The great thing about the REU programs is that you can do them at different colleges and in different places. I applied to several in my area, but I applied to Princeton as well, and they were the one to call me back. It’s not what I expected to happen. I was already applying to all the other ones, so I thought why not.”

Last summer Visconti worked in a molecular biology lab on the Princeton campus researching fireflies and the toxins they produce.

“It was pretty cool to analyze that and compare it to other species that produce a similar toxin,” she said. “I was also supposed to study monarch butterflies, but the milkweed we were taking care of didn’t grow in time. But I got to take care of the milkweed, which was cool.”

Visconti was active in Future Farmers of America (FFA) in high school, and professes a love of botany. She said a career in agriculture research would be a dream.

“It might be fighting a pathogen resistance. It might be developing a pesticide that’s narrower or less environmentally damaging,” she said. “It could be any of those things.”

Science was always Visconti’s first choice when choosing a major.

“I wanted to be in science. I wanted to be in biology but not a biology major, and biochemistry sounded like the right fit,” she said, “and so far it has been.”

While she is stretching her mind, Visconti, who is also a UT resident assistant and member of Pi Beta Phi sorority, is also stretching her physical limits, taking up gymnastics.

“That was a whim thing,” said Visconti about joining the UT gymnastics club. “It was a terrible decision. Twenty year olds are not meant to start gymnastics. But I’m going for it. I can almost hold a hand stand now. I can do a round off. It’s so fun.”

Visconti hopes her summer experience gives her an honest feel for what academic research is like. In the future, she hopes to intern for a commercial program that focuses on agriculture, to give her a feel for the different research fields she could pursue. In the meantime, she is soaking up the networking and professional development opportunities coming her way, and will continue her research on micropollutants during the school year.

“It’s a practice in professionalism. It’s a practice to know how to perform and act in a lab,” she said. “This is a lot of what it would be like to do your own research, which is what I’m excited about as well.”

Have a story idea? Contact Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer  
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