Passion for science leads to research fellowship

Kelly Chacon, NSF Fellow
Kelly Chacon uses selenium labeling as a probe of metal transport in Thermus thermophilus CuA.

05/10/2011 Portland, Ore.

OHSU graduate student Kelly Chacon is passionate about demystifying science, and you can tell when she talks about using spectroscopy to uncover the ways our cells use copper to carry out essential functions.

"I work with a beautiful, purple colored protein that is a key part of how our body utilizes electrons and oxygen to produce energy," Chacon says. "This unique protein works like a little superconductor to quickly transport the electrons to their next destination."

Chacon, a graduate student in OHSU's Institute of Environmental Health, now joins an elite rank of people including U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, and Google's founder, Sergey Brin that have won a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.

The prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship recognizes Chacon's exceptional promise in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics work, as she pursues a research-based doctoral degree.

Not bad for a woman who wasn't very good at science and math as a child and young adult. "I was a kid who fell through the cracks in school," Chacon says.

Chacon's academic journey was nontraditional. It wasn't until she was 21, and received word of her beloved grandmother's death that she became determined to finish her education. "In that moment of grief, I decided to become a woman she would have been proud of," Chacon says.

Her first hurdle was passing her GED and getting a small scholarship. She used the money to go to a community college and eventually transferred to Portland State University (PSU). There she got hooked on chemistry and never looked back.

After receiving her bachelor's degree in chemistry from PSU, Chacon went on to work as a research technician in Ninian Blackburn's lab at OHSU's Institute of Environmental Health. Blackburn is considered to be one of the most well respected experts in the field of x-ray absorption spectroscopy.

"That's what really got me excited about going to graduate school at OHSU," Chacon says. "To learn from Professor Blackburn will be fantastic."

During one experiment, Chacon tried a different method for adding copper to the protein. Typically it would turn a deep purple color. This time, however, she noticed the solution briefly turned green. "In twenty years of studying this protein, no one has seen this green state," Chacon says. "This color gives us clues about the protein's active site and will be investigated further as part of my graduate research."

Chacon's Ph.D. program will focus on characterizing the kinetics of the binding coppers using x-ray absorption spectroscopy and other techniques. She is hoping to understand what accessory proteins are responsible for assembling the mature copper protein.

"Kelly is an example of a individual from a minority background who has beaten the odds and succeeded at working in science on a high level," Blackburn says. "I am proud of all that she has accomplished."

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship will provide her with a three-year annual stipend of $30,000 along with a $10,500 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees, opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education.

The path to a NSF graduate research fellow has been a long road for Chacon. She never forgets her early experiences in school and wants to bring science to under-represented students in middle and high school. " I feel extremely lucky that this award will allow me the opportunity to continue my passion for demystifying science."