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02/14/2012 08:00:00

Caltech Student Wins Churchill Scholarship

Caltech senior Arvind Kannan has been selected to receive a Churchill Scholarship, which will fund his graduate studies at the University of Cambridge for the next academic year. Kannan, a chemical engineering major and English minor, was one of only 14 students selected to receive the award this year.

"It's a great honor," says Kannan, originally from Saratoga, California. "I think it will be an eye-opening and novel experience to be abroad on my own for a year. I love Caltech's tight-knit environment, but being able to live and work in a much larger community will help me both academically and personally."

Kannan, 21, is passionate about engineering proteins to do chemically useful things such as break down plant matter for use in biofuel production and speed up drug development.

Kannan has thrived at Caltech, both in the classroom and in the lab. "Almost every single day of my first two years here, I would come back from math and physics lectures with a brand new perspective on the universe," Kannan says. "It sounds kind of cheesy, but it's definitely true."

Following Kannan's freshman year, Frances Arnold, the Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, invited him to work on a SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) project. He has contributed to various projects in her lab ever since.

"Arvind's brilliance and insatiable thirst for learning is matched by his commitment to studying and practicing science," says Arnold. "He's also well-rounded and very sociable—I really enjoy working with him."

Most recently, Kannan has been working to engineer a variant of a protein in a family of drug-metabolizing enzymes called cytochrome P450. He is using a technique developed in the Arnold lab called "directed evolution," which takes advantage of nature's principle of random mutation to optimize a property of interest in the laboratory. The catalyst Kannan is developing would directly insert nitrogen into a carbon-hydrogen bond to create a chemical functional group called an amine, which is ubiquitous in agricultural and pharmaceutical products.

"The goal," Kannan says, "is to start from a highly selective and active catalyst that nature has already evolved for us, and try to alter its chemistry to solve a human problem." Since naturally occurring catalysts have been optimized by evolution to function in water at ambient temperature and pressure, the use of such enzymes in synthetic chemistry could decrease the environmental footprint of many industrially relevant reactions.

"I think that protein engineering holds a key to solving three of the biggest problems facing my generation—an impending energy crisis, global climate change, and rising incidence of cancer," Kannan says. "I am very lucky to work in a field that can seek solutions to such problems while simultaneously addressing fundamental scientific questions."

As a Churchill Scholar at the University of Cambridge, Kannan will gain exposure to theoretical chemistry and structural biology as he pursues a Master of Philosophy in chemistry. He will reside at Churchill College and work in the laboratory of Michele Vendruscolo, using computational methods to build a detailed structural model of a large protein complex called the 20S proteasome, which is involved in regulating processes ranging from gene expression to cell signaling. Upon completing the scholarship, he plans to return to the United States to pursue a PhD in chemical engineering with a focus on computational enzyme design. His dream is eventually to lead a research group as a university professor, engineering synthetically useful proteins while continuing to improve our basic understanding of biocatalysis and protein structure.

According to the Winston Churchill Foundation's website, the Churchill Scholarship program "offers American citizens of exceptional ability and outstanding achievement the opportunity to pursue graduate studies in engineering, mathematics, or the sciences at Cambridge. One of the newer colleges at the University of Cambridge, Churchill College was built as the national and Commonwealth tribute to Sir Winston, who in the years after the Second World War presciently recognized the growing importance of science and technology for prosperity and security. Churchill College focuses on the sciences, engineering, and mathematics."

Each year, an exclusive group of slightly more than 100 universities, including Caltech, is eligible to nominate two students from each school for consideration for the scholarship. Kannan is the sixth Caltech student in the past decade to win the award. A group of Caltech faculty members and researchers work with Lauren Stolper, director of fellowships advising, to identify and nominate candidates for the fellowship. This year, the members of the group were Churchill Scholar alumni John Brady, the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering and professor of mechanical engineering; Mitchio Okumura, professor of chemical physics; Alan Cummings, senior research scientist; and Eric Rains, professor of mathematics.

Written by Kimm Fesenmaier