Student’s medical mystery tour will take him to Swiss research facility

April 18, 2012

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Lisle, Illinois ~ Benedictine University senior Bohdan Khomtchouk will not be satisfied with just following the lead of others.

"If I ever have the opportunity to have an impact on a medical field where I can push the frontier just a little bit further to help solve some medical mystery, figuring how the molecular mechanism for diseases works and how we can cure it, that would really be life-fulfilling," he said.

Khomtchouk, the son of Oksana Khomtchouk, Ph.D., of Clarendon Hills, and a senior Scholars student majoring in Molecular Biology/Biochemistry, Mathematics and Physics, will take another step toward realizing his dream when he travels to Switzerland this summer to participate in an international research internship at Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne (EPFL).

Khomtchouk is one of just 25 students worldwide – and one of only four in the United States – to be awarded a fellowship at the prestigious Swiss government research facility.

"I applied to other institutions, but I committed to EPFL as soon as I learned I was accepted," he said. "They work on some very fascinating projects, and out of all of the schools I applied to, the projects that interested me the most from a personal perspective were the ones that were being worked on in Switzerland. So I was very happy."

EPFL is one of two facilities established by the Swiss federal government to educate engineers and scientists, serve as a national center of excellence in science and technology, and provide a hub for interaction between the scientific community and industry.

Each student awarded an internship is matched with a specific laboratory based on the student's interest and background. Each laboratory accepts just one student, concentrating all efforts to the development of the future scientist. Each student works as a member of a research team for nine weeks on a specific project related to the laboratory's research programs. They also attend weekly seminars and workshops, and present the results of their research at the end of the nine weeks.

"EPFL is very well known for bringing science to industry – going from ideas to actual benchtop and getting it out to society, having society benefit from the technology," Khomtchouk said.

Khomtchouk will work on two projects. He will participate on a project seeking to create a semi-disposable biochip that can be used to help tailor specific amounts of drugs that a person needs to offset a particular disease, and on a pilot project that is developing probes (aptamers) that would be able to identify drugs present in the bloodstream.

"The applications of aptamers are absolutely fantastic…everything from drug testing at the Olympic Games to determine whether somebody has been cheating to something that can simply be used in a doctor's office," he said. "Science is such an exciting field right now with all the things that are happening in the area of nanotechnology."

Khomtchouk, who will graduate in Spring 2013 with three bachelor's degrees, plans to pursue a career in medical research when his academic studies are complete.

"You realize that, in research, very often just being an expert in chemistry or biology or physics doesn't always answer a question that nature poses," he said. "Great discoveries await scientists at the interdisciplinary crossroads of scientific research. Nature doesn't think in terms of chemistry or physics or biology. I try to figure out how it is that nature can pose such complex problems. "

"That's where all the excitement is for me," he added. "Trying to crack some of these mysteries. Trying to figure out how nature works."

A 2009 graduate with honors of Hinsdale Central High School, Khomtchouk will be applying to graduate schools in the fall. His list of possible destinations includes some of the top research schools in the United States and overseas.

"I am very interested in a few of the projects that MIT is doing and a lot of the work that Oxford University is doing," he said. "I haven't had much time to look at the projects that other schools are doing, but some of the medical engineering applications that are being done at those schools interest me very much."

Khomtchouk is a member of the Scholars Program at Benedictine University. The Scholars Program is a program of intellectual formation designed for Benedictine's best and brightest undergraduate students. At the heart of the program are eight seminars – discussion-based and reading- and writing-intensive courses taught by experienced faculty and dedicated to the study of great books.

Khomtchouk, whose Scholars research thesis is "Wave Genomics: The Mathematical Physics of the Human Genome," credits his professors at Benedictine University for sharing their time and knowledge with him inside and outside the classroom.

"Patrick McMahon, my organic chemistry professor, has probably had the biggest influence on me," Khomtchouk said. "My professors - Susan Mikula, Preston Aldrich, Tim Marin, Thomas Wangler and Edward Ferroni – they are absolutely brilliant. I have had so many opportunities to go and ask them questions about things that interest me.

"When we study things in class, I like to go a little bit deeper sometimes than what we do immediately," he added. "I read about it in my free time, then go in and ask them questions. They are wonderful professionals, not only in terms of knowledge, but how well they are able to explain things and stimulate more and more interest."

"That's probably the greatest thing about Benedictine University…the student-teacher contact," Khomtchouk said. "It's a fantastic opportunity for a student who truly loves science."

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Benedictine University is an independent Roman Catholic institution located in Lisle, Illinois just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois and Mesa, Arizona. Founded in 1887, Benedictine provides 55 undergraduate majors and 15 graduate and four doctoral programs. Benedictine University is ranked No. 1 among the country's fastest-growing campuses between 2002-2012 in The Chronicle of Higher Education's list of private nonprofit doctoral institutions, and Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the fourth consecutive year in 2014. Benedictine University's Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain's Chicago Business as the sixth largest in the Chicago area in 2014.

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