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Dr. Desai and Patrick Pickens
Dr. Holly Carpenter Desai and Patrick Pickens

Squid can change their skin color rapidly due to protein materials known as reflectins. Can that same material be used to help people?

Dr. Holly Carpenter Desai and Patrick Pickens of the University of North Georgia will be heading to Washington, D.C., in April to present scientific research demonstrating how a hybrid material constructed partially from reflectins may be able to help people in several ways.

Representing the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of North Georgia, the pair presented their abstract among some 800 other applicants in their competition. Of those 800, 60 were selected, including the abstract submitted by Desai and Pickens, to be presented during Posters on the Hill—an annual event held by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) that enables students from around the country to present posters on their research.

"Dr. Desai and Patrick Pickens have been selected from a large pool of submissions across multiple academic disciplines to make a contribution to a very select group of individuals—the United States Congress," said Dr. Michael Bodri, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at UNG. "Their efforts will help members of Congress to understand the importance of undergraduate research and the impact it can have on education and scholarship. I congratulate them on their work and on representing the University of North Georgia."

Desai, associate professor of chemistry, has toiled for several years on her research in protein engineering. The research involves the study of reflectins, protein materials found naturally in the skin of squid that have many unique spectral and optical properties. The possible applications of the research range from constructing materials for skin implants, to drug-delivery matrices, to inspiring new liquid-crystal display technologies.

"This is an incredible opportunity for myself and Patrick," Desai said. "This will give us the ability to publicize what we've already done, and the poster presentation will be a springboard for future grants and applications to extend our research. These grants can be crucial to the research process; the Air Force Office of Scientific Research funded my research for three years."

Pickens, president of the Student Government Association on UNG's Dahlonega campus and a senior majoring in chemistry and biology, began engaging in undergraduate research with Desai in January 2011. As part of the university's Faculty-Undergraduate Summer Engagement (FUSE) program, Pickens also journeyed with Desai last summer to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego for an eight-week intensive study of the research.

"We are very excited about this opportunity," Pickens said. "We'll be stepping out of the realm of normal science and going into an environment where people are involved in national funding. We'll also be presenting to members of Congress who may not know much about our field, and I'll have the chance to share how undergraduate research has impacted my life and future career."

CUR's mission is to increase the number of undergraduates who engage in research across the nation. Pickens, who is interested in pursuing possible chemistry applications in public health, said his experience as an undergraduate researcher has contributed greatly to his development.

"The faculty, department heads and I are very proud of our undergraduate researchers and their accomplishments. Each and every one of them has made a contribution—to their own education, to their research partners, and often to the scientific community by way of presentations and publications," Bodri said. 

The event will be held on Capitol Hill, in the Capitol Building, from April 22-24.

© 2014 University of North Georgia