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UCM Undergraduate Research Experience Puts Chemistry Alumnus on Path to Ph.D., Publication of Peer-Reviewed Manuscript with Campus, International Scientists

By Jeff Murphy, May 23, 2023


Luminescent gold nanoparticles that may potentially play a role in bio-imaging were part of a published research project that involved a University of Central Missouri alumnus who collaborated as an undergraduate chemistry student with two faculty mentors and researchers at two international institutions.

WARRENSBURG, MO – Three years after earning a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, former Grain Valley resident Cole Scholtz continues to reap the benefits of his research experiences at the University of Central Missouri. He not only recently published a scholarly paper in cooperation with two of his former UCM professors and six scientists from across the globe, but the education he received helped ignite his passion for scientific research and prepared him for a rigorous doctorate in chemistry program that will launch his professional journey.

“I chose to seek a Ph.D. because it would allow me to be in a leadership role, specifically in drug discovery,” said Scholtz, who expects to complete his doctorate at the University of Minnesota in fall 2025. “The degree allows me to work on the cutting edge of research and with teams of scientists leading the way forward in future jobs, where I ultimately want to lead a team of researchers in my career.”

Teamwork is something Scholtz knows well through a collaboration that began for him in January 2018 and lasted through his graduation in fall 2020. His sophomore year at UCM, Scholtz joined then associate professors of chemistry, Jay Steinkruger, Ph.D., and Dr. Chen Zhou, Ph.D., on a project that involved the synthesis of molecules for use in preparing luminescent gold nanoparticles. Researchers believe these nanomaterials could be useful in bio-imaging efforts that could possibly aid in identifying and tracking the progression of diseases such as cancer.

“I had taken an organic chemistry course from Professor Steinkruger and knew as a chemistry major that undergraduate research would help my goals moving forward,” said Scholtz, who gained lab and undergraduate research experience working on this project.

Details about this research effort were made available this spring in an article in which Zhou was a corresponding author. The study appeared in the online international science journal, “Colloids and Surface A: Physicochemical and Engineering Aspects,” and is titled “Exploration of surface chemistry effects on the biodistribution and pharmacokinetics of dual-ligand luminescent gold nanoparticles.”

The UCM team had a significant role in this faculty-student research project along with an international group of scientists from two Chinese universities. These researchers are Yuequi Lin and Shengyang Yang, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Yangzhou University in Yangzhou; Shanghai Young, Xin Zhou, and Cui Du, College of Veterinary Medicine, Yangzhou University; and Shasha Sun, School of Environmental and Chemical Engineering at Jiangso University, Zhenjiang.

“My scientific background prepared me to make molecules,” Steinkruger said. “Dr. Zhou’s background is in using molecules to make gold nanoparticles. We completed these aspects of the study here at UCM in our undergraduate labs with support from the Office of Undergraduate Research which is currently being led by Dr. Jennifer Carson.”

In 2015, Zhou received a grant from the Office of Undergraduate Research to support undergraduate student participation on this study. Prior to Scholtz’s involvement, Zhou and Steinkruger worked with another undergraduate student, now Dr. Anthony Fatino, to investigate commercially available materials for this type or research.

“The first part of this project, about the first year and a half, was spent synthesizing the ligands that are used to prepare the gold nanoparticles,” Scholtz said. “This time was mostly spent getting my feet wet, learning some different techniques in the lab, and exploring reactions that aren’t covered in a typical undergraduate organic chemistry course. This time was also spent learning the flow of research in how to change variables to investigate different hypotheses.”

During the latter half of Scholtz’s participation in this research, he continued to work with Zhou to synthesize luminescent gold nanoparticles.

The fact that these nanoparticles have the ability to take in light and put out light have intrigued researchers like Steinkruger and Zhou who are interested in discovering new ways in which they can be incorporated into drug delivery and bio-imaging. In a best case situation, it may be possible to direct these nanoparticles systems selectively into cancerous cells, which could be useful in tracking the growth of a tumor. While much more work needs to be done, this research was a step toward learning more about such possibilities, while also creating a tremendous opportunity for undergraduate student-faculty collaboration.

“This was a very exploratory project, and both Professor Zhou and Professor Steinkruger were very eager to test nanoparticles with different ligand surfaces like the ones synthesized with Professor Steinkruger in the first half of the project,” Scholtz said.

“We spent two and one-half years working with Cole, doing everything in-house,” Steinkruger said. “Once we knew we could make the molecules, and once we knew we could make the nanoparticles, that’s when Dr. Zhou brought in collaborators who did some experiments that we don’t have the capacity to do here at UCM.”

Scientists overseas conducted biological studies utilizing mice to determine such things as the length of time these nanoparticles could circulate in the blood, determine if they were being trapped in certain organs, and learn more about how they passed through the body of the animal.

“Completing experiments in a mouse model is a very common approach for an initial ‘in vivo’ study, which is an actual animal model system as opposed to a test tube or Petri dish,” Zhou said.

Throughout the duration of the project, Zhou stayed in contact with the collaborators overseas as they completed the animal study. He also took a brief sabbatical to work on this research effort.

While data related to this study has been compiled into the published research paper, Cole spoke about the outcome noting, “I think this highlights that there is much more work to be done in understanding how these nanoparticles function on a biological level, which I find exciting.”

Both Steinkruger and Zhou praised the opportunity to have published a paper that was made possible through their former student’s contributions and in cooperation with other scientists. They look forward to making such opportunities available to future chemistry students knowing it will pay off for them, particularly if the students hope to pursue a graduate education. Whatever the student’s future plans, the experience is great preparation that also looks good on a resume.

“Publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is one of the best outcomes one can hope for as an undergraduate student,” Steinkruger said. “But some people think if you attend a regional comprehensive university, as opposed to a flagship institution, that means you are sacrificing undergraduate research opportunities that can lead to publication. Our research team has documented multiple times that this is not the case at UCM.”

Such experience has not only helped make Scholtz better prepared for the rigors of graduate school, but also helped him build strong connections with faculty who nurtured his interests.

“I couldn’t have asked for better mentors than Professor Zhou and Professor Steinkruger,” Scholtz said. “Being co-advised by both allowed me to explore different sides of the research project, but also allowed me to get a sense of different mentorship styles, as well.”

He continued, “Graduate-level research is all about perseverance when things fail, time management, analyzing data critically, and finding creative ways to investigate a hypothesis. Undergraduate research prepared me for all of these things, mostly through firsthand experience.”

Upon the completion of his Ph.D., Scholtz hopes to join a pharmaceutical company, where he can aid in drug development and discovery. He hopes to someday lead teams doing research related to novel molecules, an area of interest ignited by his UCM undergraduate research experience.

“I have no doubt that UCM was the correct choice for me in choosing an undergraduate institution,” he said. “The opportunities I received there and the chance to interact with faculty on a personal level gave me opportunities that allowed me to achieve my goals.”

Cole Scholtz, a UCM alumnus from Grain Valley, Missouri, who graduated  in 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Minnesota, having benefitted from research experience as an undergraduate.



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