Summer of research: PCA grad gets grant, dives into molecules|[07/30/08]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Joshua Rodgers hasn’t spent his summer at the beach or abroad. He’s spent it with a computer.

“I am here to learn, and I have found that learning is something I love to do,” said the 20-year-old Vicksburg native.

Rodgers, a rising junior at Mississippi State University, has been using a $2,000 grant he received to pursue his studies of computational molecule modeling. The funds are administered through the Experiment Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

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“It’s really a blessing. It’s great because it’s something I really like to do,” said the 2006 Porters Chapel Academy salutatorian. “Dr. (Steven) Gwaltney, my boss, told me that I was the first undergraduate he was able to get a grant for.”

Rodgers, a chemical engineering major and member of the university’s honors college and Swalm School of Chemical Engineering, applied for the grant through Gwaltney, an assistant professor of physical chemistry. Gwaltney was out of town this week and unavailable for comment.

To receive the grant, Rodgers wrote a letter outlining his research proposal. He has been required to give regular updates about the project’s progress.

“We create or construct models of small molecules with computers; that’s the first thing we do. For my project, specifically, we use another computer program and try to take a small molecule and make it attach to DNA. The point of it would be that small molecules attach to DNA in the same way to make the HIV virus spread through your blood.”

Essentially, the project’s purpose is to fill in the spot where the HIV virus would attach. It’s called repressing HIV, Rodgers said.

Though computational modeling has been used for years, Rodgers’ experience will be valuable in his career.

“I’m doing something now that my professor hasn’t done. I get to learn the tools of the trade and pass on that knowledge,” he said.

The ultimate application of this research could be its use in drug tests. With computational modeling, drug tests could theoretically test chemicals, cutting error in human drug trials.

Rodgers, the son of Richard and Renee Rodgers, has been interested in chemistry since high school. Chemical engineering and the grant work could lead to medical school, where he is thinking of pursuing medical and philosophy degrees.

Rodgers said about half a dozen other Mississippi State students are recipients of the EPSCoR grant. The Mississippi program is aimed to elevate the state’s technological research competitiveness.

“This summer has given me a little more direction; (a grant) is an option that nobody ever talks about,” Rodgers said.

In addition to his studies at the university, Rodgers is a member of the leadership team at the Baptist Student Union and runs sound equipment at Reform University Fellowship.

In Vicksburg, he is a member of First Methodist Protestant Church.

His research may help people, which, said the Rev. Robert Andrews, the pastor at First Methodist Protestant, is in line with Rodgers’ character.

“Joshua is an amazing individual who has always been willing to help his fellow man,” Andrews said. “His generous spirit has enabled him to impact this world in more ways than I believe he will ever know.”