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ASU Online grad sets sights on career in computational biochemical research

Portrait of ASU grad Kevin Sinwelski.

Kevin Sinwelski is about to graduate with a BS in biochemistry from the School of Molecular Sciences as part of ASU’s world-class online degree program. Courtesy photo

November 24, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2023 graduates.

It was during high school that Kevin Sinwelski became interested in medicine. But he wanted to know more than just what it does — he wanted to know how it works.

This December, the Clearwater, Florida, resident will graduate with a BS in biochemistry from the School of Molecular Sciences (SMS) as part of Arizona State University’s world-class online degree program.

Part of Sinwelski's scholarly success is due to the Online Undergraduate Research Scholars (OURS) program, developed by The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and EdPlus at ASU to address the pressing challenge of offering quality research opportunities to ASU Online students. Through the program, he has been working with Assistant Professor Matthias Heyden, and by all accounts is doing a fantastic job.

“For our computational research project, Kevin has quickly automated all processes required to run and analyze simulations of protein complexes,” Heyden said. “In fact, he completed all of his assignments so quickly that it was clear I needed to define more advanced problems for him to work on.”

Sinwelski is currently developing a software tool that simplifies the interpretation of the data generated by the entire group of participating students. What he has done so far has exceeded all of Heyden’s expectations, and he is very curious to see what Sinwelski will do next. 

Sinwelski in turn said, “I am very grateful for the OURS program; I have had some amazing experiences that I thought would not be possible as an online student. I am glad to be part of professor Heyden's group.”

Question:  What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I became incredibly interested in how medicines work while I was in high school. I wanted to know, for example, what insulin does beyond the very general description of lowering blood glucose. I wanted to know what makes a particular string of atoms do what they do and how they do it. My “aha” moment came when I saw that there is a pattern with some medicines and their effect — the structure-activity relationship — and that we can target specific proteins to elicit a desired response. Ever since, I’ve wanted to be on the cutting edge of knowledge in biochemistry; I want to find out more and push the boundaries in terms of how we approach medicine.

Q:  What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I was a writing mentor in 2022 (sort of a TA for first-year composition courses) and had some experiences that changed how I approach working with others. Being in that position exposed me to a lot of unique perspectives in terms of identifying problems in a community and proposing solutions (part of the coursework), which changed my perspective on what successful projects consist of. The experience showed me how to help students convey their point of view without altering it in any way; allowing them to retain agency over their own work is the most important thing in being a writing mentor. Prior to this experience, I may have been more likely to assert my own approach to a project.

Q:  Why did you choose ASU?

A: I initially planned to continue working in the trades full time while earning my BS in biochemistry, so I took advantage of the online program. I then wanted to transfer as an on-campus student for the semester I started, but that was spring 2020 and was not an option at the time. I stayed with the online biochemistry program because it affords me the flexibility to work anywhere. I can visit with family across the country without missing any coursework, and I think that is a very attractive benefit to the online program.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: For the single most important lesson I learned at ASU, I have to give that credit to Dr. McElhoes, who teaches philosophy courses. I took PHI 334 – Philosophy of Mind in fall 2022 as an elective. It was a course that I thought would be an easy and interesting upper division humanities elective. I was wrong about the “easy” part — it was a definite challenge — but it was very interesting and full of considerations that stuck with me. The main lesson I picked up from Dr. McElhoes and the course was how to challenge assumptions and approach contention or debate in a more logically rigorous way. This is a course I would recommend to anyone, regardless of their major.

Q:  What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Make a study schedule. Don’t make one so restrictive that it’s difficult to maintain. A schedule is supposed to make everything easier, not to put you in a position where you have no room for anything else. Dedicate a few hours to studying outside of class and leave the rest of the day open. If you have to move those study hours around, do it, but make sure you’re consistent with the amount of time you study every day.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: There is usually no place better than at my own desk. I have my space set up in a way that I have everything I need to make studying as efficient as possible. If I’m having trouble concentrating at home, my local library has study rooms available that minimize distractions. They’re also great places to take proctored exams if you can get a private room.

Q:  What are your plans after graduation?

A: I hope to get into grad school and start a biochemistry PhD. My long-term goal is to get into research, particularly computational research in biochemistry. I would like to use simulations to develop synthetic enzymes and discover ideal ligands for protein targets. Anything I could do to advance our understanding of biomolecular machinery is work I am looking to get involved in.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: With $40 million, I would hope to address the problem of plastic waste. I would research methods by which plastic waste can be broken down enzymatically and develop methods for the mass production of these enzymes. Modifications to an enzyme called PETase can already do this for some plastics, but I would aim to find methods by which its action can work at lower temperatures and perform degradation faster.

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