najwa labban presenting research

Research happens here: UR hosts prestigious symposium

August 9, 2022


The last time Najwa Labban was in the Jepson Alumni Center, it was 2019, and she was a senior preparing to graduate. When she returned late last week, it was to present her research on breast cancer as an M.D., Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia — part of the Beckman Symposium hosted on Richmond’s campus.

The daylong symposium included a variety of presentations highlighting research from current scholars and keynote speakers describing their career paths from multiple institutions, including the University of Richmond.

The event was one of seven hosted this summer across the nation. The other locations were large research institutions, including Georgia Tech, MIT, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Caltech, Rutgers, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Labban focused her undergraduate research on the development of biosensors that monitor levels of different chemicals for diagnostic purposes related to potentially life-threatening health concerns like prostate cancer and sepsis. She completed her research with UR chemistry professors Julie Pollock and Mike Leopold.

Labban credits her time at Richmond for her ability to study cancer biology at the graduate level.

“Having come from a rigorous, scientific undergraduate background, I was able to apply my skills well in the graduate setting, even if it was in a different field,” Labban said. “As part of my experience at the University of Richmond, I was able to take ownership of my research projects, secure funding, and see projects through from start to finish. Many of my colleagues as graduate students did not have that same opportunity.” 

Spider senior Harry Dang, another of Leopold’s mentees, also presented his work, which focuses on developing cost-effective and portable sensors used by law enforcement, health professionals, and consumers to screen for explosives, drugs, as well as the presence of disease — and potentially the severity.

The 2022-23 Beckman scholars are Camryn Carter and Helen Xia, who will present at next year’s symposium. Carter is working with chemistry professor Carol Parish on research that focuses on designing drugs to combat COVID-19. Under the mentorship of chemistry professor Wade Downey, Xia’s research focuses on synthetic organic chemistry with indoles, compounds found in many natural products and medicines. Both have published papers on their research within the past year.

“Being selected to host one of the regional symposia is a testament to the high level of outcome-oriented, faculty-mentored, undergraduate research that takes place at the University of Richmond,” said Parish, who oversees the Beckman Scholars program. “On a per-student basis, the research opportunities at UR are on par with larger, research institutions around the country. Our students and alumni were able to share their important work while learning from others at top schools. To have UR included in that mix speaks to the caliber of a Richmond education.” 

Beckman scholars receive $26,000 and work at least 10 hours a week during the academic year and full-time during the summer in a faculty mentor’s laboratory.