Chemistry student, mentor win American Chemical Society undergraduate research award

By Cody Boteler on November 17, 2020

National organization recognizes Pierce Brown’s excellence in the lab

Mary Devadas teaching in a classroom
Mary Devadas teaching in a classroom. Photo from 2019.

Towson University’s Pierce Brown ‘20 and assistant professor Mary Devadas won recognition from the American Chemical Society (ACS), the largest professional organization for chemists, for their research on nanoparticles used to deliver cancer drugs.

Undergraduate research at TU is a major source of pride. There were more than 100 research projects at TU during the 2019–20 academic year that involved undergraduate students, according to data from the Office of the Provost, with more than 200 undergraduate students participating in research.

Towson University celebrates undergraduate research and creative inquiry each year with an annual forum. Earlier this year, it moved online for the first time. 

The ongoing research of Brown and Devadas concerns the synthesis of nanoparticles—made out of gold atoms—that drugs and antibodies can attach to for targeted drug delivery. Brown gives the example of cancer drugs being delivered directly to tumors, rather than through chemotherapy that attacks the entire body. That cancer cell work is done in Elana Ehrlich's lab, Devadas says.

For Brown, this is personal. He lost two family members to breast cancer when he was younger, and since then, has felt a strong desire to pursue medicine.

“Those experiences pushed me to want to become a doctor and be there for my patients in a way that I couldn’t be for my family,” he says. 

“It’s one way for me to fight back.”

The 2020 ACS Division of Inorganic Chemistry Award for Undergraduate Research was awarded in three areas; Brown and Devadas won the Primarily Undergraduate Institution category. 

Brown says he’s still “kind of speechless” at having won the award and is especially glad that it recognized Devadas’ mentorship.

“It is a team award,” Brown says. “I wouldn’t be anywhere without her guidance. I’m really happy that it showcases how well she works as a mentor.”

Pierce Brown
Pierce Brown, '20

The ACS award comes with a $1,000 prize for Brown and a plaque for permanent display at Towson University. Devadas and Brown are also eligible for travel expense reimbursement for the fall 2021 National ACS Meeting in Atlanta, where Brown will give remarks on the topic of undergraduate research. 

Ryan Casey, chair of the Department of Chemistry, says the award “recognizes that the ambitious scope of undergraduate research undertaken by students and faculty [in the department] stands out at a national level.”

Devadas calls Brown, who has worked in her lab since his freshman year, an exemplary student.

“Pierce has excellent scientific skills and a great work ethic,” Devadas says. “He very quickly became independent in the lab and has trained many other junior colleagues on critical experimental methods in my research program.” 

Devadas has even nicknamed Brown as “The Closer,” because he has helped complete two peer-reviewed papers, “completing important tasks to take these projects to the next level.”  

This award is not Brown’s first recognition for his undergraduate research. He’s the co-author on two peer-reviewed articles, in Materials Research Society Communications and International Journal of Pharmaceutics.

Towson University has focused on creating opportunities for undergraduate research and other academic and creative inquiry. Students at TU who have participated in undergraduate research consistently rate those experiences as the most valuable of their college career.

“The value of undergraduate research experiences can’t be overstated. First, hands-on research has a huge positive impact on student engagement and student learning. Second, research projects that lead to a professional presentation or journal article provide a student with a mark of distinction,” says David Vanko, dean of the Fisher College of Science & Mathematics. 

TU undergraduates have had their artwork featured at presidential debates and won prestigious awards like the Goldwater Scholarship, granted to undergraduate students with a promising future in research. 

This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel’s priorities for Towson University: TU Matters to Maryland.