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NMSU chemistry student wins national, first prize award for chemistry

A New Mexico State University undergraduate student has received the 2011 McKnight Prize. The award is for her work with an NMSU professor to create a synthetic molecule that might advance new therapies and treatment for both cancer and neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.

Emily Johnson, a biology and chemistry double major at New Mexico State University, has been awarded the Sara and Frank McKnight award for her poster presentation, 'Synthesis and Absolute Configuration of Palmyrolide A Aldehyde.' (Courtesy photo)

Emily Johnson, a senior, with a double major in chemistry and biology, won the Sara and Frank McKnight award for her poster presentation, "Synthesis and Absolute Configuration of Palmyrolide A Aldehyde." The award includes a $2,000 stipend. She was one of five finalists selected from 150 students nationwide based on their advanced chemistry research, grades and recommendation letters from their mentors.

"The McKnight Award is nationally recognized, and the fact that Emily claimed first prize for chemistry based on our research really speaks volumes about the importance of the work, and the intensity of research Emily is responsible for as an undergraduate," said William Maio, the NMSU chemistry and biochemistry assistant professor who worked with Johnson.

"We are thrilled that she has received this national recognition for her work in Dr. Maio's laboratory," said Ralph Preszler, an associate professor of biology and the program director of NMSU-HHMI. "She is a great example of the wonderful things that can be accomplished when our teaching and research missions are brought together to provide undergraduate's the opportunity to conduct science."

Johnson, part of a student research team working with Maio to create synthetic versions of molecules that could be modified for human needs, presented her poster at the annual McKnight Biochemistry Retreat held Nov. 4-6 in New Braunfels, Texas.

"It will be an excellent addition to my CV for when I apply to veterinary or graduate school," Johnson, said. "It is an award like this that also leads to fellowships at schools with outstanding and advanced research programs."

Johnson, who began her research in September 2010, has been accepted into the UT Southwestern SURF program for summer 2012, where she will be researching natural product isolation.

"It will be a little different than what she's used to, but I am certain she will do very well," Maio said. "Emily's career is off to a great start and I'm expecting great things from her."