Student Spotlight: Matthew Birnbaum

Matthew Birnbaum. Photo provided by Matthew Birnbaum.
Matthew Birnbaum. Photo provided by Matthew Birnbaum.

As a kid, Matthew Birnbaum (EC ’13) wanted to be a wizard. He sought out ancient tomes that could teach how to make cloth impervious to the elements, potions that could turn a man into a pheasant, and staves that could erupt flames from the tip. But in his senior year of college, Birnbaum realized that Emory University does not offer the same majors as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Instead he exchanged a wizard’s robes for a flameproof lab coat, magical staffs for Bunsen burners, and ancient tomes for, well, textbooks. Birnbaum has replaced his quest for that more arcane magic with the modern science of chemistry.

Birnbaum first became excited by chemistry in the course students affectionately call “sophomore orgo.” Before, learning periodic trends was nothing more than an exercise in memorization and understanding hybridization was just mental gymnastics assigned by general chemistry professors to torture freshman pre-meds. Now, the applications became clear as electron affinity explained the strength of leaving groups and chiral centers led to molecules with differing geometries.

Birnbaum approached his professor Simon Blakey and asked what he could do to learn more about chemical synthesis. The next week, Birnbaum found himself in front of a fume hood, assigned to his own research project and learning techniques from the graduate students in Blakey’s lab.

His first research project was the fragment construction for the bottom-up synthesis of functionalized graphene nanoribbons. “I know, it’s a mouthful,” he jests. His goal was to make a graphene nanoribbon, a single layer of graphite with the unique properties of conductivity, flexibility, and transparency. The ribbon could be used in touch screen electronics, solar panels, and electronic-integrated clothing.

During the summer preceding his Junior year, Birnbaum pushed his project by participating in Emory’s undergraduate research programs: Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory (SIRE) and the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE). SIRE awarded Birnbaum a grant to pay for his chemicals while SURE provided a stipend and ethics training. In order to explore all facets of research, he joined the staff of the Emory Undergraduate Research Journal where he served as co-editor in chief with applied math major Emma Accorsi.

Birnbaum went on to represent Emory University in the Creativity in the Arts and Science Event at the University of Florida and the National Conference for Undergraduate Research at Weber State University, Utah. “Research has exposed me to scientific discovery, but I have also befriended other undergraduate scientists from other universities through the Emory summer programs and conferences,” Birnbaum says. His involvement in Emory programs and advocacy led to him being awarded the William Jones Scholarship for outstanding chemistry juniors.

When Birnbaum’s bioorganic professor Dr. Emily Weinert drew the mechanism for the inhibition of a cysteine protease by an epoxide, Birnbaum understood how small molecules manipulate enzyme function. He knew that he had learned the skills necessary to synthesize molecules that influence bodily functions.

In summer 2012, Birnbaum participated in an internship synthesizing small molecules aimed to cure Hepatitis C in Dr. Raymond F. Schinazi’s laboratories. There, he learned how a multidisciplinary laboratory focuses on translational research to discover new medications and treatments.

For his senior year honors thesis, Birnbaum conducted research in the radiology department synthesizing radiolabeled molecules for PET scan probing under the mentorship of Dr. Mark Goodman. This project furthered his education in the applications of chemistry in the realm of medical sciences.

Leg of frog, eye of newt, and spleen of pig has been replaced by benzyl bromide, sodium hydride, and ribose. Birnbaum may not make the polymorph potions of Harry Potter, but at the end of the quest known as undergraduate chemistry, he has learned to brew elixirs for a modern age. Following his 2013 graduation, Birnbaum began a dual MD/PhD degree in order to integrate medicinal chemistry with clinical practice. He says, “Chemistry found me and exposed me to a world I cannot see. Manipulating the invisible to benefit others is something that I had never dreamed could be possible.”