Grand Challenges Scholar

Anca Frasineanu revels in the challenges of science

February 27, 2022

Anca Frasineanu in the lab
Anca Frasineanu is eager to build on her experiences at the University to pursue a PhD in molecular biology or genetics.

University of Rochester provides her multiple research experiences 

Class year: 2022
Majors: Molecular Genetics, Chemistry
Challenge: Engineering the Tools for Scientific Discovery

Anca Frasineanu ’22 says she is drawn to science because of its “infinite possibilities, and how much we still have to learn.” 

The dual major in molecular genetics and chemistry has made the most of her opportunities at the University of Rochester to explore those possibilities--and refine her career plan to seek gene-based therapies for neurodegenerative diseases.

Frasineanu, who is from Romania, has worked as an undergraduate research assistant in two cutting edge laboratories, one exploring novel means of synthetic chemistry, the other shedding light on the secrets of the aging process. 

During a two-month STEM-Away internship last summer, Frasineanu learned about bioinformatics, Parkinson’s disease, and gained new coding experience.

And this past summer she was the science manager for the University’s award-winning iGEM team, which designed a noninvasive device to detect sepsis from human sweat in a competition with other student teams from around the globe.

Participation in the iGEM project enabled Frasineanu to qualify as a Grand Challenges Scholar. The program invites students to tackle one of 12 grand challenges of the 21st century identified by the National Academy of Engineering. They must demonstrate competencies in not only research, but interdisciplinary study, global experience, entrepreneurship, and community service. 

The reflection she recently prepared to sum up her participation in the program was especially useful, Frasineanu says. 

“Thinking about the iGEM experience, and what I learned from it, helped me grow as a scientist, and understand the challenges that we are facing in the world, and how we can apply science to solve them,” Frasineanu says.

An early passion for mathematics, chemistry

Frasineanu grew up in Bucharest, the Romanian capital. At an early age she aspired to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a doctor. Her father, who works in Romania’s Foreign Ministry, and her older brother helped instill in her a love for mathematics.

As early as second grade, participation in math competitions vied with dance lessons, swimming, and skiing as her favorite activities.

“And then in seventh grade, I discovered chemistry, which was kind of my own thing,” Frasineanu says. “I no longer wanted to become a doctor so much.”

The International Computer High School she attended in Bucharest was a perfect place to pursue her passion for math and chemistry. She worked with the same math and chemistry teachers for several years, with the same tight knit groups of fellow students. “It was a great environment,” Frasineanu says, “because we helped each other grow.”

She continued to participate in national and international student competitions. From 2013 to 2018, for example, she finished as high as third, and always in the top 20 among the 500 students who compete in Romania’s annual National Chemistry Olympiad.

Her older brother helped Frasineanu fulfill her goal of pursuing an undergraduate education in the United States. He put her in touch with his high school advisor. The advisor told Frasineanu about a Romanian student already at the University of Rochester.

“She emphasized the ability to work at the Medical School and that I would have so many research opportunities here,” Frasineanu says. The more she learned about the University, the more she liked, especially the “very open curriculum.” Rather than requiring courses that are mandatory for all students, the University instead allows students to pick two “clusters” of courses outside of their majors, in areas of their own choosing.

“So, I am doing a cluster in psychology, which I really like, and another in dance, which is something that I have loved since I was a kid, in addition to my double majors in chemistry and genetics, and a minor in mathematics,” Frasineanu says. “Having that open curriculum gave me the flexibility to continue all of my passions.”

She is also president of S.A.L.S.E.R.O.S., a student chapter devoted to performing and teaching Latin American dance, and has sung and danced with Off Broadway, On Campus, a student theater revue group.

Lab experiences provide building blocks for the future

Frasineanu’s research opportunities with Allison Frontier, professor of chemistry, and Vera Gorbunova, the Doris Johns Cherry Professor of Biology and co-director of the Rochester Aging Research Center, have been particularly instructive.

Frontier’s lab studies novel pericyclic reactions, cationic rearrangements, stereoselective cyclization cascades, and their application to complex molecule synthesis. Frasineanu’s project involved synthesizing different compounds with specific stereochemistry (a three-dimensional arrangement of atoms and molecules) using reactions that had been developed by the lab.

“I was testing different substrates, to see what would result and what stereochemistry the products would have,” Frasineanu says. “I liked it. The chemistry was similar to what I did in high school, but it exposed me to even more organic chemistry.”

However, Frasineanu also wanted to work with live cells and tissues to further her interest in genetics research. Despite the disruptions caused by COVID-19, she was accepted into the Gorbunova-Seluanov Lab in the summer of 2020 and has been working there since. 

“I’ve been working with mice tissues, looking at what gives a specific genotype of mice high resistance to irradiation, to help understand what pathway is significant in giving them a longer lifespan and health span phenotype,” she says.

Frasineanu’s experience this past summer with the iGEM team was an altogether different but exciting experience, she says. As science manager for the 12-member, multidisciplinary team of undergraduates, she was in charge of organizing the wetlab part of the project, and also participated in the modeling, policy & practice, and outreach & education sub-teams.

“The independence we had from the very beginning and the struggle of finding the best protocols for our experiments are my favorite part of iGEM, as well as working with a highly motivated group of students.” Frasineanu says.

“It taught me what to be a scientist actually is like. In addition, we were able to choose our own design and follow it all the way through, all in a very short time. So, we had to be adaptable. It taught us a lot about how to solve challenges as well.”

She is applying to graduate schools, eager to build on her experiences at the University to pursue a PhD in molecular biology or genetics.

“I would like to explore stem cell differentiation with respect to neural development, but also epigenetic drift and how that is involved in disease, and understand protein aggregation. In the future, I want to potentially work in synthetic biology on novel immunotherapies for aging-related neurodegenerative diseases.”

It seems a perfect field for a young scientist of Frasineanu’s caliber. The possibilities are infinite, and there is still so much to learn.

 See Frasineanu's poster describing her research and how she fulflled the GCS competencies.