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A Summer to Remember: Student Brittney Racioppo conducts research in Austria

When Brittney Racioppo graduates from Seton Hill in May, she can add a unique experience to her graduate school applications – international researcher. 

Brittney, a senior biochemistry major from Baden, Pa., spent this past summer conducting research at the Institut für Organische Chemie at TU Graz, a university in Styria, Austria, as part of an undergraduate research program. Racioppo spent her time in Professor Rolf Breinbauer's lab synthesizing the building blocks for teraryl alpha-helix mimetics. 

“I was able to apply techniques I learned in our organic chemistry labs to what I was doing in Austria, so that made it easier to transition into their lab setting.”

In layman’s terms, she worked on synthesizing compounds that could potentially inhibit protein-protein interactions and work as a drug to cure diseases, such as various forms of cancer. 

“This experience was an incredible opportunity, as I gained valuable research and cultural experiences,” Racioppo said. “This trip was my first time abroad, so there was an adjustment period when I first arrived in Europe. The culture is very different from that in the United States, almost as if the atmosphere is more relaxed.”

The language barrier was difficult at first too. While most individuals at the university spoke English, members of the local community did not.

“I lived among the locals, so I was able to experience the culture away from the normal touristy areas. We dined at traditional Austrian restaurants and participated in community events, such as concerts. I also spent a few weekends hiking in the mountains of Austria.”

Brittney traveled nearly every weekend to cities such as Budapest, Prague, and Venice, countries including Croatia and Slovenia and throughout Austria.

Racioppo was among six U.S. students who participated in the program from Syracuse University, Meredith College, Claflin University, Le Moyne College, and Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

She felt well-prepared for the experience.

“Seton Hill professors taught me the background knowledge required for success in the lab. For example, I was able to apply techniques I learned in our organic chemistry labs to what I was doing in Austria, so that made it easier to transition into their lab setting,” she said. “I also increased my problem solving skills at Seton Hill, which helped me when I ran into problems, thus giving me greater autonomy within the lab.”

Brittney, who received Honorable Mention recognition in the prestigious Goldwater Scholar program, has earned high praise from Seton Hill faculty.

“Brittney is an outstanding student with an exceptional work ethic. It has been a particular pleasure to watch Brittney grow in her abilities and passion for research over her time at Seton Hill and to see how those experiences have shaped her future career plans,” said Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Jonathan Moerdyk. “Brittney has maximized the opportunities around her through her hard work and passion that she brings into the laboratory and classroom.”

“It is natural for Brittney to understand how to progress in a research project, without being prompted, and to confidently (yet not arrogantly) take the initiative to proceed accordingly, a skill that often takes years of maturity,” said Dr. Jamie Fornsaglio, Associate Professor of Biology. “Brittney’s unique ability to pay close attention to detail in the laboratory and still be extremely efficient is astounding.”

But research wasn’t always at the top of Racioppo’s mind. She entered Seton Hill determined to become a physician, but found the laboratory components of her courses enjoyable. A summer research opportunity at Penn State University in the summer of 2017 only enhanced her change of heart.

Now, she hopes to obtain either a Ph.D. in Chemistry or an M.D./Ph.D. in Biochemistry/Molecular Biology and someday lead a research group at an academic institution or pursue an industry position in pharmaceuticals.

“I realized that I wanted to discover new ideas, rather than treat patients,” she said. “I think my interest in research stems from my natural curiosity and my love of learning new things.”

This story originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2018 Forward Magazine. Find out more about the Natural and Health Sciences at Seton Hill.