Graduate Profile: Diondra Dilworth, Building Polymers and Building Community

November 27, 2020

Graduate Profile: Diondra Dilworth, Building Polymers and Building Community

Art by Anasthasia Shilov.

“What really motivates me is being able to spread the joy and the thrill of science,” Diondra Dilworth says. Dilworth is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at Yale, researching how ribosomes can act as catalysts. She is committed to spreading her love of science and creating a supportive scientific community for her peers and students. Dilworth combines her passions for science as a researcher, mentor, and teacher to those around her.

Growing up

Before she began her research career, Dilworth grew up in Las Vegas, NV, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, but, for Dilworth, her home. Having grown up with two younger sisters, Dilworth always filled the role of support and guidance for those around her. Her maternal grandparents, who were both schoolteachers, were two of her biggest inspirations. Their passion for giving back to, teaching, and helping others is a core value that rubbed off on Dilworth, and one that has remained with her through her life.,

In middle school, Dilworth attended a summer camp that tackled the water problems as a result of the desert climate. The program integrated science with everyday problems, and she credits it for helping fuel her interest in science at a young age. Altogether, these experiences have instilled in Dilworth an understanding of the importance that guidance and early exposure to science can have on a person. In addition to such guidance, Dilworth also has had to find confidence in herself at various stages in her life. She believes that this confidence ultimately paves the way for scientists to be able to make strides in their careers.

Coming from a school district that was ranked poorly in the United States, it was attending the prestigious six-week Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in high school that proved to Dilworth that she could stand up against the brightest STEM minds around the country. This experience and resulting confidence catalyzed her to apply to Harvard. The community aspect of STEM, like the one Dilworth experienced at MITES, is integral towards establishing a productive environment, but there are still certain stereotypes that Dilworth believes plague many STEM environments. “The stereotype of male in the media is that of people who are pragmatic and listen to data, and a lot of times the stereotype of women in the media is that they’re emotional, driven by feelings, and irrational,” Dilworth said. From these stereotypes, she believes that people may get the misconception that women aren’t useful and don’t belong as much as men in science. But, Dilworth explains, “You really need to think about the fact that science is not solitary. You don’t do science alone, and there’s a reason they call it the scientific community.” In fact, women who have strength in interpersonal relationships are crucial to bolstering communities, and the scientific community is no exception. She strongly believes collaboration is key and being able to communicate with one another is what opens the door for exciting breakthroughs and discoveries.

Academic Work

Once Dilworth arrived at Harvard, she discovered her interest in organic chemistry, and explored it in many research labs throughout the country. During the summer after her first year, Dilworth worked in an analytical chemistry lab at the University of Notre Dame with Matthew Champion and Michael Elwell, investigating low-cost solutions for a clinic in Kenya. One project she worked on was a bike-powered centrifuge, a machine with a rapidly rotating container which typically separates substances. With her background in analytical chemistry, Dilworth considered approaching problems with organic chemistry, which led her to join a summer program at the University of California, San Francisco in Ian Sieple’s research group the following year. Seiple was Dilworth’s first direct mentor in organic chemistry, and her experience in his lab inspired her to continue to pursue the study of organic molecules.  In the following years, Dilworth joined Matthew Shair’s group at Harvard, which focuses on small molecules and chemical biology to study human diseases and develop treatments, and, the summer before formally beginning her graduate studies at Yale, Dilworth would work with Alanna Schepartz, formerly at Yale, continuing her investigation of organic molecules in a chemical biology setting. 

Dilworth is now a third-year PhD candidate supervised by Scott Miller in the Department of Chemistry, and a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Her research focuses on other uses for the ribosome outside of protein synthesis, a project within the multi-institutional NSF Center for Genetically Encoded Materials. Proteins are polymers, a molecular structure consisting of similar units bonded together. Three types of RNAs work together to build proteins: messenger RNA (mRNA), transfer RNA (tRNA), and ribosomal RNA or ribosomes. The mRNA is a single stranded molecule that corresponds to the DNA. It serves as the code for the protein. The tRNA brings amino acids, the subunits of proteins, to the ribosome—the site of synthesis. Ribosomes have three parts, called the A, P and E sites. First, a tRNA comes in at the A-site. Then a peptide bond is catalyzed at the P-site. Finally, the tRNA is released at the E site. This process is also known as the peptide bond formation. The three types of RNAs work together to form proteins.

Dilworth focuses on ribosomes and how they catalyze the bond formation between the amino acids. “The idea is, if you can bring in another source of monomers—things that aren’t amino acids—could you then have the ribosome facilitate other types of transformations?” Dilworth said. Such a question begs more considerations: the types of monomers suitable for tRNA, potential reactions that can happen within the ribosomes, if there is space for these reactions within the ribosome, or what types of reactions can happen in biological or aqueous conditions. 

Dilworth’s research has far-reaching applications, from medicine to material science. In medicine, Dilworth’s methods could help catalyze the formation of biologically active molecules such as polyketides, which contain alternating carbonyl and methylene groups. Polyketides have proven to be promising antibiotic candidates, but remain challenging to synthetize from scratch using conventional synthetic routes. Dilworth’s method explores a new way of producing this class of medicine.  Her research could also impact material science. If ribosomes can help catalyze polymer formation within a living cell, then they would be an environmentally friendly way of synthesizing materials and medicine as they use less resources than traditional methods of polymer formation.

Community

One of Dilworth’s main focuses outside of research is to spread her love of science. She works as an avid coordinator within Yale’s Pathways to Science, a program for middle and high school students that supports exploration of science, technology, engineering, and math. Additionally, she currently works with Yale OpenLabs to hold Exploring Science, an online weekly event that brings in middle school students to listen to Yale scientists talk about their research and pathways to science. To date, over 500 students in the Greater New Haven community have tuned in to the program. “One of the parents sent us a picture of her daughter, saying how much she enjoyed the session, and it made my morning,” Dilworth said.

She was also a former teaching assistant for CHEM 174: First-Year Organic Chemistry at Yale, where her famous study guides have inspired prospective scientists to pursue careers in research. “I know what I’m doing is really cool, and it’s really cool to pay it forward,” Dilworth said. 

However, as exemplified in Dilworth’s own experience, not every place is plagued by those stereotypes. The demographics in the Miller Lab, in which there are currently more women graduate students than men, give her hope. Seeing that reality in day to day life encourages her and shows her how there is a place for women to excel in STEM, unequivocally falsifying the stereotypes. What’s important now, Dilworth explained, is “having that balance becomes a standard and not an anomaly.” 

Even after accomplishing so much already, there is much to come from Dilworth. She is excited about the future, her research, and how she can continue to be a positive impact on others. Throughout her career, she has stayed true to recognizing the importance of having self-confidence, building a collaborative community, and remembering to help others, all of which are characteristics she plans to continue to carry with her along her scientific journey.

About the Author

Jenny is a sophomore in Saybrook majoring in Chemistry. She is from northern Virginia just outside of Washington D.C. Outside of school, she likes baking and listening to music.

Rayyan is a freshman in Grace Hopper from Tallahassee, Florida. Outside of school, he enjoys watching and playing a variety of sports and trying new ethnic foods.

Acknowledgments

We want to thank Diondra for taking the time to talk to us about her experiences and insights about the STEM community.

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