Commencement 2023: URI senior heads to Princeton for Ph.D. with help from National Science Foundation

Chemistry major Hailey Hendricks won a prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which will pay for three years of her Ph.D. study at Princeton

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 11, 2023 – Graduating senior Hailey Hendricks’ first college class—and her love of science—came a little earlier than for most people. When Hendricks was just 6 years old, her mom signed up for a community college geology class. Hailey tagged along.

“I was so excited because I was just a little kid in this big college lecture hall,” Hendricks said. “I loved learning about the history of the Earth and the science that goes into it. From that moment I knew that science was what I wanted to do.”

Once she started taking her own college classes at the University of Rhode Island as a chemistry major with a minor in mathematics, she thrived. In addition to her classwork, she’s been involved in laboratory research at URI since her sophomore year. In the fall, she’ll begin a Ph.D. program at Princeton University, backed by a prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which will cover her first three years of tuition.

“The fact that an organization as notable as NSF views me as someone with that much potential is really encouraging,” said Hendricks of Cumberland. “I think we all struggle with imposter syndrome sometimes, but this award really solidified things for me. I can do this; I have earned what I’ve gotten; and I do belong at Princeton.”

In her undergraduate research at URI, Hendricks worked in the lab of Matthew Kiesewetter, an associate professor of chemistry. One of the lab’s projects aims to address the recent mass die-off of honeybees, which play a critical role in pollinating agricultural crops worldwide. One of the prime suspects in the case of the dying honeybees is the varroa destructor, a tiny parasitic mite that has become increasingly resistant to pesticides.

Hendricks has been working with Kiesewetter’s team to design new molecules that might overcome that resistance.

“We’re doing a lot of small molecule synthesis, aiming to modify just one or two functional groups on the molecule,” Hendricks said. “The idea is to create molecules that are similar enough to the original pesticides that they’ll still be toxic, but different enough that the mites won’t be resistant.”

The team worked with entomologists at URI to test their new compounds, and recently began expanding the scope of their efforts to test the effects of their molecules on deer ticks as well.

In graduate school, part of her work will focus on overcoming resistance of a different but related sort: human drug resistance.

It’s been well publicized that many antimicrobial drugs are becoming less effective as microbes evolve resistance. During an internship last summer with the drugmaker Merck, Hendricks worked on the development of new drugs that might be more effective against drug-resistant bacterial strains.

“It involves strategies that are similar to what we used with the pesticides,” Hendricks said. “We synthesize new molecules then do structure-function relationship studies to see if the new molecules are effective and may overcome resistance.”

Hendricks’ internship work became the basis for her successful NSF fellowship application. She says that the opportunities for undergraduate research at URI were key on getting the internship, landing the fellowship, and ultimately getting accepted to Princeton.

“If I hadn’t gotten involved in research as early as I did here at URI, I definitely would not have been able to work at Merck,” she said. “Those internships are very competitive, and you’re expected to come in with a certain level of knowledge. I think the skills I developed working in the research labs here were really important.”

She plans to continue her research in pharmaceutical chemistry as she works toward her Ph.D. And she hasn’t forgotten where it all started—by her mom’s side in a geology class.

“I actually reached out to that professor, just to let her know that even though she might not remember the little 6-year-old in her class, she had a huge impact on my life,” Hendricks said. “And it’s thanks in part to her that I’ll be starting my Ph.D. next year.”