John Vant ’18 would be the first to admit that his decision to attend Eastern Washington University had very little to do with academics. The Montana native, now 26, says he enrolled at Eastern mostly because the university’s rec center had an ice rink. “I played on the club hockey team, and was its president for three years,” he says.

John Vant 18′, a Montana native, is currently working toward a doctorate in biochemistry at ASU.

Hockey helped Vant make new friends and immerse himself in the university community. But it didn’t take long for the gifted undergraduate to be crossed-checked by a passion that transcended the puck: research in biochemistry.

“I knew I always wanted to be somewhere in science, but I had no intentions of becoming a researcher,” he says. “When I started taking my chemistry courses, however, I discovered I had a knack for it and that I really enjoyed it.”

Now a standout doctoral student in biochemistry at Arizona State University, Vant was recently awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. The prestigious program will allow him to continue working with some of the world’s top biochemical experts—work that could lay the groundwork for a vaccine against COVID-19.

Good Chemistry

Once committed to chemistry studies at Eastern, Vant says he quickly found himself working side-by-side with faculty members who were building spectroscopy instrumentation and experimenting with novel methods of using them. Spectroscopy allows researchers to investigate the composition and physical structure of matter at the atomic or molecular scale. Vant says the one-on-one time exploring spectroscopy with his professors was invaluable to his progress as a young researcher.

“The thing that sets Eastern apart from other schools is its size and focus on teaching students,” says Vant. “While I was there, I got to really get to know my professors and my advisors on a personal level—and that was really cool. By the time I left, I personally knew every single chemistry professor in the department. You wouldn’t get that at a lot of big universities.”

One of those professors was Anthony Masiello, PhD, an associate professor in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at Eastern. “When I met John, he was an excellent student, not only in regards to the grades he was able to achieve but also his work ethic and habits,” Masiello says. “He embraced the idea that classes are not hurdles to get through but rather are designed to impart knowledge and concepts that can be used to solve large-scale problems outside the scope of a single class.”

Vant worked with Masiello on several projects at EWU, and joined him at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington during the summer of 2018.

“John approached me about doing work with PNNL through the Visiting Faculty Program,” Masiello says, emphasizing Vant’s eagerness to participate in the project even after his EWU graduation. “Through that program, I was able to obtain copious amounts of data that other students will be able to analyze as part of their research projects.”

The pair conducted high-resolution infrared spectroscopy experiments on the ozone-depleting substance bromomethane and its isotopes. Their work, Vant says, will provide atmospheric scientists with better models to determine the concentration of bromomethane in the atmosphere.

“It was a cool experience doing research at the National Laboratory,” adds Vant. “As part of the deal, I got to tour the world’s first large-scale nuclear reactor—cool things happening there.”

Standout Scholar and Citizen

At Eastern, Vant wasn’t just earning recognition in the classroom and laboratory. During his senior year, for example, he earned the Frances B. Huston Medallion, an award which recognizes both academic performance and community outreach.

Vant, on the far right, served as president of the EWU Hockey Club for three years.

“While I was president of the club hockey team, I helped start a lot of charitable events, including events for Relay for Life and food drives,” says Vant. “I was also involved in a lot of teaching and activities around the chemistry department. And I was able to do volunteer work in after school programs at Cheney High School.”

Vant’s community service and dedication in the chemistry lab also helped him earn the Daniel and Margaret Carper Foundation Scholarship, a full-tuition award for his final year at EWU. The Carper scholarship is awarded to senior undergraduate students intending to go on to graduate school, preferably a doctoral program.

“It’s a rather big award, it’s meant to get you a start-up fund for grad school,” Vant says. “That was a big help!”

He says the scholarship allowed him to focus on his studies and research, rather than having to work a separate job to pay his tuition. Vant says the extra time was especially helpful when it came time to complete applications to highly competitive graduate schools.

“I definitely did, and still do, feel honored by the award,” he says. “It was very impactful to me and allowed me to get to graduate school. My academic performance and the quality of my applications would have suffered had I not had that comfort that was provided to me by the Carper Foundation.”

Vant (far right) and his team display an image of the largest molecular dynamics simulation to date: a purple bacterium’s chromatophore composed of > 350 M atoms.

Today, Vant is working toward a PhD in chemistry and biochemistry at ASU’s School of Molecular Sciences. His research involves molecular dynamics, a method that involves using computers to simulate the motion of atoms in biological molecules—in Vant’s case protein molecules—thus extracting useful information about their function and activity.

“A lot of my science is focused on bio-energy,” he says, “but it’s not too much of a stretch for me to solve problems related to human health.”

Human health is exactly what Vant has been up to this spring and summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In collaboration with the Mayo Clinic, the graduate researcher is involved in a project to help find drug candidates to fight the virus.

“What I’m doing is developing a model for one of the proteins that SARS-COV-2 (the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19) uses to hijack a cell,” he says.

Vant is using a model built from a molecule that is slightly different from, but very similar to, the SARS-COV-2 “envelope proteins” that are crucial in preserving the virus’s genetic material as it travels between hosts. By disrupting the envelop protein, the thinking goes, researchers could interrupt transmission.

“What you’re doing is you’re stopping one of the functions of the virus, and without this function the virus can’t do it’s normal virus things of invading cells and replicating itself,” Vant explains. “If we can create this kind of half-dead virus, it can be used to create a vaccine.”

The team expects to submit its protein model for subsequent drug testing this summer.

Limitless Research Opportunities

As Vant prepares to advance into his final years of graduate school, he still finds time for his first passion. He says the men’s league hockey team in Tempe, Arizona is just the escape he needs some days. “It is a great way to take my mind off of the stresses associated with PhD life,” Vant says.

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship also helps ease stress levels, because, as Vant explains, it essentially funds the remainder of his doctoral program.

Vant at the top of Angels Landing at Zion Canyon National Park in southwestern Utah.

“Typically, as a graduate student in STEM, you’re paid either as a research assistant, which means that you are the research assistant to your advisor and you work for them, or you’re a teaching assistant,” says Vant. “What the NSF scholarship means is that I am self-funded. Obviously, I will still work very closely with my research advisor, but this gives me a lot of latitude there and also frees up funds for our lab in general.”

Those aren’t the only perks. The fellowship includes a travel stipend that will allow Vant to visit researchers around the country and even internationally. Through the NSF’s Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide program, Vant intends to spend his final year before earning his doctorate collaborating with world renowned scientist Frank Noé, who studies computational molecular biology in Berlin.

“He’s from the leading edge of this type of modeling that I’m very interested in,” says Vant. “That would be a really cool experience for a kid who is slowly roaming further away from Montana.”

Masiello is not at all surprised by Vant’s successes in graduate school, and calls him a great ambassador for Eastern.

“I’m obviously very happy for him. It also reflects well on EWU that we can help produce students of this caliber,” says Masiello. “I knew that John would do well in graduate school because of his focus and behavior, and now he is living up to his potential. It will be exciting to see where he ends up.”

When Vant completes his doctoral studies and his post-doctoral work, he says he aspires to become a scientist in one of the nation’s 17 national laboratories, federally funded centers that are among the country’s top scientific research facilities. No matter where his career takes him, Vant says he’ll always appreciate the hands-on education he received from Eastern and the scholarship donors who helped him succeed.

“[The scholarship] gave me the financial comfort and it also gave me a lot of confidence as well to move forward knowing that I was well suited for this type of work,” he says. “Even now, when I’m going through a rough time and things aren’t working out, I can think back and remember that people believed in me back then.”

Scholarships and undergraduate research opportunities are critical to helping high-achieving students like John Vant pursue life-changing careers. If you are interested in learning more about the many ways to support student success at Eastern, please visit the Giving to EWU website.