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Mattia Pizzagalli, a Boston College junior majoring in biochemistry, has earned a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which is considered the nation’s premier undergraduate award in the sciences.
Pizzagalli is one of 240 students selected from among 1,286 nominees for the awards, which are presented on the basis of academic merit to the country’s most promising students in math, science, and engineering, according to the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation. Many past Goldwater Scholars have gone on to earn prestigious post-graduate fellowships, including Rhodes, Marshall and Churchill scholarships.
“There are so many other extremely qualified students who apply for this award that I am honored and humbled to receive it,” said Pizzagalli. “I was pretty-much frozen for a few hours after I found out.”
Following his graduation in 2018, Pizzagalli plans to pursue a dual M.D./Ph.D. in cancer biology.
“Ever since my high school science classes, I’ve known I wanted to become a doctor,” he said. “I love the idea of being able to connect with people and help them not only in a clinical setting, but in the long-term through research.”
For the past two years, Pizzagalli has been an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Associate Professor of Chemistry Eranthie Weerapana, where he studies cysteine-containing proteins as part of the lab’s research into cancer and age-related diseases.
“Mattia is one of the most talented and mature undergraduates to have worked in my lab,” said Weerapana. “I am thrilled that his impressive achievements in both the lab and classroom have been recognized in the form of a prestigious Goldwater Scholar Award. He is highly deserving of this honor and I look forward to his continued successes in the future.”
In addition to his biochemistry studies, Pizzagalli is part of BC’s Pre-Med Program. Born in Switzerland and fluent in German, he also is pursuing a German Studies minor.
A member of the Alpha Sigma Nu national honor Society, Pizzagalli has worked with Boston College EMS, serving as a campus EMT and on the student group’s leadership team, and volunteers in the Advanced Heart Failure Unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
In the Weerapana lab, Pizzagalli has studied the mitochondria of cysteine-containing proteins in an effort to profile cellular sites that could eventually be targets for therapeutic solutions. He’s currently participating in research into the cross-development of cancer, seeking clues to the role of cysteine-mediated enzymes in the development of breast cancer.
“Both Professor Weerapana and (post-doctoral researcher) Dan Bak have encouraged me to read my own literature, explore the field. and come to them with new ideas,” Pizzagalli said. “It has really fueled a passion for research because I feel like I am making a contribution to the work of the lab.”
He added, “both have been instrumental mentors to me. They have supported me every step of the way.”
Pizzagalli co-authored, with Weerapana and Bak, a paper in the journal ACS Chemical Biology. He also reported on his research at BC’s Undergraduate Research poster sessions in 2015 and 2016.
Bak said he’s been impressed by Pizzagalli’s passion for scientific research and grasp of complex scientific concepts and technical skills.
“His work has been invaluable in helping us to understand the role of reactive cysteine residues in the mitochondria, and he continues to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge, examining the connection between mitochondrial biology and cancer progression,” said Bak. “Mattia has the ability and drive to tackle and solve complex biological problems within the biomedical field, and I have absolutely no doubt that Mattia has a bright and successful future ahead of him.”
In addition to Weerapana, Pizzagalli credited the support of Visiting Professor of Chemistry Neil Wolfman, Assistant Professor of Biology Laura Anne Lowery, and Professor of Chemistry Mary Roberts, who assisted him in the fellowship application process.
Pizzagalli, the son of Diego Pizzagalli and Michele Candrian, resides in Winchester, Mass., and is a 2013 graduate of Winchester High School.