Academic, athletic accolades pile up for URI student preparing to graduate May 23

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North Easton, Mass. resident headed to Kentucky for Ph.D.

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 10, 2010 – As Matt Burak prepares to graduate from the University of Rhode Island on May 23, he’ll be packing up a number of honors and awards. Most recently, he was presented the Rainville Leadership Award, the top award for student leaders on campus.

A resident of North Easton, Mass., Burak enrolled at URI because of its unique program that merges chemical engineering with biology.

“I’ve always been interested in chemistry and biology, partly because my grandparents came down with Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease and I wanted to help find a cure,” he said. “And my grandfather and father are both engineers, so I wanted to keep that tradition alive, too.”

But it wasn’t just academics that lured him to URI. He was also recruited to compete on the swim team. Although the University dropped varsity swimming mid-way through Burak’s career, he worked to ensure that the team remained active as a club sport. It was for those efforts that he was rewarded with the Rainville Leadership Award.

“It was a big transition for the guys to move from a Division I team to a club team, and I helped make that transition possible,” he explained. “Swimming was such a big part of our lives, and we didn’t want to see it go. We worked together to make that happen.”

His efforts were rewarded in the pool, too. Burak led the URI swim team to set five national records for club teams – the 200 and 400 meter freestyle relays, the 200 meter medley relay, the 100 meter individual freestyle and the 50 meter individual freestyle. During his sophomore year he was also recognized as the smartest male athlete at URI for having earned the highest grade point average among all male athletes on campus.

“Swimming helped me prioritize my time,” he said. “Without it, I’d probably have gone crazy. It’s important that I had both swimming and studying in my life.”

But those weren’t Burak’s only commitments. He also worked on a microbial fuel cell research project that was designed to use microorganisms to break down pharmaceutical waste products.

“In the last couple of decades, there has been an increasing amount of pharmaceuticals turning up in ponds and reservoirs – especially heart disease drugs – and we don’t want them getting into our drinking water,” Burak said. “We proposed using a fuel cell in a reservoir that will help remove these harmful drugs from the water supply. It may also be useful in the manufacturing process to clean out byproducts.”

Last summer Burak worked for Millenium Pharmaceuticals to optimize the process of making cancer drugs and reduce the manufacturing time. “I heard all sorts of great stories about how people are surviving cancer using their drugs, and it really touched me and spurred me on to want to go into the pharmaceutical field.”

Burak’s next step is to enroll in a doctoral program at the University of Kentucky where he will study drug delivery systems for cancer therapy, with the eventual goal of conducting his own research on new cancer drugs and possibly teaching at the college level.

URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography.