Lumen Scholar focuses research on solution for antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Nick Ciolkowski ’19 is among the recipients of the Lumen Prize, which provides selected students with a scholarship and celebrates their academic and creative accomplishments.

By Sonya Walker ‘20

A challenge health care professionals face in the use of antibiotics to fight bacteria is that the organisms can continually evolve, with some eventually becoming resistant to antibiotics that had previously been effective.

That challenge has been at the center of research during the past two years by Nick Ciolkowski, an Elon senior and Lumen Scholar. A biochemistry major, Ciolkowski has focused on using the element vanadium to synthesize new antibiotics that can overcome organisms that have become resistant to conventional antibiotics.

As a recipient of the Lumen Prize, Ciolkowski received a $15,000 scholarship to support his research. A new cohort of Lumen Scholars is selected each spring, with the Lumen Prize now carrying with it a $20,000 scholarship. Lumen Scholars map out their vision for individual research projects in their sophomore year and work closely with Elon faculty mentors to make their research ideas a reality during their junior and senior year.

His project is titled “Synthesis, Characterization, and Bioactivity of Vanadium Based Phosphonate Antibiotic Analogues” and is mentored by Assistant Professor of Chemistry and A. L. Hook Professor of Science and Mathematics Jen Dabrowski, an inorganic chemist. Ciolkowski developed a project that would synthesize a vanadium-based version of the antibiotic fosmidomycin and then evaluate how well it could overcome bacteria. The goal was to retain the bioactivity of the antibiotic while counteracting the bacteria’s resistance to the antibiotic.

“His idea was let’s take antibiotics that are known and why don’t we just combine that with some of the fundamental reactivity of these metals,” Dabrowski said. “And we chose vanadium.”

Ciolkowski’s first year of research was primarily based on synthesizing information. The project then shifted to testing the effectiveness of the vanadium-based antibiotics he had developed compared to normal antibiotics when they were used against a variety of organisms.

“We got some tentatively promising results,” Ciolkowsi said. “A couple [tests] actually worked and a couple lost all activity whatsoever, which is interesting in its own right. But those worked against regular sensitive organisms and then once we threw them against resistant organisms, there was no activity.”

Though some of the testing didn’t work out the way Ciolkowski had hoped, he says that that is how science goes. For Ciolkowski, the process and discovery of shortcomings have been important in his research. “I think the process of working through all the holes that I had originally was valuable for me and hopefully it will be valuable in some kind of paper that I’m hoping to publish later,” he said.

Dabrowski said their research has proved that they can take metals, couple of them with antibiotics and still get bacteria that die. It’s laid the groundwork for further study in the future, perhaps at a larger research-based university. She notes that the Lumen Prize has been vital to moving Ciolkowski’s research forward.

“His project has really evolved as he has evolved,” Dabrowski said. “I think that that’s a tribute to him, but I think also attributed to how the Lumen Prize is structured. It gives him that opportunity to take those risks, challenge themselves in different ways.”

In addition to his success in the classroom and lab, Ciolkowski was a four-time All-CAA runner and two-time league individual champion for the Elon University men’s cross country team. During his freshman and sophomore campaigns, he captured the individual CAA men’s cross country championship, becoming the first two-time individual champion in school history at the Division I level. He was named the CAA Men’s Cross Country Runner of the Year in both of those seasons, was the Elon Athletics’ Male Basnight award recipient and received the CAA Men’s Cross Country Rookie of the Year award. He continued to earn All-CAA honors during his junior and senior seasons, capping off his senior season this past fall by breaking the school record in the men’s 8K.

Academically, he earned the CAA Cross Country Scholar-Athlete of the Year award in 2016 and received a CoSIDA Academic All-District accolade that same year.

In the fall, Ciolkowski is headed to the University of California-Berkeley to continue research and pursue his dream of working in higher education. He hopes to one day become a professor.