Doctoral student Sondrica Goines, recipient of 2 national awards in 2020, combines biology and nanochemistry in study of micropollutant

By Deb Saine, The Graduate School 

August 24, 2020

Carolina’s global leadership in research relies on the collaborative work of faculty and graduate students. Close to 30% of the total enrollment at UNC-Chapel Hill, graduate students make research contributions in many academic fields — from medicine to musicology and beyond. In an ongoing series, The Graduate School is featuring content, in a variety of forms, highlighting graduate student work in advancing discovery.

As an undergraduate student at the College of Charleston, Sondrica Goines knew she wanted to conduct scientific research. She started small – as in nanoparticle small. Through the mentorship of assistant chemistry professor Katherine Mullaugh, Goines investigated exceedingly minute particles found in household products, called silver nanoparticles, that sometimes make their way into natural water sources.

Goines, as an undergraduate student, presented her research findings, received Howard Hughes Medical Institute funding support and participated in a National Science Foundation-funded research experience at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She knew she wanted to continue her work at the intersection of biology and nanochemistry, and she found that place in the laboratory of Jeffrey Dick, assistant professor of chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Goines is now a doctoral student in chemistry and a member of a research group that studies perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are found in household and industrial products. PFAS have been linked to cancer, reproductive issues and other health concerns, and they have been detected in North Carolina’s waterways. Dick’s laboratory is pursuing multiple objectives related to PFAS: identifying quicker ways to detect their presence in water, learning how to extract them from natural environments and destroy them, and determining their effect on human health.

Goines’s research focus is to examine the ways in which PFAS molecules might harm human health at the single-cell level.

“They are a very persistent class of micropollutants,” Goines says. “If we can understand them at the single-cell level, we can better understand disease progression due to these pollutants.”

Goines is working with cell samples that can be 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, Dick says. Sensitive equipment is required to study cells, and Dick and Goines have developed a microscope system capable of obtaining electrochemical and optical data simultaneously. Using this system, Goines is able to place a nanoelectrode into a cell with minimal destruction to the sample to measure cell reactivity over time.

Goines has earned national recognition for her research achievements. This year, she received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the Winifred Burks-Houck Graduate Leadership Award from the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers.

“Sondrica has a very, very thoughtful ability to look at a problem in a deep way, understand there’s a lot of work to be done to get it to a certain point but also understand how significant the work is and the impact that it will have on humanity,” Dick says.

Carolina Graduate Research Spotlight - The Graduate School UNCGoines, a student mentor since her College of Charleston years, wants prospective graduate students to understand something particularly significant about STEM research: it’s difficult and “you can do it, too.”

Within her podcast, Curly Headed Chemist, she focuses on networking, applying for fellowships, best questions to ask during graduate program recruitment events and the need to put failure in perspective.

“Nobody wants to fail,” Goines says on her July 18 podcast. “No one wants to embark on a journey feeling like they are going to fail and it’s going to be too hard and it’s going to be too stressful. I completely understand that.

“But the majority of the time, guys, we are going to make mistakes and we’re going to have losses. We’re going to have negative results. We’re going to feel like we’re failing. But that is life and that is also research. … And if we don’t admit that, if we don’t admit that from the beginning, then we don’t create a sense of value in those negative results. We don’t create a system where we’re learning from them.”