Taylan Tunckanat, an undergraduate student in the Department of Biochemistry, was recognized as one of the department’s outstanding seniors. Tunckanat is an undergraduate research assistant in Dr. Kylie Allen’s lab and is currently enrolled in the department’s Accelerated Master’s Program, where he’ll earn both his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Biochemistry by Spring 2022. He’s the president of the Biochemistry Club, an ambassador for the Office of Undergraduate Research, and an active member in Alpha Chi Sigma, a professional chemistry fraternity.

He’s also served as a biochemistry peer mentor and received several awards including the Virginia Academy of Science Undergraduate Research Grant (Fall 2020), the R.W. & Frances H. Engel Scholarship (2020-2021), and the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship for Summer 2019 as well as for the 2019-2020 academic year. Tunckanat is one of two outstanding seniors in the department and shares this honor with one of his classmates, Senah Stephens

“I’m beyond grateful for the recognition my hard work has received,” Tunckanat said. “I thank our department for all of the opportunities they have provided for me to succeed in.” 

Tunckanat spent most of his childhood traveling from city to city and arrived in Northern Virginia around his junior year of high school. During his college search, Virginia Tech stood out among the rest because of the stand-alone biochemistry department. When he visited the campus, he knew he didn’t want to visit anywhere else: he decided to commit to Virginia Tech.

Allen Lab Group Photo
Taylan Tunckanat presenting at EngelPalooza in 2019. EngelPalooza is an annual undergraduate and graduate research showcase hosted by the Department of Biochemisty and Howard Hughes Medical Institue (HHMI). Photo taken by Alex Crookshanks.

Biochemistry was a natural fit for Tunckanat, as he was interested in the things we couldn’t see with our own naked eye. He knew he wanted to get involved with research, but he didn’t think he could get started as quickly as he did. Tunckanat was first exposed to the world of research through an introductory biology class called Phage Hunters. He felt like he stood out because he was the only freshman in a class full of juniors and seniors. At the time, Tunckanat wasn’t sure what he was getting himself into but, as he reflects on his time in this class, he feels grateful.

“If I hadn’t taken that class, I don’t think that I would have known what research was, how to reach out to someone, or, even who to reach out to,” Tunckanat said. This biology class would give him the confidence to start a dialogue with Allen about his research career. After their initial meeting, Allen granted him the opportunity to work in her lab and Tunckanat was eager to start. So, Tunckanat started working in the Allen lab during the spring semester of his freshman year and will continue to work there as a graduate student as he completes biochemistry’s Accelerated Master’s Program.

Tunckanat is in the process of concluding a project that he worked on when he first started in the Allen lab. The Allen lab focuses on understanding the unique biochemistry of methanogens, which are a diverse group of anaerobic microorganisms with a complex energy metabolism that reduce select small carbon-containing molecules to produce methane. Tunckanat’s project is focused on how these organisms survived in high salinity environments. The investigation of the enzymes used in this process by methanogens could lead to the development of novel methane mitigation strategies as well as provide biochemical insights into the engineering of microorganisms for bioenergy applications. 

Allen Lab Group Photo
Allen Lab. Photo taken by Cameron Warren.

“Methanogens are what we call extremophiles, meaning they live in extreme environments. Some of them can live at 70 degrees Celsius. Some live in super acidic conditions while others live in really high salt concentrations,” Tunckanat said. “I’ve been working on a few enzymes that enable them to have a mechanism to survive with all the salt stress around them. I’ve been working on this project for two-and-a-half years and I’m proud to see it all come to fruition.” 

As Tunckanat reflects on his undergraduate career, he feels proud of himself for getting involved on campus early. “As I mentioned, I moved around a lot as a kid, and I didn’t really ever have the opportunity to get involved with many clubs or extracurricular activities. So, with college, one of the biggest things that I wanted to do was to get involved as quickly as possible,” he said.  

In his role as an ambassador for the Office of Undergraduate Research, Tunckanat gives this same advice to students: don’t take the opportunity to get involved early for granted, just go for it. “It’s super rewarding to see people enjoy something that I enjoy a lot and I’m just happy to be a source of information and inspiration for these students,” Tunckanat said.

Written by Cameron Warren