Eberly College of Science grad student is both an academic and an activist

May 12, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Meet Lynnicia Massenburg, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State, who is excited to share her work — both academic research and activism — with an energy that is infectious even over Zoom.

An academic: Biochemistry, microbiology and molecular biology

On the research side of things, Massenburg said she ultimately is interested in crop improvement. While pursuing her undergraduate degree at Rutgers University, she had the opportunity to travel to São Paulo, Brazil. Her interest was sparked while there when she saw how the sugarcane industry converted sugarcane juice into biofuel.

After obtaining a master’s degree at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she found herself applying to Penn State’s Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology doctoral program. 

“Penn State has a big focus on faculty mentoring, and that's something that’s really important to me in the graduate school experience,” Massenburg said. “It’s given me an environment that supports me and has allowed me to learn the field of biochemistry and grow in that area.”

Massenburg currently works under the guidance of Tracy Nixon, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology. The Nixon lab investigates a plant membrane protein called cellulose synthase, and seeks to understand how these proteins group together to form larger protein structures referred to as cellulose synthase complexes, or rosettes. 

“It’s like we’re studying an engine so that someone else can improve it and put it in another car. How do you make the engine faster? How do you make the engine use less fuel?” Massenburg said. “So, in our research we want to see how the plant makes cellulose. Then, other labs that study the biofuel crops use our research of how the protein works to improve how cellulose is broken down.”

Massenburg’s research focuses on the physical structure of the cellulose synthase membrane protein, using cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), a technique used to obtain high resolution images of frozen specimens. This allows her to map the three-dimensional shape of the cellulose synthase and could ultimately help researchers to determine its overall function. 

The Nixon lab is part of the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation (CLSF), a U.S. Department of Energy Frontiers Research Center focused on forming a foundation for significant advancement in sustainable energy and materials. The center includes many other labs at Penn State, but Massenburg works more closely with CLSF members at the University of Virginia and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Beyond CLSF, she also works with Penn State faculty member Jean-Paul Armache, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, as her cryo-EM research mentor.

An activist: Minority Graduate Students in STEM

Beyond research, Massenburg has been working to shed light on being a minority in academia since her time at Rutgers. This year, as part of this effort Massenburg and four other Black women scholars published a paper titled “Elevate, don’t assimilate, to revolutionize the experience of scientists who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour” in the journal Nature. The paper focused specifically on ways to improve the experience of scientists in ecology and evolution but applies to all scientists in academia, according to Massenburg.

“As early career Black women, we argue that encouraging assimilation is not enough to address systemic racism, and outline suggestions for how minoritized individuals can not only survive, but thrive, in ecology and evolutionary biology,” Massenburg said.

Massenburg has also registered a student organization called Minority Graduate Students in STEM at Penn State, an organization originally founded by Latisha Franklin. As the incoming president, Massenburg explained that the hope is to help students find resources both within and outside of Penn State that can help with issues specific to BIPOC students. This can range from identifying and connecting with mentors from similar racial backgrounds to help with finding multicultural outreach opportunities, and more. 

“We're working on creating a Penn State alumni speaker series, where we would bring in alumni who were minority graduate students in STEM fields,” Massenburg said. “We’d want to have a talk or maybe have a Zoom meeting that would focus on their career path and what factors helped make them successful in their graduate school experience.”

Looking down the road, Massenburg said she has not yet decided the direction that she wants to go after graduating. She discussed a career in academia because of the joy she gets from teaching and mentoring, but is keeping open the option of working in government or in industry. 

“I'm still waiting to see what career path will make me happy,” she said.

Those interested in being involved with Minority Graduate Students in STEM are encouraged to reach out to Massenburg by email at lzm225@psu.edu for more information.

This story first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of the Science Journal, the Eberly College of Science magazine.

Last Updated May 24, 2021