Good Chemistry

A recent EWU grad is poised to make his mark on biochemistry

By Leilah Langley

John Vant ’18 would be the first to admit that his decision to attend Eastern Washington University had little to do with academics. The Montana native, now 26, says he enrolled at Eastern mostly because the university’s rec center had an ice rink.

John Vant

Hockey helped Vant make new friends and immerse himself in the university community. But it didn’t take long for the gifted undergraduate to be crossed-checked by a passion that transcended the puck: research in biochemistry. Now a standout doctoral student in biochemistry at Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences, Vant was recently awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. The fellowship will allow him to continue working with some of the world’s top biochemical experts.

Vant is no stranger to academic awards. At Eastern, he was the recipient of the Daniel and Margaret Carper Foundation Scholarship, a full-tuition award for his senior year. In part thanks to that financial assistance, Vant says, he was able to fully focus on his time with Eastern’s faculty scientists, an experience that was invaluable to his progress as a young researcher.

“The thing that sets Eastern apart from other schools is its size and its focus on teaching students,” says Vant. “By the time I left, I personally knew every single chemistry professor in the department. You wouldn’t get that at a lot of big universities.”

Vant’s research at ASU involves molecular dynamics, a method that involves using computers to simulate the motion of atoms in biological molecules, in Vant’s case protein molecules. “A lot of my science is focused on bio-energy,” he says, “but it’s not too much of a stretch for me to solve problems related to human health.”

Human health is exactly what Vant has been up to this spring and summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In collaboration with the Mayo Clinic, he’s part of a team developing a model for disrupting the virus’ “envelope protein,” a molecular structure that is crucial in preserving its genetic material as it travels between hosts. By disrupting the envelope protein, the thinking goes, researchers could interrupt transmission.

When Vant completes his doctoral and post-doctoral work, he says he aspires to work in one of the federally run national laboratories. No matter where his career takes him, Vant says, he will always appreciate the education he received at Eastern, and the scholarship donors whose generosity helped him to succeed.

“Even now, when I’m going through a rough time and things aren’t working out, I can think back and remember that people believed in me,” he says.