Issue Date: April 26, 2010
The Future Is In Good Hands
Anyone concerned about the future of the U.S.’s scientific workforce would have had their worries assuaged by a symposium of present and past participants of the ACS Scholars Program at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting last month in San Francisco. The four presentations were unrelated, but all represented small steps toward addressing urgent needs. The four speakers discussed their research with confidence, poise, and pride. Their success speaks volumes about the impact of the ACS program, which provides not only financial support but also mentoring.
The two speakers who are current ACS scholars are doing research aimed at addressing diseases for which treatments are inadequate or nonexistent.
Melanie G. Wiley is a sophomore biochemistry major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Under the direction of Erik P. Lillehoj, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine, Wiley has begun a project to discover biochemical markers of schizophrenia that might help doctors diagnose the disease. The disease afflicts about 1% of the world’s population, she noted, and diagnosis currently is based on qualitative tests, which can lead to misdiagnosis as bipolar disorder.
Jordan C. Axelson is a senior chemistry major at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. A member of UIUC chemistry professor Eric Oldfield’s group, she recently joined the search for new antimalarial agents based on the so-called nonmevalonate pathway to isopentenyl pyrophosphate and dimethylallyl pyrophosphate, key intermediates in the biosynthesis of many isoprenoids, which are essential to cell survival. Many species, including humans, use the mevalonate pathway to form these isoprenoid precursors. The parasite that causes malaria, however, uses a route that doesn’t depend on mevalonate.
The two other speakers are ACS Scholars Program alumnae.
Marilu Dick-Perez is a second-year Ph.D. student working with chemistry professor Mei Hong at Iowa State University, Ames. Using solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry, she has been investigating the structure of intact plant cell walls. Understanding how the energy-rich rigid structures come together, she explained, will help efforts to release the energy they contain for other uses. “We get funding from the Department of Energy,” she said. “I hope it will help reduce dependence on fossil fuels.”
Dionne Dickson is a third-year Ph.D. student working with chemistry and biochemistry professor Yong Cai at Florida International University, Miami. She is trying to understand the behavior of nanoparticles in aqueous environments, including their interactions with toxic metal contaminants, such as arsenic, in water. Eventually she hopes to elucidate the fate and transformation of arsenic during biogeochemical cycling in aqueous environments. “Coming from a less developed country myself—I’m Jamaican,” she explained, “it’s important to me to contribute” to helping people who do not have clean drinking water.
The speakers’ findings already give hope that their research will yield results that will improve life on Earth.
For example, Dickson has just completed figuring out how to prepare stable dispersions of iron oxide nanoparticles that she will use in her work.
Wiley has obtained evidence that certain antibodies are produced when patients with schizophrenia manifest symptoms—such as hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized speech. The hope is that those antibodies could lead to a diagnostic test that would more accurately identify schizophrenia than is possible now.
Dick-Perez has amassed basic details about the mobility and interactions of the cellulose, hemicellulose, and pectin components of the cell walls of the plant Arabidopsis thaliana. The findings, based on painstaking assignments of chemical shifts in complex NMR spectra, are fundamental. She hopes that three-dimensional information gained from her research “will give a more detailed molecular model of plant cell carbohydrates.”
In targeting the nonmevalonate pathway, Axelson noted that the Oldfield lab is focusing on the two final enzymes, LytB and GcpE, for two practical reasons. First, fosmidomycin, a small molecule targeting an earlier enzyme in the pathway, is already being developed and would likely act synergistically with inhibitors of LytB and GcpE, thereby preventing the development of drug resistance. And second, LytB and GcpE likely have similar active sites and mechanisms, “which means our inhibitors can be effective against both, which could result in a more efficient disruption of the pathway,” Axelson said.
Axelson has systematically generated potential inhibitors, and among the compounds she has tested, one acetylenic diphosphate inhibits LytB at less than micromolar concentrations. The same compound inhibits GcpE similarly, “lending support to the hypothesis that the two enzymes have similar mechanisms,” she said.
When asked to what they attribute their success so far, all credited other people.
“Part of the success is because I surround myself with people who are supportive,” Axelson replied. “I have two people sitting back there,” she said, pointing to her friends in the back of the symposium room.
“For me, it goes back to the North Carolina Project SEED,” Wiley said. Project SEED is ACS’s summer research internship program for economically disadvantaged high school students. The North Carolina program, Wiley explained, didn’t just provide research experience. The mentors also taught “dining etiquette, which fork to use and which knife; how to handle ourselves; what type of suit to wear; how to present a paper. That’s where the poise comes from,” she said.
“For me, it was great mentors,” Dickson said. So many times she had wanted to give up on her studies “because there’s so much work,” she explained, but she always had people “who were there for me,” including her current research adviser, Cai.
“I was fortunate that my first general chemistry professor was a Puerto Rican woman who, every time I said ‘I can’t do this,’ told me I can,” Dick-Perez said. “Surrounding yourself with people who are positive, who will encourage you and feel as you do, is really important.” Dick-Perez shared that she initially was nervous about working with her current adviser, Hong, because “she is so driven and intense. But my counselor told me, ‘She will always stick up for you and she will always support you.’ That’s what we need, and I have not regretted my choice.”
Policymakers are appropriately concerned about the strength of the U.S.’s scientific workforce and its leadership, observed Robert L. Lichter, the 2010 recipient of the ACS Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students into Careers in the Chemical Sciences, at the end of the symposium. Policymakers worry over where new science-trained people will come from and who their leaders will be, he said. “And I always say to them: Just come and look at the ACS scholars. Listen to them, and you will walk away very confident that the future is in really, really good hands.”
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