Synthesizing the Future One Molecule at a Time
Journalist: Trish Schranck | Editor: Anjali Boyd | Photographers: Margaret Balliet & Arielle Erillo
Maggie Cooper ‘19, and Dallas Dukes ‘19, are two biochemistry majors who spent their previous summer working with Eckerd professor, Dr. Lisa Bonner, on her research concerning the synthesis of potential dopamine-transporter inhibiting drugs. The work itself consists of making molecules that have never been made before and do not exist anywhere else, maybe not even in the whole universe!
For those who have not taken biochemistry, the field itself is known as the chemistry that underlies all biological systems. “It’s the chemistry behind the biological functions in your body.” said Cooper. “So when you break down sugar, it’s the chemistry that’s happening. It’s the nitty gritty chemistry of everything that happens in your body.”
The pharmaceutical industry is quite interested in biochemistry (and promising young biochemists) because of its potential to aid patients with conditions that vary from Alzheimer's to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The molecules that Dr. Bonner, Cooper, and Dukes are designing are especially exciting for these two diseases specifically because the molecules are designed to prevent the neurotransmitter (dopamine) from being removed from the synapse (the gap between your nerve cells) after it is released (transferred from one cell to the other); this prevention could help aid the cognitive abilities of patients with these particular conditions!
Dr. Bonner, who has completed a PhD in Medicinal Chemsitry at Purdue University, describes medicinal chemistry as “a field of drug design and drug synthesis” that also focuses on understanding and improving specific drug actions in the body. Under her guidance, Cooper and Dukes embarked on research in medicinal chemistry as well.
Their procedure includes four synthetic steps with one pre-step. That pre-step is what Cooper spent the first half of her summer working on because in order to start step one, Cooper had to synthesize the starting materials for the drug compound from scratch. By the time Dukes arrived in July, Cooper had successfully synthesized the starting materials, and the two were officially ready to begin step one.
Dukes described the actual synthesizing work as “frankensteining molecules together” to create the desired inhibitor. By taking cheap starting materials and molecules, they “do organic chemistry” by chemically transforming the molecules themselves in order to get to the final product. They repeat a similar process four times and with each synthesis, the molecules are evaluated for correct structure and purity using specialized instruments known as spectrometers to analyze the chemical bonds present in the molecules. After completing the syntheses, the compounds will be sent to a lab at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, NC, for the pharmacological analysis, which evaluates the molecules for their activity in cellular systems.
Thus far, they have successfully completed step one, and Dukes will explore an offshoot of the project for her Ford research next summer. But back up a semester and we see how Copper and Dukes got their start doing research with Dr. Bonner.
The girls were lab partners in Dr. Bonner’s organic chemistry class, and both Cooper and Dukes showed great promise for research through their strong work ethic in lab. “They were good students,” said Dr. Bonner. “They kept good notebooks, they troubleshot their problems, they were prepared, they had good lab skills, and probably most importantly, they had a good attitude. I could see myself wanting to work with them more.”
Dr. Bonner commented that it was this kind of initiative that really prompted her to approach them for research. She spoke with Cooper about a summer grant opportunity she was applying for and invited her to stay the summer to do research, should she win the grant. Dukes, who was completing a Spring-into-Summer course during the first half of the summer, is Dr. Bonner’s Ford scholar and was not set to do official research with her until next summer.
However, once officially awarded the grant, Dr. Bonner invited Dukes to join her and Cooper, after her course concluded, in order to get her feet wet with the methods and lab equipment.
“I was just very impressed by their independence. I didn’t have to give them a to-do list, they had their own goals, they had the steps they were going to do, and they got it done.” recalled Dr. Bonner.
But where do they hope this research can take them?
For Cooper, her career aspirations take her to the bottom of the Mariana trench to study the diverse and largely unknown bacteria species present there. These organisms, known as extremophiles, live in complete darkness under extreme temperature and pressure conditions; they thrive deeper in the ocean than planes fly high in the atmosphere.
What draws Cooper to these organisms is all we do not know about them and what those unknowns could mean for humanity. “We don’t know anything about how they function or how they grow or how old they are,” said Cooper. “They’re called extremophiles because they don’t die under all these pressures. We might find things that might help cure cancer or other incurable diseases; we might find things that will give us clues as to where to look for life on other planets.”
And as if homegrown, cancer-curing aliens were not intriguing enough, Cooper also mentioned that it is thought all life on earth evolved from organisms from these deep sea environments. “So,” Cooper said. “If we study them and know how they function, we might know, literally, how life starts.”
Dukes, on the other hand, is looking towards the classrooms of the future. As a Ford scholar, Dukes joins nineteen other Eckerd juniors each Monday for weekly presentations on a range of topics spanning across the Eckerd disciplines. The scholarship is open to all majors, but it is specifically geared toward students excited about pursuing professorship. Included in the two-year span of the scholarship is an allotment of a summer stipend as well as housing for the summer following their junior year. This opportunity allows students like Dukes to work closely with their mentors on a research project Dukes herself will design and conduct--and hopefully grow the research into publishable material.
However, Dukes is not dead set on teaching and is thoroughly embracing the unknown. She’s a psychology minor, on top of her focus in molecular biochemistry, but she came to Eckerd convinced she would be a marine mammal vet. Obviously things have shifted, and because of it, Dukes has excelled in research opportunities most undergraduates would not experience until their senior year. Switching majors can be a serious stressor for college students, but Dukes took the leap of faith and found it paid off handsomely.
“Be open,” Dukes advised. “It’s ok to not know what you want to do because I think it’s more stressful to have your whole life planned out, and then, all of a sudden, none of it is planned out. Just go with the flow and try to find something you’re passionate about.”
Different career paths aside, both Cooper and Dukes agree the best way to get involved with on-campus research is to, quite literally, pester your professors about it.
“Annoy your professors, that’s what they’re here for.” said Cooper. “They’re experts in that field, and if you love it like they do, then they want you to do it.”
“Don’t hesitate to ask.” said Dukes. “Ask your professors about research because they might be a little quiet about it, but it’s definitely there. Just bug them.”
Dr. Bonner advised interested research students to “show your enthusiasm through your work ethic” as Cooper and Dukes did in their organic chemistry lab.
“Do your work, do a good job. The better work you do, the more involved you get to be in the project.”
But while both her researchers are planning on attending graduate school following their Eckerd graduation, Dr. Bonner stressed that what she wants most for her students is for them to be happy and to have the tools they need to be successful.
“Take time off and figure out what you want to do. I did.” said Dr. Bonner. “You do not have to go to graduate school next year, or medical school or whatever. Figure out what you want to do later, in ten years, because that’s going to tell you what you need to be doing now.”
As for figuring out what that thing is, Cooper asks:
“What are you thinking about when you’re not doing something you have to do?”
Whether it’s the bottom of the ocean or itty bitty neuron pathways, your passion is out there. Take their advice, and be fearless in your own pursuit.