JOB TITLE: Assistant professor, Duke University
FAVORITE TRINITY MEMORY: It is hard to select a single memory from Trinity that is my favorite. I very fondly remember staying up all night with my friends, sometimes studying, sometimes debating current events, or joking around. We were a mix of science, history, engineering, and political science majors, so we could have fun discussing almost any topic.
What drew you to this sort of work? I’ve always loved science, the exploration and discovery of new things. As I took more advanced classes, I became particularly intrigued with the intersection of chemistry and human health. It is at this interface and more specifically the chemistry of life and disease that I knew I wanted to work. But it wasn’t until I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley that I experienced the fun of sharing my passion through the teaching and training of undergraduates. Life in academics lets you combine these two interests, research and teaching.
What are your research interests? My lab studies the single-celled parasites that cause malaria. These tiny organisms thrive within our cells, hijacking resources to cause disease and in some cases death. There is much we don’t know about how they invade and develop within our cells. At Duke, I use chemical approaches to study essential processes of malaria parasites with the ultimate aim of identifying vulnerabilities.
Why are they important to you? Malaria is a deadly disease that harms hundreds of thousands of people every year. Unfortunately, children under the age of 5 and pregnant women are most at risk of dying from this disease, and it is pervasive in countries that have limited resources to address prevention and treatment. If that wasn’t challenging enough, the parasites can also mutate to avoid our best therapeutic interventions, even artemisinin, which was recently acknowledged when Tu Youyou received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for its discovery. There is a pressing need to learn more about the organism that causes this disease and to develop safe and effective drugs to kill it.
What do you enjoy most about being in a university setting? I enjoy the freedom I have to address pressing scientific questions with a collaborative and diverse team of undergrads, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty.
How did your time at Trinity affect your career choice? Without my time at Trinity, I am not sure if I would be where I am today. Perhaps typical of a first generation college student, I lacked confidence. I loved science and always have, but I never presumed I would be able to succeed in graduate school and beyond. The Trinity Chemistry Department was an incredibly supportive and encouraging home for me. Faculty members happily help students learn and encourage them to think creatively to address scientific problems. Even faculty with whom I only had one course, like Professors Janet Morrison and Henry DePhillips, had lasting and positive impacts on my career. It was a whole community that I could talk to and gain advice from about classes, research, and my future. At Duke, I strive to emulate the wonderful mentors I had at Trinity, Berkeley, and Harvard, and pass on the positive experiences they gave me by encouraging other students.
Was there a professor who was particularly influential? If so, who was it, and why? Professor Richard Prigodich was particularly influential in my decision to get a degree in chemistry and to pursue a career in research. It was just after I finished finals my first year that he invited me to work in his lab over the summer. I felt honored that he selected me for this great opportunity and encouraged that he thought I could positively contribute to his lab. After my first day in the Prigodich lab that summer, I knew I had found what I wanted to do the rest of my life, and since then I haven’t stopped working toward that goal.
What was the most memorable course you took at Trinity? Why? Professor Tim Curran’s chemical biology class; he had just moved to Trinity and taught this course for the first time when I was a senior. I learned about pressing questions in the chemical biology field and about the scientific leaders who were addressing them. I found my science heroes in that course, people like Carolyn Bertozzi and Michael Marletta, and it inspired me to reach out to these professors at UC Berkeley.