“I never thought I could make an impact on chemistry and students’ lives. But now, I’m the head of a lab with several Ph.D. and undergraduate students and a postdoctoral researcher; and we’re developing simple, low-cost lab techniques that can be adopted by labs across the world,” says Abraham Badu-Tawiah, Ph.D., the Robert K. Fox Professor of Chemistry at Ohio State University in Columbus. We talked with Dr. Badu-Tawiah about his career progression, research, and advice for students hoping to launch a career in science.
Q: How did you get started on the path to a career in science?
A: In Ghana, where I grew up, education works differently than in the United States. High school students are assigned subjects to study primarily based on their grades, and once assigned a subject, it’s difficult to switch. I was assigned to math, physics, and chemistry, which put me on a path toward being an engineer. I was happy to be studying science, but after the death of my brother, I wanted to study medicine more than engineering.
It’s common knowledge that too much cholesterol and other fats can lead to disease and that a healthy diet involves watching how much fatty food we eat. However, our bodies need a certain amount of fat to function—and we can’t make it from scratch.
Triglycerides, cholesterol, and other essential fatty acids—the fats our bodies can’t make on their own—store energy, insulate us, and protect our vital organs. They act as messengers, helping proteins do their jobs. They also start chemical reactions that help control growth, immune function, reproduction, and other aspects of basic metabolism. Fats also help the body stockpile certain nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E, and K, for example, are stored in the liver and in fatty tissues.
The cycle of making, breaking, storing, and using fats is at the core of how all animals, including humans, regulate their energy. An imbalance in any step can result in disease. For instance, having too many triglycerides in our bloodstream raises our risk of clogged arteries, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.
“Many of the students we work with don’t have access to a laboratory through their local schools. For them, CityLab is their first exposure to a laboratory environment—these are hugely important moments for these kids,” says Carl Franzblau, Ph.D., the founder of CityLab at Boston University (BU). CityLab was established more than 30 years ago as a science education outreach program for precollege students and teachers through a partnership between the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine and the Wheelock College of Education & Human Development at BU.
“Since our first Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) grant in 1991, our mission has been to inspire students to consider careers in the biomedical sciences and broaden the opportunities that are available to them,” says Carla Romney, D.Sc., the director of research for CityLab. Continuous SEPA funding since 1991 has allowed CityLab to fulfill its mission and provide students with state-of-the-art biotechnology laboratory facilities and curricula.
Nanoparticles may sound like gadgets from a science fiction movie, but they exist in real life. They’re particles of any material that are less than 100 nanometers (one-billionth of a meter) in all dimensions. Nanoparticles appear in nature, and humans have, mostly unknowingly, used them since ancient times. For example, hair dyeing in ancient Egypt involved lead sulfite nanoparticles, and artisans in the Middle Ages added gold and silver nanoparticles to stained-glass windows. Over the past several decades, researchers have studied nanoparticles for their potential uses in many fields, from computer engineering to biology.
A nanoparticle’s properties can differ significantly from those of larger pieces of the same material. Properties that may change include:
“There aren’t many professions that can provide this much opportunity for learning, especially when it comes to understanding how our bodies work. I really love what I do—I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” says Alan Saghatelian, Ph.D., a professor in the Clayton Foundation Laboratories for Peptide Biology at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. From studying new facts and experimental techniques to adopting new ways of thinking, researchers never stop learning, and Dr. Saghatelian credits his love for learning and exploring as reasons why he’s perfectly suited for science. He’s used these passions to build a successful career in biochemistry.
From Chemistry to Biology
Dr. Saghatelian’s love for chemistry began when he was young. He was drawn to how predictable it could be: Mix two chemical compounds in the same way and they’ll always combine to form the same substance, as dictated by the rules of chemistry.
Bacteria can cause many common illnesses, including strep throat and ear infections. If you’ve ever gone to the doctor for one of these infections, they likely prescribed an antibiotic—a medicine designed to fight bacteria. Because bacteria can also cause life-threatening infections, antibiotics have saved many lives. However, the widespread use of antibiotics has fueled a growing problem: antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can survive some or even all antibiotics. Other microorganisms, including fungi, can similarly become resistant to the medicines that are used to treat them. Infections from these microorganisms affect many people and are difficult to treat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the U.S. alone, resistant bacteria and fungi infect 2.8 million people each year, and more than 35,000 die as a result.
Pharmacologists research how the body acts on medicines (e.g., absorption, excretion) and how medicines act in the body, as well as how these effects vary from person to person. NIGMS-funded pharmacology researchers are:
Conducting research to design medicines with fewer side effects
Exploring how genes cause people to respond differently to medicines
“One of the best aspects of research is the excitement of discovery, being the first person in the world to know a small detail about the system you’re studying,” says Jeffrey Mugridge, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Delaware in Newark. We talked with Dr. Mugridge about how a pet store job sparked his early interest in science, why he decided to change his career trajectory after graduate school, and what he believes is key to being a successful researcher.
Q: How did you first become interested in science?
A: My strong interest in science didn’t develop until I was in high school—I wasn’t one of those kids who had a chemistry set or a deep love for dinosaurs or anything like that. But in high school, I worked in a pet store, where I learned a lot about aquarium science, including the ins and outs of managing water chemistry to keep fish alive. I also had a fantastic chemistry teacher who really helped me foster a love for the field.
It’s National Chemistry Week! To celebrate, we’re looking back at a few recent blog posts highlighting elements important for human health and scientific research. Check out the posts and tell us what your favorite element is in the comments section!
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in our bodies. It’s essential for lots of important functions—including keeping bones strong and allowing muscles to move. Even clicking on this post to learn more about its many roles requires calcium!
What we put into our bodies can affect how they function and what they do. For example, a sugary snack will probably make you feel differently than a high-protein meal. Similarly, different medicines elicit different responses in your body, and pharmacologists try to fine-tune each medicine to balance the desired (on-target) with the undesired (off-target) effects—a branch of pharmacology called pharmacodynamics.