Can you provide a brief summary of one of your research projects?
One of my projects was part of a collaborative effort to develop a new inhibitor for an enzyme, named cathepsin L. When this enzyme is overactive, it plays a big part in the metastasis of many types of cancer. Metastasis is when cancerous tumors spread to various tissues throughout the body. To tackle this issue, we used computer software to analyze how existing inhibitors physically bind to cathepsin L. This analysis allowed us to see a cavity or pocket in the enzyme that had yet to be filled. Then, we built a series of small molecules that we believed might fit into that pocket. Afterwards, we took the one that had the best binding to cathepsin L and we coupled it to an existing inhibitor that would fill neighboring pockets. Essentially, we built a better key (the inhibitor) for a pretty complex lock (the enzyme). What we ended up with appears to be the best cathepsin L inhibitor to date. In fact, we published these findings in July 2014. More importantly, we hope it will lead to a better understanding of the functions of this enzyme and have a positive impact in the field of cancer medicine.
When did you first become interested in science?
I’ve always liked science. Most young boys want to be either a fireman or an astronaut. I definitely wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. I remember watching educational TV shows, such as Beakman’s World and Bill Nye the Science Guy. As a result, I was inspired at a young age by how interesting the world really is. Yet, this was a dream I put to rest for a long time. It wasn’t until much later that I became interested in science as a career.
What was your first real research experience?
My first research experience was during the summer after my freshman year at Queensborough Community College (QCC). I was a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Initiative for Minority Students (RIMS). As a part of this Bridges to Baccalaureate program, I was placed in the laboratory of Dr. Sanjai Kumar at Queens College (QC). It was a biochemistry lab. Seeing as how I had only one general chemistry course under my belt, I can safely say that I was very out of my depth. Sometimes when people are confronted with something they are years away from truly understanding, they shut down. They might shy away because it is so intimidating. Yet, I didn’t feel that. There was always a new puzzle to solve or a new question to be answered (or asked). This was a huge confirmation for me. I was determined to be a scientist. It is hard work, but every now and then you have an epiphany. You suddenly have moments of complete clarity, when everything makes sense and anything is possible. I live for moments like that.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
There isn’t a single event or person that did it for me. I was inspired by many things and many people. I often think back on how much I loved science as a kid. Although, possibly the biggest factor is the serendipity of how I found chemistry. I had already been out of college for several years. I was tired of jumping from one meaningless dead end job to another. Determined to finish my college degree, I applied as a transfer student to the City University of New York (CUNY). Because I could apply to four schools on the same application, I applied to two community colleges and two senior colleges. I was under the impression that I was to receive an admission decision from each school, but what I got in the mail was a denial from the entire university. Calling this a setback would have been an understatement. Unsatisfied with the situation, I made an appointment to see a CUNY admissions counselor. With an overabundance of time, I became obsessed with solving Rubik’s Cubes, and I brought one with me. When I finally did see her, I was pretty nervous, so having something to do with my hands calmed me down. I must have solved it three times before she pulled up my information. Then, I saw her staring at me. I apologized, but she just smiled and asked why I wasn’t in school. I told her that was my reason for seeing her. Then, she said there was a small chance she could get me into a small community college, but that it was far away from where I lived. I told her I didn’t care, and she nodded and said if I get a letter from the school in a week, then I am in, but if I get a letter from her office in a week, then it didn’t work out. A week later I got a welcome packet from QCC. I still carry her business card in my wallet to this day.
The serendipity of my career choice continued when it came time for me to see an academic advisor at the school. I still did not have an intended major. The advisor gave me some general required courses, but then he said that I should throw in a science course. The courses with openings were physics and chemistry. He asked what I preferred, but I didn’t have an answer. Then, he suggested chemistry, and I agreed. It was then that I met one of the nicest professors I have ever met, Dr. Dennis Conklin. He always had an interesting story to tell related to the class topics. Most importantly, it was during his class that I decided I wanted a career in chemistry. As fortune would have it, I not only aced his class, but he recommended me to the chemistry honors program, where I met Dr. Paris Svoronos. Through him, I went to many conferences. Also he, in turn, introduced me to Dr. Patricia Schneider, who got me into doing research. My life was never the same. Each of these events could have happened differently, and my life would have gone down a different path. I owe what and who I am to all these event and to all these people and so much more.
What challenges have you faced in your education or career?
My time at Stony Brook University was my biggest challenge. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I never asked any of the right questions and I spent far too much time finding other things to do besides schoolwork. My GPA was so laughably low that I was put on indefinite academic suspension. It was only a year and a half later that I got the straight answer that I had to prove I could be a good student elsewhere before they would let me back in. I spent over three years bouncing from one meaningless dead end job to another. When I finally did get back into school, I found I was usually the oldest person in class (not that anyone could tell by looking at me).
What did you do differently between Stony Brook and QCC?
When I did get back into school, I realized I had gotten all the partying out of my system. I also developed a disciplined work ethic. After working a series of terrible jobs, I was determined to never have to do something so mundane again. I was tired of being treated like an idiot. I studied as often as I could. The issue is I have a very bad attention span. So, I started to develop certain habits that helped me with that. I found that I can study for hours if I just cut out as much external stimuli as possible. I would study at a desk that is enclosed in the corner of the room (seeing people walking by always distracts me). I would study with headphones on, but I would always listen to instrumentals because hearing words would get in the way of me reading text. I also found that if I used as many senses as possible when I studied that I would remember it more. I would make my notes using a multi-colored pen. I would also read it aloud to myself while dragging my finger across the paper. I would even have a certain flavor of gum that I would chew during studying and I would chew that flavor of gum again during a test. It sounds strange, but it worked very well for me. I also made flash cards for the first time, but I used a small bound notebook instead of loose cards (I’m sure I would have lost them otherwise). This allowed me to study even if I was standing on a packed bus or train. I also had a very long commute to QCC. It was two hours in each direction and I did that for two years. So, it’s possible the most important thing I did different was to learn to have patience.
If you could start over again, what would you do differently?
I think about that often, because I essentially took a long and difficult road to get where I am. My answer always comes out the same: If I did anything different, then I wouldn’t be me. It is true that my academic problems led me from one very different career path to another. I’ve spent time as an artist, salesman, computer technician, and more. However, I have found that this was not time spent in vain, for I now have a skillset that many people in my field do not seem to have. Having an eye for aesthetics, being able to convey information with others in a way that keeps their attention, and knowing my way around a computer have all been invaluable skills to have.
What has been the most exciting event in your career?
Just about anything new is exciting to me. Maybe I am too easily excited. Yet, I have to say that the event that made me the most nervous was at my second conference ever. It was the 2011 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) the award ceremony, and there were thousands of people there. I wasn’t there to win, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to jump out of my skin. Then, the strangest thing happened. I won. I was just a freshman at the time, so it blew my mind. It was very exciting. Although, perhaps the most exciting thing for me is where I am now and where I might go from here.
Where you now and what are you doing?
Currently, I am a chemistry Ph.D. student at Princeton University. I work in the laboratory of Dr. David MacMillan. The hours are very demanding (I practically live in the lab), but it is a surprisingly low pressure environment. My work revolves around developing and evaluating new types of organic chemistry reactions. More specifically, we are working on ways to take cheap abundant biomass (such as amino acids) and to convert them into something more medically relevant in a single step. This kind of research can potentially lead to newer and less expensive methods of making pharmaceuticals.
What advice would you give undergraduates thinking about science as a career?
Do it! We need more scientists! In all seriousness, you should give it a shot by doing undergraduate research. If you find that science is not for you, then that’s fine. You can still put down your experience as you apply to something else. In fact, many programs in the medical fields look very favorably on academic research experience. However, if you believe that science may be for you, then give it your all. Give it everything you’ve got. Like anything else in life, you have to make it your passion, because anything worth doing is worth overdoing. When you do that, you will find that opportunities will find you. You just have to keep your eyes open to see them and take advantage of them.
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