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The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarships: Undergraduate Research and Mentoring

Goldwater Scholars Amma Agyemang and Peter Kutchukian, with Professor Rabi Musah, center.

By Vera Dordick

For Peter Kutchukian, a recent University at Albany class in organic chemistry was a life-changing experience. For Amma Agyemang, who grew up a world away from Albany in Ghana, her interest in science developed at an earlier age. The two seniors, who are recipients of Barry M. Goldwater Scholarships, both work in the laboratory of chemistry Professor Rabi Musah, where they have been carrying out research focused on our understanding of cancer and infectious diseases.

Peter Kutchukian
Peter Kutchukian

Nine UAlbany undergraduates have won the Goldwater scholarships since the highly competitive program began in 1988 as a way of encouraging bright students to pursue careers in mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering. About 300 awards, each worth $7,500, are given each year. But it’s unusual to have two students from the same laboratory win the award in the same year.

“Although both students are academically gifted, this is often not enough to earn a student a Goldwater Award. Other factors of great importance include a background in research and the solid support of a mentor,” Musah said. That research, along with her philosophy toward teaching and mentoring, clearly made the difference.

Kutchukian said he was so taken with Musah’s teaching in an organic chemistry class that he went to work in her laboratory. “After about a month, I changed my major from psychology to chemistry,” he said.

Such converts are not a rarity, however. Almost all the students who have signed on to work with Musah in the lab took Organic Chemistry I from her, and none of them were chemistry majors, she said.

“The important thing at that stage in the development of scientific interest on the part of the students is to create and foster an environment in the classroom in which they feel respected, and not ridiculed or patronized,” she said. “In such an environment, students who have a natural interest and aptitude for science feel free to express their ideas and ask questions without feelings of fear or humiliation,” she added.

In her laboratory, Musah assigns students projects that are of immediate relevance to scientific problems, but which have a clear start and end point. “The work is challenging, but certainly doable for highly motivated students, and it is important enough to be publishable,” she added.

Now involved in research that delves into the structure and activity of compounds derived from natural products, Kutchukian is clearly enjoying the experience. “I like puzzles and have always been interested in natural products and biodiversity,” he explained. “There are a lot of interesting molecules in small molecule chemistry,” he added.

Currently, Kutchukian is working on two projects. The first examines the activity of compounds that are derived from a red sap found in South America, called Dragon’s Blood. Used for generations by natives for wound healing, the sap contains some compounds that are the same as those found in green tea and may be useful for their anti-cancer and disease-fighting properties. “We also think these compounds could have biological activities that haven’t been identified yet,” he added.

His second project involves isolating and elucidating the structure of a type of flavonoid in the seed coat of black beans. Flavonoids are plant pigments that are believed to be important in fighting cancer and protecting the body from other diseases. “We are identifying the flavonoids in new strains of black beans. Then we are looking at the activity of those flavonoids,” Kutchukian explains.

When he graduates in May, he will stick with research. Although he hasn’t decided whether to go on to graduate school or opt for medical school, he will take a year to work in a laboratory while he decides.

For Agyemang, science has been an interest since childhood in her native Ghana. “In school, my science teachers were really good. They gave me room to be creative, compared to the other courses I took,” Agyemang said. In high school, she researched and wrote a mini-thesis on environmental chemistry, in which she evaluated the waste disposal practices of an aluminum processing company. The results were so compelling that the company put into place an environmental process modeled on her project, she explained.

Amma Agyemang
Amma Agyemang

At UAlbany, Agyemang is pursuing a double major in biochemistry and molecular biology, with a minor in French studies. “When I came, I was very interested in research and applied chemistry,” she said. So she started looking for a laboratory where she could do research. Working her way from door to door, Agyemang visited with many professors about their research, and when she spoke with Musah, it was a match. “I was very interested in her work on proteins in the HIV virus,” Agyemang said.

In the laboratory, the Goldwater scholar has been involved in the design, synthesis, and testing of small organic molecules that target a specific protein in HIV. The aim of the work is to develop more effective treatments against HIV infection, which is pandemic in Africa, she said. Influenced by early exposure to the field of health care by her mother, who is a nurse, Agyemang is applying to medical schools in hopes of earning an M.D./Ph.D. degree. “I plan to pursue a career in biomedical research and eventually return to Africa to contribute towards finding solutions for infectious diseases, including AIDS,” she says.

Physicist Alain Kaloyeros, the faculty coordinator for the Goldwater Scholars program, said he believes UAlbany’s students have been so competitive in winning the awards because of an institutional commitment. He also praised Musah’s dedication to her students.

“The Goldwater awards are strong testimony to the high caliber of UAlbany’s research and educational programs, and to the excellent quality of our students,” said Kaloyeros, who mentored the first Goldwater Scholarship recipient more than a decade ago. He is now dean of the University’s School of Nanosciences and Nanoengineering and director of the Center of Excellence in Nanoelectronics.

Just the right fromula combining academic talent, enthusiasm and dedicated mentoring has yielded prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarships for two UAlbany students.

The experiences of Agyemang and Kutchukian are exciting because of the level of their involvement in novel research. “A lot of undergraduates don’t have much freedom to work on projects. They just prepare start-up materials for other researchers,” Kutchukian says. In contrast, Musah’s assignment of real, working projects to students helps them be a true part of the discovery process. “She really lets undergraduates be involved in the thought process and is willing to listen to our ideas,” he added.

“In the case of Amma and Peter, both of them are highly motivated, independent, very hardworking, and curious — all qualities that are extremely important in research,” Musah said. Their coursework and proven aptitude to understand the science they are doing is also critical for success in any research project. “This is important because it allows them to think through their results and design experiments on their own, based on data that they have acquired from the experiments they have conducted,” she added.

Musah’s open-door policy and caring attitude also went a long way toward nurturing the young researchers. “Her knowledge is amazing, and she can explain complex ideas to undergraduates in a way that we can understand it,” Agyemang said.


 

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