S P R I N G 2 0 0 2/V O L U M E1 1,N U M B E R3
Goldwater Scholars Amma Agyemang and Peter Kutchukian, with Professor Rabi Musah, center.
By Vera Dordick
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.
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 its unusual to have two students from the same laboratory
win the award in the same year.
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.
said he was so taken with Musahs 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.
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.
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.
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,
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,
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 Dragons 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 havent been identified yet, he added.
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.
he graduates in May, he will stick with research. Although he hasnt
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.
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.
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,
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.
Alain Kaloyeros, the faculty coordinator for the Goldwater Scholars
program, said he believes UAlbanys students have been so competitive
in winning the awards because of an institutional commitment. He also
praised Musahs dedication to her students.
Goldwater awards are strong testimony to the high caliber of UAlbanys
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 Universitys
School of Nanosciences and Nanoengineering and director of the Center
of Excellence in Nanoelectronics.
experiences of Agyemang and Kutchukian are exciting because of the level
of their involvement in novel research. A lot of undergraduates
dont have much freedom to work on projects. They just prepare
start-up materials for other researchers, Kutchukian says. In
contrast, Musahs 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.
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.
Musahs 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.