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Dragon's Blood and mentoring make good chemistry

Amma Agyemang, Rabi Musah and Peter Kutchukian
  Amma Agyemang, Rabi Musah and
Peter Kutchukian

When you have a professor who strongly believes in the power of mentoring and talented students looking for opportunities to do research, the results can be nothing short of amazing. “When students have a positive experience in the lab,” says chemistry professor Rabi Musah, “they tend to discover opportunities they never envisioned.”

Proof positive of that assertion is Peter Kutchukian, '02 who made his way to Dr. Musah’s lab several years ago after being inspired by her organic chemistry class. He soon found himself studying “an Amazonia sap called Dragon’s Blood (Sangré de Grado) that demonstrated anti-stomach cancer activity.” In addition, he isolated and identified five polyphenol pigments, or anthocyanins, derived from black cowpea (Vigna Unguiculata), a legume grown for both human and animal consumption, so that the anthocyanins’ antioxidant activity could be evaluated. In 2001, he received a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, which is awarded annually to only about 300 undergraduates enrolled in science and mathematics studies nationwide.

After earning his UAlbany undergraduate degree, Kutchukian continued his research with Musah in the master’s degree program. For one of his projects he has been working on the computer-aided design of anti-HIV agents. He will enroll in Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology program in the fall, and after earning his Ph.D., he plans either to conduct industrial research or do post-doctoral work for a few years.

Peter’s former classmate Amma Agyeman, '02 is already at Harvard. As a student in the M.D./Ph.D. program, she works at Harvard Institutes of Medicine research lab, researching “novel approaches to ameliorating the damage caused to humans by microorganisms such as HIV-1 and -2, malaria, tuberculosis, and other tropical infectious pathogens.

"I can’t think of a more important aspect of my undergraduate experience than having a mentor willing to invest time in me"Agyemang, also a 2001 Goldwater Scholar, notes that undergraduates engaged in research often do not have independent projects. But, she says, “in Dr. Musah’s lab, I was treated like a graduate student. I had my independent project and reported directly to her with my findings and my thoughts on the progress of my experiments.”

“I can’t think of a more important aspect of my undergraduate experience than having a mentor willing to invest time in me,” adds Kutchukian, who spends 40 to 50 hours each week in the lab. “Dr. Musah gave me quite a bit of freedom as an undergraduate and let me feel I had some ownership of the projects I worked on, and allowed my curiosity to drive my research. She also helped me polish skills that I would need as a researcher, such as scientific writing. Recently, I was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship that will help support my Ph.D. studies over the next three years. I was able to write a successful application largely because of the scientific writing skills I had acquired under Dr. Musah.”

Mentoring, Agyemang adds, “is the cornerstone of a successful career as a student and a professional! Without the mentoring I received from Dr. Musah, I do not think I would have achieved my goals up to this point. It is especially important to be mentored in the physical sciences since many students feel discouraged quite early on.”

Not surprisingly, Musah’s students are not the only ones who recognize her skills as both a mentor and researcher. Recently, she received a National Science Foundation Career Award of $502,316 over five years to explore the chemistry of sulfur-containing natural products and to involve undergraduates in her research.

Related links:
Dr. Rabi Musah
Department of Chemistry 

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