Chris Roberts is a junior at UNCG and a first-year MARC fellow.
He began working in Sullivan Distinguished Professor Nicholas Oberlies’ natural products lab as a sophomore, but his admission to MARC has allowed him to increase his lab time considerably.
During his on-campus research experience this past summer, he learned to work through many different phases of research, with the ultimate goal of identifying anticancer drug leads from different fungi.
He began by mastering the extraction of fungal cultures and quickly advanced to techniques, such as high-performance liquid chromatography, for purifying drug leads. Once compounds are isolated, he analyzes their structures via nuclear magnetic spectroscopy and mass spectrometry, gaining valuable skills on UNCG’s highly precise research instruments.
Roberts knew he could succeed in the classroom, but he says he couldn’t have learned how things work in the lab without hands-on research experience – and his mentor agrees.
“There’s something about chemistry that’s very tactile. You just have to do it,” says Oberlies.
In the natural products chemistry lab, Roberts has also found new motivation.
“What drives me is finding ways to cure different diseases. It interests me how different medicines are produced. There are around 5 million species of fungi and only around 130,000 have been investigated.”
Roberts knows that more than half the drugs that treat cancer are derived from a natural source, and, like everyone in Oberlies’ lab, Roberts is eager to test as many new fungal compounds as possible against human cancers. With funding from the National Cancer Institute, they test up to 500 species a year.
“1,500 people will die from cancer today. Our goal is to find a compound to minimize that number in the future,” says Oberlies. “Could that discovery come from an undergraduate? Absolutely.”
Doctoral student Sonja Knowles has served as another mentor for Roberts. “In the beginning, I would be with Chris through every step, to train him on techniques as well as the rationale behind them,” recalls Knowles. “But he has grown tremendously and now works independently, including troubleshooting when a problem arises.”
Now, Roberts is training other student assistants. “Chris has been an asset to not only me but the whole lab,” says Knowles. “He has become a great example for new students.”
As a MARC scholar, Roberts will next complete a summer experience at an external doctoral institution. While positions in every university lab are highly coveted, Oberlies says Roberts is much more likely to be able to find one as a MARC fellow. As a funded student who already has experience in the lab, he is an asset.
by Susan Kirby-Smith
Please visit https://researchmagazine.uncg.edu/spring-2020/so-you-want-to-be-a-scientist/ to read the full article.