Highlighting Prominent African American Chemists - ACS Axial

Highlighting Prominent African American Chemists

The history of chemistry is full of important African American Chemists. But so is the present! “Diversity, inclusion, and respect” is one of the core values of the American Chemical Society, so in honor of African American History Month, ACS Publications is saluting the work of seven African American chemists whose work is pushing their respective disciplines forward. Click on the names below to learn more about their accomplishments and their research.

Steven D. Townsend

Steven D. Townsend is an Assistant Professor of Organic Chemistry at Vanderbilt University. He serves on the editorial board of ACS Infectious Diseases.

What’s your proudest achievement so far in the field of chemistry?

My mentoring philosophy is to lead the group through positive reinforcement and enabling self-expression (or helping students become the best version of themselves). Accordingly, my proudest achievement so far is the trainees. We achieve excellent results through ingenuity, hard work, and scholarship while opposing the hyper-masculine culture of the past that sneers at compassion, teamwork, self-care, and those who leave work to maintain a personal life.

What’s a recent ACS paper that you’d like to highlight?

The recent ACS paper I’d like to highlight is a recent total synthesis that appeared about 6 months ago. The lab is known for human milk science, but this synthesis is our entry point into immunobiology and is the first of several synthetic efforts currently exiting the lab.

Total Synthesis of the Congested, Bisphosphorylated Morganella morganii Zwitterionic Trisaccharide Repeating Unit
J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2019, 141, 32, 12939-12945
DOI: 10.1021/jacs.9b06830

Paula T. Hammond

Paula T. Hammond is the David H. Koch Professor and Department Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT. She is the Associate Editor of ACS Nano.

What’s your proudest achievement so far in the field of chemistry?

I am in the field of Chemical Engineering, which is a fascinating and rewarding field that has enabled me to work on everything from polymer-based thin film batteries to biomedical devices and cancer-targeting nanoparticles. To be honest, my proudest achievements among all of these are really the many students and postdocs that I have mentored over that time and their many successes in life and career. I think that as an academic, it is my role to both bring forward the best science that can impact our world and produce the top engineers and scientists to further address the world’s problems.

What’s a recent ACS paper that you’d like to highlight?

I am very excited about the upcoming ACS Nano paper that was just released ASAP:(Tuning Nanoparticle Interactions with Ovarian Cancer through Layer-by-Layer Modification of Surface Chemistry, ACS Nano 2020, Publication Date: January 23, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.9b09213) because it represents very careful work in which we found that using electrostatic layer-by-layer assembly of polyelectrolytes on the surface of a nanoparticle, we could design nanoscale coatings on these particles that strongly target ovarian cancer cells over healthy cells. We found that by adapting the type of polymer used as the final outer layer, we can influence where the nanoparticle goes and how it engages with cancer cells, thus allowing us to use these design principles to better direct drugs to different regions inside or outside of cells.
Tuning Nanoparticle Interactions with Ovarian Cancer through Layer-by-Layer Modification of Surface Chemistry
ACS Nano 2020, 14, 2, 2224-2237
DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.9b09213

Malika Jeffries-EL

Malika Jeffries-El is an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Boston University. She was an ACS Fellow in 2018, and recipient of the Stanley C. Israel Regional Award for Advancing Diversity in the Chemical Sciences.

What’s your proudest achievement so far in the field of chemistry?

Scientifically, I am proud of my ability to design useful materials and develop the synthetic routes needed to make them. I have also had to evolve from being an organic chemist to a materials chemist to fully develop our materials. Personally, I am most proud of the people I have been able to mentor and train in my lab. I have had the opportunity to work with an amazingly diverse group of people who have gone on to great scientific careers in chemistry.

What’s a recent ACS paper that you’d like to highlight?

In this work, we evaluate the impact of fluorination on the optical and electronic properties of a series of organic semiconductors. Such systems are of interest for the development of blue-light emitting OLEDs. I am particularly happy with the work because it was part of a special issue in honor of National Organization of Black Chemist and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) founder William Jackson.

Evaluating the Impact of Fluorination on the Electro-optical Properties of Cross-Conjugated Benzobisoxazoles
J. Phys. Chem. A 2019, 123, 7, 1343-1352
DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpca.8b07778

Jason K. Sello

Jason K. Sello is the Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the University of California, San Francisco.

What’s your proudest achievement so far in the field of chemistry?

My career as a scientist has yielded much about which I am very proud. My pride comes not just from discoveries that have changed how we think about biological chemistry and opened new avenues for drug development, but also from the successful careers of those who have worked with me in the discovery process. This is perhaps best exemplified by an on-going project directed towards the development of a first-in-class antibacterial drug. It is inspired by molecules called cyclic acyldepsipeptides (ADEPs) that are produced by two different species of soil bacteria for chemical defense against competing bacteria in their ecological niche. We were attracted to the ADEPs because they target the ClpP protease, which is not the target of any currently marketed drug. Though the ADEP natural products had good antibacterial activity in the laboratory, they had poor pharmacological properties and thus no efficacy in animal models of infection. To overcome the liabilities, we used chemical synthesis guided by principles of rational drug design to produce novel ADEPs that were markedly more potent and can cure bacterial infections in mice. Through a longstanding collaboration with Prof. Robert Sauer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), we have gained fundamental insights into how the ADEPs bind bacterial ClpP and elucidated how that binding effectuates killing of bacteria via one of two different mechanisms (depending on the bacterial species). We are now working to define the potential of our novel and patented ADEPs as drug leads for the treatment of tuberculosis, through collaborative efforts with Dr. William Bishai at the Johns Hopkins University. Our studies of the ADEPs has been a highlight of my career because of the breadth of their impact- they have taught us about the correlation between molecular dynamics and bioactivity, revealed new insights into the enzymology of protein degradation, and illuminated a pathway for the development of new anti-bacterial drugs.

Aside from the scientific progress, I take great pride in the successes of my co-workers who have worked with me on the ADEPs. Two post-doctoral fellows engaged in studies of these molecules have gone on to faculty positions at the University of Delaware and Queens University of Charlotte and another is now a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health. Three graduate students who made key contributions are now working as research scientists at Takeda, MilliporeSigma, and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and a fourth graduate student is now a business development executive at Bristol-Myers Squibb. Five undergraduate co-workers have gone on to graduate studies at University of Cambridge, Harvard University, Yale University, and MIT; two of them have earned degrees and are now working at FormLabs and Takeda. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such talented young scientists and look forward to all that they will achieve in the future.

What’s a recent ACS paper that you’d like to highlight?

This is a great opportunity to mention a very exciting paper that has been recently accepted for publication in ACS Chemical Biology. It describes our surprising findings that the ADEPs and a fragment having ~30% the mass of the parent molecules are nearly equally good at killing Mycobacterium tuberculosis, yet they engage and perturb ClpP in completely different ways. Whereas the ADEPs block the essential interaction of the peptidase and its chaperone, our experiments indicate that the ADEP fragment stabilizes the interaction of ClpP with its chaperone ClpX and in turn enhances the complex’s proteolytic activity. Our findings have prompted us to contemplate an unconventional strategy in drug development wherein small molecules are used to stabilize protein-protein interactions. It’s our hope that this paper will inspire others to approach the therapeutic targeting of oligomeric protein complexes in different ways, too.

Acyldepsipeptide Antibiotics and a Bioactive Fragment Thereof Differentially Perturb Mycobacterium tuberculosis ClpXP1P2 Activity in vitro
ACS Chem. Biol. 2020, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX
DOI: 10.1021/acschembio.9b00454

Elissia T. Franklin

Elissia T. Franklin is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at Purdue University.

What’s your proudest achievement so far in the field of chemistry?

Representation in chemistry is essential to help those who do not typically see people who look like themselves feel that they belong. My proudest moments so far in the field have been hearing from early-career scientists that I have been an inspiration to them in some way. Purdue University’s chemistry program is one of the most racially diverse and it allowed me to offer support and be supported by chemists with whom I share similar experiences. I’ve published articles, presented my research, and received various accolades. None of this compares to the most satisfying experiences which have been centered around outreach. My podcast has allowed me to connect with many different people, shed a positive light on black women in STEM, it has granted me the opportunity to share with the world the importance of diversity and inclusion.

What’s a recent ACS paper that you’d like to highlight?

I chose to highlight this paper due to the real-life application and the broader implication that this research demonstrates for lipid analysis.

Predicting Breast Cancer by Paper Spray Ion Mobility Spectrometry Mass Spectrometry and Machine Learning
Anal. Chem. 2020, 92, 2, 1653-1657
DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.9b03966

Thomas H. Epps

Thomas H. Epps, III is the Director of the Center For Research in Soft Matter & Polymers (CRISP) at the University of Delaware. He is a member of ACS Applied Polymer Materials’ Editorial Advisory Board and serves on the ACS Board of Directors Development Advisory Board.

What’s your proudest achievement so far in the field of chemistry?

One career highlight has been my group’s sustainable polymers research thrust that started as a collaborative effort with the late Prof. Richard Wool in 2013. In just a few years – and with the hard work and creativity of numerous postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduate students – we have developed a robust biobased polymers platform focused on valorizing lignin. This effort is a particular highlight for me because it has led to several fun and fruitful collaborations with colleagues at the University of Delaware, at several other institutions, and with numerous companies. More recently, some of our lignin-based polymer work has been featured on the cover of ACS Central Science in 2018, been a centerpiece of a $3.7 million NSF Growing Convergence Research grant, and led to the founding of a startup company (Lignolix) that has received several innovation-related awards from the University, State, and Region.

What’s a recent ACS paper that you’d like to highlight?

Another career highlight is leading the NSF-sponsored Future Faculty Workshop (FFW) program with a goal to provide additional opportunities for students and postdoctoral researchers from underrepresented groups on the path to the professoriate. I was honored to be asked to takeover leadership of this established program, focused on soft materials, and I have truly enjoyed the opportunity to keep the FFW moving onward and upward as an impactful model for mentorship and engagement. Moreover, it has been a distinct privilege to work with many soft matter-focused colleagues from across the country, who have been willing to spend time to mentor, train, and share experiences with the next generation of faculty. On a more personal level, a particular highlight of this activity has been reading the reviews from the students/postdocs impacted by the workshop and learning about how our program has positively influenced individual paths to academia.

From Tree to Tape: Direct Synthesis of Pressure Sensitive Adhesives from Depolymerized Raw Lignocellulosic Biomass
ACS Cent. Sci. 2018, 4, 6, 701-708
DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.8b00140

Oluwatobi (Tobi) Odeleye

Oluwatobi (Tobi) Odeleye is a Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Oklahoma and the author the forthcoming ACS eBook “Chemistry Student Success”

What’s your proudest achievement so far in the field of chemistry?

One of the highlights of my career so far was being able to co-host a symposium with my mentor (“A day in the life of my classroom”) at the 2018 Biennial Conference on Chemical Education (BCCE), which drew several instructors with different teaching experience levels and diverse backgrounds. This was a highlight for me because it created an avenue for dialogue and for instructors to be real about their successes, but also their struggles, and as a new instructor, this was very helpful and encouraging to me. This was also a highlight because, with the help of the presenters at the symposium, we were able to develop the symposium into a forthcoming ACS eBook, Chemistry Student Success!

Add a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Want more stories like this delivered to your inbox?

Sign up for our newsletter to receive a selection of stories related to your favorite topics.