February is Black History Month in the United States. This year, ACS Axial is looking forward and highlighting noteworthy African American chemists working today, engaging them in conversation about their life and work.
Professor Herman O. Sintim is a Drug Discovery Professor of Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Center for Drug Discovery of Purdue University.
Describe the current focus of your work.
My major research focus is on Cyclic Dinucleotide (CDN) Signaling in immune cells, cancer, and bacteria. We use chemical biology tools to identify key players in CDN signaling. Additionally, we have a medicinal chemistry program that aims to identify small molecule inhibitors of various proteins involved in CDN signaling. Some of these compounds have potential as antibacterial and anticancer agents. I am also a co-founder of a startup called KinaRx. Here, our focus is developing novel agents against protein kinases, especially secondary mutated kinases that drive relapse in blood cancers.
How did you become interested in your field?
I did my Ph.D. and first postdoc in the total synthesis of natural products with David Hodgson and Timothy Donohoe respectively at Oxford and had planned to work in Pharma as a medicinal chemist. However, after attending a seminar by Eric Kool when he visited the UK during my first postdoc period, I became captivated by nucleic acid chemistry. Thus, I embarked on a second postdoc at Stanford with Eric Kool and my love for nucleotides has not waned since.
STEM continues to be an underrepresented field for African Americans, what changes need to take place in the chemistry field to change this?
In the last decade or so, the community has responded positively to increasing diversity by providing more scholarships, grant supplements, and increasing African American student recruitment or faculty hires at major research universities. It is really a pleasure reading some of the groundbreaking works by some of the newest African American Assistant professors, highlighting to us that when given opportunities everyone can flourish. Many companies are also providing opportunities to African Americans. I am encouraged by these but also note that we can even do more. It will be ideal if society is represented at all levels.
So, it is worrisome that despite comprising 13.4% of the population, African Americans make up less than 5% of the chemistry graduate students, who are US citizens or permanent residents. Even more worrisome is the fact that in the top 50 chemistry schools, Blacks/African Americans only make up 1.6% of the professors and some places do not have any African Americans on their faculty. What this means is that we are educating many chemists who never get taught by someone who looks like them. The implication is dire, as we are inadvertently telling many African Americans that they do not belong to the field if they do not see someone who looks like them in top-level positions in the field. At a minimum, chemistry can strive to match the 5% at the graduate representation with faculty representation at the places that train most chemists. Next, we must improve the African American participation at the undergraduate and graduate level to match the population level with initiatives that target students earlier, perhaps at middle school.
How do you think social media has played an important role in bringing awareness to African American chemists across the globe?
LinkedIn feed usually alerts me to the various achievements of all chemists, including African Americans.
What’s one piece of advice you wished you’d received before starting your career in chem?
I wish I had taken more classes in advanced math and programming. For example, I have become interested in spectroscopy, AI in chemistry, and other ventures that require mathematical skills or programming. I try to self-teach and I have been taking online courses but finding time these days to become updated is constraining.
Where do you hope to see the field as it pertains to African Americans in the next ten years?
Considering that most chemistry departments have about 20 faculty or more and African Americans make up more than 10% of the population, I hope to see at least two Black/African Americans in all places that graduate chemist. If we tentatively target 200 R1 or R2 departments, that will make it at least 400 Black/African American professors at R1 or R2 institutions. Once this is achieved, it will catalyze greater participation in the field.
What chemist has inspired you most?
Robert Letsinger’s work on synthetic DNA is truly inspirational and contributed to the genomic era.