Celebrating African American Chemists: Seth Ablordeppey - ACS Axial | ACS Publications
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Celebrating African American Chemists: Seth Ablordeppey

Professor Seth Ablordeppey researches new drugs for central nervous system diseases such as schizophrenia and depression, as well as treatments for emerging infectious diseases. He is a professor of basic pharmaceutical sciences, and Eminent Scholar Chair and Fulbright Scholar of biomedical sciences, in the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at Florida A&M University, where he has taught since 1993.  He has served as a research mentor to both undergraduate and graduate students, and coordinated and mentored high school students through the American Chemical Society’s Project SEED program.

Read on to learn more about his life, his research, and his work getting underrepresented minorities (URMs) interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

Describe the current focus of your work.

Like other professors in academic institutions, I have a three-focused responsibility; to teach, to conduct research and to contribute to improving societal issues through my service to scientific communities here at Florida A&M University College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. My responsibility to teach is focused on imparting medicinal chemistry concepts to student pharmacists and B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. students in pharmaceutical sciences. Given that many students shy away from anything chemistry, I consider laying this foundation central to my students becoming good and clinically competent pharmacists and pharmaceutical scientists in the forefront of clinical practice and drug development respectively.  In addition, I have the responsibility to mentor these students not only professionally, but also as a model of life after they are no longer in school. I consider mentoring a central focus of my responsibilities because for many of these students the faculty maybe their only real role models for life following graduation. What a great opportunity that is!

My primary research focus is in drug discovery and drug development for central nervous system ailments. Thus, my research group includes synthetic chemists, analytical chemists and those with expertise in pharmacological testing of our designed and synthesized compounds. In addition, we are interested in exploring African traditional medicines as sources of new scaffolds for developing drugs to treat diseases that disproportionately affect minorities such as emerging infections, cancers, diabetes, and several others. And even in this arena, we emphasize mentoring and equipping minority learners to become the future pharmaceutical scientists and increase diversity in the field. In fact, our college is reputed to be the largest producer of minority Ph.D.s in the pharmaceutical scientists in the Nation. It is notable that I have already served as the major advisor for 13 Ph.D. minority graduates in STEM fields.

Finally, my service responsibilities extend across many domains. Apart from the usual journal reviews and serving on institutional committees, I have consistently been serving as a grant reviewer for the National Institutes of Health since 1995 and continue to do so. One of the exciting experiences I have had through serving on over 120 review panels and site visits at majority and minority institutions, is how minority students get into the STEM fields. Almost always those I have met would tell you they were planning for some other popular professional career and then had an opportunity often to participate in some research activity and then become “hooked” into a chemical sciences field. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned there!

Even more importantly, imagine you are participating in a 100-meter race in the Olympics and to begin the race you are placed on a line 10 meters behind all the other runners in the race! Please, tell me if you think that is fair, especially if the individual is expected to be able to somehow catch up with the others and even win the race?

However, another lesson I have learned serving as a grant reviewer and participating as a site visit team member and leader, is that all majority institutions hire researchers and offer them great start-up funds, but few Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions offer any start-up funds. Interestingly, faculty in majority institutions expect faculty in minority institutions on review panels to present the same types of proposals! I am not sure what name this situation should be called but it’s the epitome of implicit bias in the research enterprise. Sadly, the same problem transfers to minority training where our graduates are not exposed to some of the cutting-edge research that might be necessary for them to compete in their chosen fields. I pray that we find a solution to these vexing problems.

How did you become interested in your field?

My interest in chemistry was inspired by my high school chemistry teacher who made the subject so attractive I decided to study it in college. In college other faculty continued to encourage me to study chemistry and they helped me to retain my desire to enter a career in the chemical sciences. However, it was my interest in African traditional medicines that led to my decision to pursue a study in the pharmaceutical sciences and drug development after my baccalaureate. I was particularly intrigued by the fact that a drug can independently develop in a plant which led to the desire to know more and to be a part of groups that investigate plants for drug development. I have not looked back ever since.

STEM continues to be an underrepresented field for African Americans, what changes need to take place in the chemistry field to change this?

Surveys we have carried out over the course of my career indicate that the way many underrepresented minorities (URMs) get exposed and become interested in the STEM field is through hands on research engagement in an academic or industrial laboratory. Thus, one change I will recommend for attracting URMs to the STEM fields is to expand Summer paid internships in STEM research labs and solicit minority students to participate in such programs. Research during regular semesters as opposed to the Summer, does not appear to be as effective because it competes with other didactic courses that the students must pass in addition to other jobs that the students take on to make ends meet. Additional advantages of paid summer research include:

  1. It demystifies and reassures the URM students that they are capable of engaging in the STEM field.
  2. It exposes them to career opportunities they are unaware of.

How do you think social media has played an important role in bringing awareness to African American chemist across the globe?

Prior to the rise of social media across the globe, the scientific work of any one individual was limited to the immediate environment in which one resided and occasionally one’s publications might be read somewhere else. Social media began to change that, especially in the political, economic and social science spaces. While science and in particular the STEM field, have not caught up completely yet, there are great strides being made and the chemical sciences are in the mix. In fact, the younger generation of minority scientists appear to be doing much better than our generation. Incidentally, the current COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us into exploring social media to communicate our research in the chemical sciences, and I predict the impact of social media will continue to grow as many African Americans become comfortable with its use in communicating activities in our chemical spaces.

What’s one piece of advice you wished you’d received before starting your career in chem?

That while hard work is a prerequisite for success, it is not enough to bring about an optimum outcome. In addition to hard work, one needs to plan one’s future, mapping out how you plan to get there from where you are and editing the plan as you proceed, so as to ensure you accomplish your goals in every aspect of life.

Over the course my personal development, I can point out people who sometimes are not even minorities but have taken interest in my development and mentored or gave me opportunities that I wouldn’t have had any other way. I am reminded, for example, of Dr. Louis Williams, a professor at the University of Houston, who arranged for me to study for my Ph.D. when I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. Thus, along with one’s own planning efforts, ensure that you identify a mentor who values you and is willing to listen to your doubts and problems to provide guidance you might not otherwise have.

Where do you hope to see the field, as it pertains to African Americans in the next ten years?

I think that in as far as the current generation of African American chemical scientists continue to be exposed through social media especially, and efforts continue to be made by societies like the American Chemical Society to focus on diversity and inclusion in the chemical sciences, we can expect to see positive developments in solving at least the problems that hinder development and cause underrepresentation in the chemical sciences.

What chemist has inspired you most?

Among the many African American chemists that I am drawn to are Percy Julian for his brilliance, tenacity and persistence in research and St. Elmo Brady for paving the way to become the First African American to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Against all odds and taking on challenging issues, Dr. Julian managed to persist in chemical research. He earned his Ph.D. and became the first to accomplish the 11-step synthesis of physostigmine, a drug which continues to be used in the clinic today and in research. His life story in chemical research is one all chemistry students will need to become familiar with, not only for its inspiration, but also for the teachable moments it provides.

Dr. Brady received his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and he has demonstrated how to travel the road our friends and neighbors have not traveled and how to invest in areas that provide opportunities for the next generation by establishing the first graduate program in chemistry at a HBCU and subsequently in three other universities.

What are you most proud of in your career?

As a university teacher for about 40 years now, I have been blessed to have taught over three thousand students in the chemical sciences including pharmacy, most of whom were students of color. In particular, I have served as the major advisor for 14 Ph.D. students with several more in the pipeline. With at least six of these graduates now in the professorate and imparting their chemical knowledge and abilities to more and more students and especially URMs in the chemical sciences fields. I can only say thank you to all the teachers, professors and others who have steered me and poured out themselves to make me the professional I have become. Kudos to you all! For me, the opportunity that comes with each year that I teach, is priceless and I am proud to have touched and influenced the lives of countless numbers of students who continue to inspire many more students, now and in the future!

Read Research from Seth Ablordeppey in ACS Publications Journals.

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