No matter what students go on to do, being able to think logically and understand how to interpret data is really important.

Sarah Smith

Professor Sarah Smith, chemistry, isn't trying to discover new drugs. She wants our existing medications to work more efficiently.

“I'm more interested in the drug-delivery side of things. How can we get the drugs we have to the specific places they need to act?” asks Smith, whose graduate and postgraduate work was based on understanding the interactions between biological molecules like proteins, DNA and metals. “As we understand more about the connections between biology and chemistry, we can think about ways to optimize our current disease treatments.”

In the case of chemotherapy, for instance, Smith's research explores ways to target only cancerous cells, which would alleviate the damaging side effects on surrounding tissue and organs that are common when taking a firehose approach to treatment.

“Side effects of pharmaceutical treatments result primarily from off-target effects, causing damage to healthy cells,” explains Smith. “If we can deliver drugs more precisely to the site of the tumor, we can reduce the side effects and deliver the most efficient course of treatment.”

The key is to understand which proteins are found specifically at the tumor or disease site so carriers can be designed to interact with only those proteins. In this way, researchers can shield vulnerable areas in the body from hazardous drugs until they are delivered to the tumor site and released by a biological or chemical interaction.

“It's exciting,” Smith says. “My work starts with basic science research, trying to understand the biological and chemical interactions, and could be applied to medical science. There are a lot of exciting projects that undergraduate students can work on that span the interfaces of biochemistry, molecular biology and inorganic chemistry.”

Providing undergraduates with opportunities to participate in research, where they can get hands-on experience while learning how to think critically, plan experiments, interpret data and draw conclusions, is a crucial step in helping them to think as scientists, Smith adds. “No matter what students go on to do, being able to think logically and understand how to interpret data is really important.”

Posted September 2018