World Traveler Finds Way to Help Through Biomedical ResearchBy Megan Webb
Even from a young age growing up in Bartlesville, Okla., Kaufman wanted to experience other countries and cultures.
“I knew that increasing my knowledge on other cultures would increase my knowledge of the world,” Kaufman said. As her perspective of the world expanded, Kaufman also began to see the needs for and limitations of health care abroad.
As she began her education as a freshman at the University of Arkansas, these images of suffering remained strong in her mind.
Kaufman, now a junior biophysical chemistry major, has found her place, not overseas, but in the laboratory. She believes that the best way she can help other people is to apply her intellect toward medical research.
“I am passionate about improving the international human experience,” she said. “I think that there is nothing better than improving the health of these people.”
Kaufman began learning the basics of organic chemistry research techniques the summer after her freshman year. In the fall of her sophomore year, Kaufman applied for an honors college undergraduate research grant. By January 2005, she had begun her own project in natural product synthesis, a branch of organic chemistry.
Scientists have discovered that the chemical toxins of certain deep-sea plants have shown potential activity against various types of cancer. Scientists isolate the molecules within these toxins and identify which molecules have promising biological activity. For example paclitaxel, or taxol, is a plant product that halts rapidly dividing cancer cells.
However, the rare sources of these natural products can be difficult to locate and costly to retrieve. Synthetic organic chemistry attempts to generate these limited products efficiently and economically.
Kaufman is part of a research group led by Matt McIntosh, an associate professor in the chemistry department. The research group, composed of five graduate students and four undergraduate students, works to synthesize biomedically important compounds and to develop new organic chemistry reactions. Individually, Kaufman is working to develop new reaction pathways toward specific molecular structures.
Between her own classes and teaching organic chemistry drills, Kaufman spends her time in the laboratory, methodically developing the procedure to synthesize an important substructure of a larger molecule. Kaufman sees the value in developing a small piece to a much larger puzzle.
“Although it is not total product synthesis,” Kaufman said, “my contribution allows for the creation of more than I could ever do on an individual basis.”
Kaufman hopes that the development of the five-step synthetic pathway will lead to the more efficient synthesis of anti-cancer therapies. Kaufman’s piece of the puzzle, a vicinal amino alcohol substructure, is commonly encountered in several natural products that have promising biological activity.
Once an entire molecule has been synthesized, it is sent to the National Cancer Institute. The National Cancer Institute has identified 40 cancer lines, and the synthesized molecule is tested on each line.
“In her third year, Shelly already has more research experience than most students have in their entire undergraduate career,” said McIntosh. “She has done so well academically and in the lab that she will be able to apply her solid background in synthesis to biophysical chemistry.”
“Research in natural products chemistry has given me an extensive background in the development of chemo-therapeutic compounds and has fueled my interest in medical chemistry,” she said. Kaufman eventually would like to work for a medical research hospital.
“I really want to do groundbreaking research,” Kaufman said. “I don’t want to do science for science’s sake. I want to be that person who takes theory from the research bench to the patients.”
Kaufman’s desire to translate research to patient care means that she needs to master both disciplines. She plans on pursuing both a doctorate in medicine, and in natural product synthesis or molecular biology.
“People are so much more important to me than the science behind what heals them,” Kaufman said. “But a practical application of that science is healing. Improving quality of life.”
“I know that my mind is made differently,” Kaufman said, smiling. “I see things differently. I see things long-term. When I’m not understanding chemistry, I feel like I am not accomplishing those goals that are before me.”
In June 2005, Kaufman was one of three undergraduate students to present her research at the National Organic Chemistry Symposium in Salt Lake City. She also was selected as one of four University of Arkansas finalists for the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship for the 2006-2007 academic year.
“I feel I’ve been given the tools to do what I’m shooting for,” she said. “I can dream bigger and make bigger dreams a greater reality.”