Why I Choose to Work in the Lab of Professor Weiping Tang
Unfortunately, many of us know someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. I am no exception. Countless times I’ve heard people ask why there is no cure yet, and I’ve listened to a host of possible answers – some logical, some ludicrous. But all cures and treatments require a solid foundation of fundamental research.
When I started graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I never imagined working in a medicinal chemistry group. Then I met Weiping Tang, a professor of chemistry and pharmaceutical sciences already guiding one of his compounds through human clinical trials for the treatment of multiple cancers, including multiple myeloma. I knew then and there that I wanted to work toward a cure too, especially considering my aunt was recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Three years later, I help write grant applications that address an underlying cause of breast cancer and perform research that seeks to modulate levels of misbehaving proteins in cancers, among other things.
I know how tirelessly my colleagues and collaborators work toward a cure to this too-common disease, and I’ve witnessed their well-earned successes. Theses incremental but important steps toward a cure are why I value research and envision spending my career communicating these victories to the public.
Why Carbohydrate Chemistry is Important to Society
A significant portion of my research career has been spent developing new synthetic methods for the product of complex carbohydrates. The ubiquitous nature of carbohydrates makes my research not only fascinating but also relevant. From experience, most people are familiar carbohydrates from a nutritional standpoint, but they are far less aware of the roles they play at the chemistry-biology interface and beyond. What starts as a simple conversation about carbohydrates can turn into a meaningful dialogue about the importance of science, basic research, and their roles in society.
Carbohydrates are structurally diverse macromolecules and challenging synthetic targets. Unfortunately, chemists’ inability to efficiently synthesize structurally-complex carbohydrates hinders biologists’ ability to probe how structural differences in carbohydrates affect their biological functions.
Efficient syntheses of carbohydrates are hampered by the presence of multiple hydroxyl groups on their carbon backbone. Monosaccharides are the most basic units of carbohydrates, and they can bear up to five similar, yet distinct hydroxyl (-OH) groups on their carbon backbone. Differentiating and modifying one of these hydroxyl groups without affecting the others – known as site-selective functionalization – is a long-standing challenge, especially to non-chemists. Although carbohydrate research has been ongoing since the pioneering work of Nobel Laureate Emil Fisher in the 20th century, it is still plagued by significant synthetic challenges, which I address through my research.
Steph of All Trades, Master of None
Weiping calls me “the glue that keeps his research group of 26 people together”. I prefer to think of myself as the “Steph of all trades, master of none”.
Not only do I complete my own research, but I also am responsible for multiple other group-related tasks including: preparation of manuscripts and grant proposals, promotion of a safe lab culture as the deputy chemical hygiene officer, maintenance of our automated chemical purification platform (which I established in 2017), equipment and chemical procurement, new student recruitment, and coordination of group outreach/community engagement/mentoring. Each of these roles contribute to my development of a well-round scientist, but more importantly, they promote the success of the group.
As I near completion of my Ph. D., I’m certain that my time spent in the Tang lab will benefit me greatly as I transition to career in science communication or within the industrial sector.