Honors chemistry major Spencer Shinabery is using sunlight to create a completely new, “green” method for developing medicines. Sunlight is free, renewable, and better for the environment than the harsh chemicals typically used to begin reactions. And according to assistant chemistry professor Nan Zheng, Spencer is breaking new ground with his undergraduate research.
“Spencer is using sunlight to develop a more efficient process that is also new chemistry, never done before” Zheng said. “He is working to synthesize small nitrogen-containing molecules that can easily cross membranes inside the brain. They could potentially be used to treat Alzheimer's disease, which would be very interesting to pharmaceutical companies.” Due to the difficulty and ingenuity of Spencer’s research, he was one of 14 students selected from across the nation to receive a $5,000 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the American Chemical Society’s Division of Organic Chemistry.
Shinabery underplays what he has accomplished so far. "I liken our job to toolmakers – we come up with ways of doing various things and it's up to the synthetic shemists to run with it," he said. He describes his experience in Zheng's lab as critical both in terms of building nuts-and-bolts know-how and confidence. “I was so frustrated when I was getting started – I couldn’t seem to get things right, and saw the grad students flowing through it,” Spencer said. “It just took time and experience.” Now Zheng asserts that his entire lab team is working on research that stems from Spencer’s hard work on a difficult chemical reaction.
Spencer wrapped up his second summer of lab experience with an all-expenses paid trip to the Pfizer Global Research and Development site in Groton, Conn. “The trip was an amazing experience. We were given a behind-the-scenes look at the world of drug design and development from conception to production,” Spencer noted. All 14 fellows presented their research findings and discussed their work with the scientists at Pfizer. “The high level of interest that they showed helped me realize the potential impact that our work could have,” Spencer added.
A paper coauthored by Nan Zheng, Spencer Shinabery and two postdocs, Soumitra Maity and Minzhao Zhu, is forthcoming in the international chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie.