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The University of Texas at ArlingtonThe University of Texas at Arlington

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Chemist is lone winner of 2010 Eli Lilly award


Kevin Schug, a University of Texas at Arlington assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry has been named the lone recipient of the 2010 Eli Lilly Young Analytical Scientist award. The national honor comes with an unrestricted $50,000, the opportunity to renew the grant for a second year, and a lifetime opportunity to collaborate with this pharmaceutical company.

There are no nominations for this highly selective award. The judges independently review available literature and select a pool of about a dozen candidates. The award recognizes a young researcher who is doing work of relevance to the pharmaceutical industry.

"I owe much of my success to the supportive academic and research environment here at UT Arlington, which includes a superb collection of faculty colleagues, administrators, and most importantly, students," Schug said. "I get to take the recognition, but without my students and their hard work, none of what I am being recognized for would have been possible."

Schug answered a few questions about his award-winning work, which typifies the research under way at UT Arlington, an institution of 28,000 students moving toward recognition as a nationally recognized, top-tier research university.

You received the National Science Foundation CAREER Award for 2009 to 2014. Is that for a specific project or ongoing research?

This grant allows us to pursue fundamental development of techniques which can be used for studying interactions between molecules. Noncovalent (a type of chemical bond that does not involve the sharing of pairs of electrons) interactions are of paramount importance for conveying information at the molecular scale. For example, drug compounds exert their activity by interacting with various biochemical compounds in the body.

One of the major goals of our research is to develop techniques which can provide quantitative information about the nature of binding in such systems (i.e. binding constants). For this, we are combining soft ionization - mass spectrometry techniques with flow injection analysis and computer software development to automate such determinations. We interested in using these tools for studying drug-target interactions, as well as elucidating bioactive new antibacterial drug compounds from natural sources. For example, we have been working closely with research groups in the Department of Biology to isolate and clarify the properties of compounds produced by a variety of aquatic organisms. These efforts will lead both to new streamlined drug discovery methods, as well as potentially, new drug compounds.

A second, but equally important, aspect of the CAREER award is the development of an educational program, Diversity in Science in the U.S. (DISCUS), which aims to increase awareness of the need for more scientists in the United States. This program targets the development of new pedagogical tools that can be used for K-12 teachers to more effectively convey important science concepts to an increasingly diverse student population. As part of the program, teachers seeking Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies degrees through the College of Science help develop new lesson plans that feature a variety of different hands-on and graphical instruction methods to better convey course content. These lessons will be compiled and disseminated through the DISCUS website, as well as through our efforts at the State Fair of Texas.

For the next four years, we will man a booth at the State Fair of Texas where we will distribute information about our program, as well as highlight exhibits and perform magic tricks to try to increase the excitement for science in fairgoers. This aspect of the program has been very rewarding, as it has also allowed me to have a much closer interaction with undergraduates in the College of Science, as well as with local K-12 teachers, as we work to organize our state fair booth and DISCUS program offerings.

One of your areas of expertise is chiral separations, which is important in developing new pharmaceuticals. Can you explain what that means?

Our group is addressing a variety of different research problems that require modern separation and mass spectrometric techniques. One facet of this work is in chiral separations. Chirality, which is like left or right-handedness, is a property that some molecules have. In fact, the majority of current drug compounds are chiral. This allows them to very selectively interact with target molecules in the body, which themselves possess a high degree of handedness. A substantial amount of research goes into making chiral drugs, and often these compounds are synthesized as a mixture of enantiomers (i.e., both the right-handed and left-handed form of the molecule are made together).

However, it is well-known that sometimes it is only one of the hands (e.g. the right hand) that can exert the desired biological action, whereas the left-handed form might actually be toxic. Therefore, before the drug compound can be used, all of the right hands need to be separated from all of the left hands. This requires the use of special separation techniques that can distinguish between right and left hands. Our group uses a technique called electrospray ionization - mass spectrometry to study the mechanism of interaction between potential separation agents ("chiral selectors") and the different hands of the drug they are meant to distinguish. As more drug compounds are developed, new chiral selectors are needed to separate and purify enantiomers; thus, our work in this respect is of considerable interest to pharmaceutical companies seeking to develop and purify new therapeutic entities.

You mention that your group is addressing a wide variety of different research problems. What are some of the other avenues that you are excited about?

The analytical equipment we work with can be used to address a wide range of problems and I have been fortunate to have a good group of undergraduate and graduate students here at UTA who are always willing to try something new. We have been recently involved in developing ultra-trace quantitative analysis methods for determination of hormones and endocrine disruptor compounds (such as BPA) in various biological fluids.

Much of this work has been done in collaboration with The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth and Columbia University in New York. We have had the opportunity to explore the use of matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization - mass spectrometry to profile hydrocarbons from the exoskeleton of malaria-carrying Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes, in collaboration with Korea University and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom. We have been supported by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, together with the biology faculty here and at Baylor University, to study the release of toxins by Golden Alga in Texas waterways, which are responsible for massive fish fills.

Our group also serves as a Mass Spectrometry Analysis facility. Through this venue, we have had the opportunity to analyze a wide-variety of pharmaceutical/nutraceutical, forensics, polymer, and biochemical samples for various academic and industrial clients. Often, these opportunities turn into their own mini-research projects, and we have learned a lot from handling a diverse range of sample types. Of these avenues, I have my favorites, but the real pleasure is in the challenge of working through new analytical problems to provide information that advances our understanding of these systems, as well as to push the limits of modern analytical techniques. It's a fun and rewarding job, and I wouldn't change a thing.