UAB’s UNCF/Merck scholarship winners connected by chemistry

UAB has 3 of 15 national UNCF/Merck scholarship winners honored for research work.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) has three UNCF/Merck Science Initiative scholarship winners; Maurice Asouzu, Olayode Babatunde and Jarvis Johnson are three of only 15 winners selected for the honor nationally.

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Jarvis Johnson, Maurice Asouzu and
Olayode Babatunde

The scholarship includes participation in a chosen field of research at a Merck facility in either Boston, Pennsylvania or New Jersey for 10-12 weeks this summer. It also includes a scholarship that covers all tuition and fees for the 2013-14 school year.

Asouzu and Babatunde are members of the UAB Science and Technology Honors Program and officers in Alpha Lamba Delta. Asouzu and Johnson spent last summer doing research as Ronald E. McNair Scholars. All are juniors at UAB via Montgomery, Ala.

Asouzu and Babatunde have been friends since their days at the Loveless Academic Magnet Program (LAMP) High School. Johnson, who went to Sidney Lanier High School, met Asouzu playing pick-up basketball at UAB, and they later became roommates.

The young scientists have enjoyed their shared accomplishment. 

“I’m stunned that the three of us, who all attended high schools in the same city and went on to attend the same university, have been chosen to receive such a prestigious award,” said Asouzu. “I feel blessed because this is a big honor, and it has made my parents and friends back home proud. Receiving such an award reminds me that hard work does pay off.”

Asouzu majors in chemistry. His mother is a nuclear medicine technologist, and his dad is a chemist. Asouzu wants to be a surgeon and conduct drug-related research. He works with Pengfei Wang, Ph.D., in the UAB Department of Chemistry and is the third undergraduate researcher in Wang’s program to receive the UNCF/Merck honor.

The scholarship includes participation in a chosen field of research at a Merck facility in either Boston, Pennsylvania or New Jersey for 10-12 weeks this summer. It also includes a scholarship that covers all tuition and fees for the 2013-14 school year.

“I am working in synthetic chemistry to produce photolabile protecting group-based (PPG-based) photolinkers with the hope of developing an innovative, efficient drug release system,” said Asouzu, who is a UAB Chemistry Scholar and American Chemical Society Scholar.

The PPG-based photolinkers, which attach biomolecules to polymer surfaces, provide an efficient way of releasing chemical compounds in a biological system with precise control, allowing Asouzu to search for ways to help drugs better reach a specific location in the body.

Babatunde, who was born in Ibadan, Nigeria, moved to Montgomery in 2001 at 8 years old.  Babatunde began attending LAMP High School as a freshman. He and Asouzu had many classes together and quickly became friends. They had similar likes, such as science, and both wanted to be medical doctors. Babatunde has decided he wants to be a doctor of oncology.

A molecular biology major, he is studying sulforaphane, a compound found in broccoli sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables, in an effort to determine how it inhibits the proliferation of cancer cells. He works in the lab of epigenetics specialist Trygve Tollefsbol, Ph.D., looking at sulforaphane’s effect on methylation, RNA expression and protein expression.

“The UNCF/Merck award opens doors to some of the top research facilities in the U.S. and allows me to work next to more of the brightest scientists in an effort to continue this research,” said Babatunde.

Johnson is a biology major and McNair Scholar who was accepted to work with Farah Lubin, Ph.D., in the UAB Department of Neurobiology Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute. Johnson is the second undergraduate researcher in Lubin’s laboratory to receive the UNCF/Merck honor, and he is working on the recovery of memory in epilepsy patients.

“Last summer, using epigenetic drugs, we were able to restore memory in an epileptic model, but we weren’t sure how manipulating DNA methylation caused this to happen,” said Johnson, who was valedictorian of his junior high and high school. “Now we are trying to recreate that event so we can find out the exact biological mechanisms in the brain altered with the drug, as well as find out how those mechanisms interacted with the drug to restore memory.”

Johnson remembers his uncle Tommy, while suffering horribly from thyroid cancer, being treated with compassion at UAB Hospital. He points to that moment as an epiphany about how much he cared and desired to serve others. Experiences like that make the UNCF/Merck recognition much more than a scholarship award for Johnson.

“I know this sounds cliché, but this award makes me believe all things are possible,” said Johnson. “Coming from a background of struggle after struggle while raised by a single mother, then being selected to receive this type of recognition after many years of persevering, is unbelievable.”

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