Undergraduate students gain research experience in drug discovery lab

Class of 2017 option 2Cowan and Unger will pursue further work in drug discovery as they enter graduate school after commencement in April.
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Written by: Katherine Shonesy
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jaden cowenUAB senior Jaden Cowan, a chemistry major, is working on creating compounds for a potential anti-viral drug as part of his Southern Research internship.Two University of Alabama at Birmingham undergraduates are among a group of students from across the country getting real-world lab experience in the immersive internship program at Southern Research.

UAB seniors Jaden Cowan and Daniel Unger join students in the program from Emory University, Princeton University, the University of Virginia and other universities. Both Cowan and Unger will graduate from UAB this month.

The drug discovery division conducts basic and translational research with a focus in oncology, infectious diseases and neuroscience. With a faculty and staff of approximately 75 scientists, the division participates in many academic and industrial collaborations and research partnerships, such as the work done with UAB through the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance that has resulted in a number of potential new drug therapies.

Corinne Augelli-Szafran, Ph.D., director of the Chemistry Department in the Drug Discovery Division, initiated Southern Research’s newest intern program.

“The intern program at Southern Research is an excellent opportunity for the students to get hands-on experience in a laboratory,” Augelli-Szafran said. “In addition to having the students exposed to a drug discovery environment, this program contributes to the Chemistry Department while reaching out to the community,” she said. “This type of program is good for everyone involved.”

Cowan has been interning with Southern Research’s drug discovery division since last May, while Unger joined in August.

daniel ungerDaniel Unger, a UAB senior majoring in chemistry and neuroscience, is working with a Southern Research team to develop a small molecule target for anti-HIV drugs.Cowan, a chemistry major in UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences, initially did the internship for school credit, and he liked it so much he signed up for another semester to do his senior thesis. The thesis is on the work he has done so far, which is creating compounds that could be used in an anti-viral drug.

His ultimate goal is to become a research scientist. Following graduation, he will enter UAB’s graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. During his time at Southern Research, he has set up experiments, monitored those, run tests on the compounds and analyzed the results.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve decided I’m going to try to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry, and all of the skills I’ve learned so far during this internship are going to be directly used in graduate school,” Cowan said. “This is good experience working in a professional lab alongside professional researchers. They’re prepping me so I can be independent and work in a lab by myself later on.”

Unger, a chemistry and neuroscience major and a student in UAB Honors College’s University Honors Program, joined Southern Research after reconsidering his career plans.

“I added my chemistry major in the spring of last year, after I decided to look into career options other than medicine,” he said. “I came to the realization that I really enjoyed teaching. So I decided to get a Ph.D. in chemistry, and I needed hands-on experience in the lab.”

Unger is working with a team on a project to develop a small molecule inhibitor as an anti-HIV therapy, a compound that essentially stops the virus from being able to replicate itself.

He sets up reactions on his own, as guided by his research mentor, and he follows the reactions, checking to see when they are completed. He also isolates and characterizes products from various reactions.

“It’s absolutely been beneficial, and I feel I’ve learned a lot,” Unger said. “I have a much better grasp on what’s involved in doing the work as I prepare for grad school.”

“It’s a great experience to learn how to do the chemistry,” Augelli-Szafran said. “It’s just great exposure, and it can sometimes help the students decide what to do after undergraduate studies, whether to pursue further education or seek a job in a certain specialty.”