2021 Women Chemist Committee (WCC) Merck Research Award Symposium

written by Ana Arteaga

The sixth annual WCC Merck Research Award Symposium, hosted on Sunday, August 22, 2021, recognized eight outstanding and talented 3rd and 4th-year graduate students. The award winners came together via zoom from across the US and from our neighbors up north in Canada (University of Toronto) to present their research in the Fall 2021 Hybrid ACS National Meeting. The eight award winners were selected from a strong pool of over eighty-five applicants, in organic, medicinal, analytical, chemical biology, computational or structural chemistry. In addition to a stellar scientific record, the award recipients are actively involved in their community as volunteers and leaders. This year’s cohort was not only skilled in the sciences but also the arts, from playing instruments to singing.

Beryl Li, a Ph.D. candidate in Biological Chemistry at Princeton University in Dr. David MacMillan’s laboratory, kicked off the symposium. Her research is on “site-selective tyrosine bioconjugation via photoredox catalysis for native-to-bioorthogonal protein transformation”.

The second speaker, Daisy Unsihuay, is a Ph.D. candidate in Analytical Chemistry at Purdue University in Dr. Julia Laskin’s laboratory. Daisy gave an amazing talk titled “Rapid profiling and imaging of positional lipid isomers through online photochemical derivatization of C=C bonds”.

The next speaker was Stanna Dorn, a Ph.D. candidate in Organic Chemistry at Indiana University (Bloomington) in Dr. Kevin Brown’s laboratory. Stanna presented her work on “Cu/Pd-catalyzed alkenylboration: Rapid and modular access to a versatile double-allylation reagent”.

The fourth speaker, Alexa Torelli, a Ph.D. candidate in Catalysis and Methodology at the University of Toronto in Dr. Mark Lautens’s laboratory presented her work on “Copper-Catalyzed Borylation Toward the Synthesis of Heterocycles”.

To close the first session, Victoria Yan a Ph.D. candidate in Therapeutics and Pharmacology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Dr. Florian Muller’s laboratory presented her work on “Targeted inhibition of Enolase 2 for the treatment of ENO1-deleted cancers”.

The second session of the symposium was started by keynote speaker, Dr. Michelle Machacek, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (bachelors) and Stanford University (Ph.D.) graduate. Michelle is a Director of Discovery Chemistry at Merck Laboratories and is responsible for mentoring and managing M.S., and Ph.D. Level chemists. Throughout her career, she has made key contributions to oncology, immunology, neuroscience projects, and has helped invent three compounds that have entered clinical development. Michelle has co-authored 15 publications and is a co-inventor on over 30 issued patents and patent applications. She started her talk by discussing her life, her career, and how it ultimately led her to the “Discovery of MK-11351, an Inhaled Spleen Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitor for the Treatment of Asthma”.

Following Michelle’s talk was Morgan (Gibbs) Walker, a Ph.D. candidate in Biological Chemistry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in Dr. Mathew Redinbo’s laboratory. She presented her work titled “Inhibition of Gut Microbial Beta-Glucuronidases Alleviates Triclosan Induced Colitis”.

The seventh speaker, Nandhini Rajagopal, is a Ph.D. candidate in Bioengineering at Syracuse University in Dr. Shikha Nagia’s laboratory. She presented her research on “Computational algorithms to predict tight junction strand architecture”.

The last speaker of the symposium was Green Ahn, a Ph.D. candidate in Chemical Biology at Stanford University in Dr. Carolyn Bertozzi’s laboratory. She ended the symposium with an amazing talk titled “Degradation from the outside in: targeting extracellular and membrane proteins for lysosomal degradation via lysosome targeting chimeras (LYTACs)”.

To wrap up the successful symposium, award winners and guests were invited to attend a career panel hosted by Merck. The panelist consisted of the eight women scientists from Merck who volunteered to mentor the 2021 class of award winners, as well as members from the WCC working in industry and in National Laboratories, all at different stages of their careers. The panelists answered questions about their work experience and career paths. The session ended with a last word of advice from the panelist to the award winners  including “be curious, and stay open-minded”, “be authentic, be yourself”, “trust your gut, don’t doubt yourself”, “enjoy your work and smile”, “be open to non-traditional paths, follow all different opportunities that come your way”, and lastly “be courageous, advocate for yourself”.

The WCC is pleased to continue to partner with Merck and acknowledges Merck for its generous support of the WCC Merck Research Award program. In addition to receiving financial support, each winner is paired with a Merck employee to mentor her through her career. Applications for the 2022 award are due December 1st. Apply today, for more information please go to our webpage at https://acswcc.org/awards/merck-research-award/.

Article by Anna Sromek