Process of Discovery

Could a molecule one day have the potential to act as antibiotic, and maybe even kill cancer cells?

It’s an intriguing possibility, but Josh Ruppel, director of research and professor of chemistry, is focused on much more modest goals with his research. With the support of a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Ruppel and his research collaborator Nicole Snyder, professor of chemistry at Davidson College, are exploring types of molecules that, when activated by light, could eventually have potential to target harmful bacteria or fight cancer.

Tessa Greene, center, conducts research with her colleagues in the Er(UP)t program at USC Upstate last summer. Greene was part of professor Josh Ruppel's team, and plans to return this summer to continue the work.

Approximately half of the $402,695 grant will be used to fund work at USC Upstate over the next three years, including paid summer research positions for students.
While Ruppel and his students explore methods for creating the molecules, Snyder and her team will look at how they behave with different carbohydrates attached. Ruppel says the hope is to create a “library” of molecules that can be tested to keep improving their properties and see what outcomes result.

Assisting in Ruppel’s research will be two to four students selected from the next applicants for Er(UP)t, USC Upstate’s summer research program. While the research assistants will take part in many Er(UP)t activities, their work will last 10 to 12 weeks, beyond the eight weeks of the Er(UP)t program. They will also get to present their work at the American Chemical Society National Meeting.

Ruppel says he sometimes has to manage students’ expectations when they hear about his work. “They walk away thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to cure cancer.’ No, we’re not,” he says. “We are going to be in the lab, making a couple of molecules that then we’re going to test.”

Like everything in science, it’s just one tiny piece of something that “might lead to something that might lead to something else that might lead to something that’s useful,” Ruppel says.

Sophomore Tessa Greene, who worked on Ruppel’s team this past summer, is just fine with that. Her time in the lab confirmed chemistry was the right path for her, and she appreciated that Ruppel worked to bring her up to the same level as the seniors in the group.

“His plans are helping students not only grow in their confidence in the laboratory and get experience, but also grow in all their courses, not just chemistry,” she says.

Greene says by the end of the summer, she and her teammates could figure out a synthesis on their own and then complete the reaction without Ruppel’s help. “It didn’t feel like being in a classroom, it felt like you’re being a scientist, which was so invigorating and exciting,” Greene says.

That’s the main outcome Ruppel likes to see. “I’m at Upstate because I want to work with students,” he says. “This type of training is absolutely fantastic for students who want to pursue careers that involve research, whether that’s going to grad school or working in industry.”

Greene in fact is already considering a doctoral program, something she had never thought about before. More immediately, though, she can’t wait to get back to the lab this summer and continue the work her team started. “I’m really excited to help train the students that will be coming and be able to tell them, “Hey, I did this last summer, it’s going to be life-changing. Just wait.”