Doctoral student receives fellowship for her research on medicinal use of plant

Sasha Nealand is the recipient of the 2020 Garden Club of America’s Anne S. Chatham Fellowship in Medicinal Botany in support of her research into the medicinal use of the plant Grindelia stricta var. platyphylla or gumweed.

By Susan Enright

Sasha Nealand in the field, dirt bike in background.
Sasha Nealand on a research field trip in California. Courtesy photo.

Sasha Nealand, a doctor of philosophy in pharmaceutical sciences candidate at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, is the recipient of the 2020 Garden Club of America’s Anne S. Chatham Fellowship in Medicinal Botany. The purpose of the fellowship is to support protection of and knowledge about the medicinal use of plants, thus preventing the disappearance of plants with therapeutic potential. Providing this research opportunity for botanists can, in turn, assist medical science in its ability to protect lives and develop medicines.

“I would like to thank Dr. Wendy Applequist and the Garden Club of America for helpful correspondence about the correct botanical classification of my plant and for the recent granting of a fellowship in support of my experiment,” says Nealand. “It means quite a lot to me that they have reviewed my experimental idea and find my thesis and data to be scientifically valid.”

Hailing from Half Moon Bay, California, Nealand’s doctoral thesis is about a native medicinal plant, commonly called gumweed, found in her hometown region. She proposes that the plant Grindelia stricta var. platyphylla, which is rich in resinous terpenes, may have a useful anti-mycobacterial activity.

Sasha Nealand in the field, leans over to harvest resin from gumweed plants. In the background in the ocean.
Sasha Nealand collects gumweed specimens for analysis, California. Courtesy photo.
Gumweed yellow blooms and white resin.
Gumweed photos taken by Sasha Nealand while collecting the resin in California. “You can see the resin that I extracted and am analyzing, which is the white gum in the center of the flower,” Nealand explains. Courtesy photos, click to enlarge.

“Preliminary screenings that I have thus far conducted, have determined that crude chromatographic fractions of the extracted flowers of this plant do indeed have anti-mycobacterial activity,” she explains. “In support of my thesis, I am now attempting to further isolate these active compounds using bioassay-guided fractionation by chromatography and screening with non-pathogenic strains of mycobacteria as a model for disease causing mycobacteria.”

In addition, she is characterizing the separated active compounds using several spectroscopic methods like Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectronomy and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry, which are housed at the UH Hilo pharmacy college.

Lab with tall tube showing separation of white resin from other liquids.
In the lab, a column is used to separate the gumweed resins. Courtesy photo from Sasha Nealand.
Leng Chee Chang smiling at camera.
Leng Chee Chang 

Nealand’s thesis advisor is Leng Chee Chang, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy at UH Hilo. Her research interests include the isolation, identification, and biological evaluation of compounds from higher plant and microbial origin. She says her  “long-term goals are to discover natural products as antimicrobial and/or cancer chemotherapy agents, by which promising bioactive compounds may serve as lead compounds for drug design.”

Research areas ongoing in Chang’s lab are focusing on antimicrobial activity of natural products against community-acquired Staphylocococcus aureus and methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA). Additional research areas are in the evaluation of natural products derived from Hawaiian medicinal plants as antimicrobial agents against nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) which causes NTM lung disease. Research projects are funded from Hawai‘i Community Foundation and Hawai‘i INBRE IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence.

The UH Hilo doctoral program, which is the only program of its type in the Pacific region, provides graduate training in the pharmaceutical sciences including medicinal chemistry, pharmacology, pharmacuetics, and pharmagnosy.

“Since Sasha Nealand is interested to further her study in medicinal plants and biological activity, the doctor of philosophy in pharmacognosy discipline is a good fit for her to do her research that emphasis on natural products discovery and development and their importance in pharmacy and healthcare,” says Cheng.

Sasha Nealand’s research

Nealand is conducting her experiments in Chang’s laboratory at the Waiakea Research Station, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the pharmacy college. In addition to the Garden Club of America fellowship, the doctoral student received the 2020 Nagakatsu Kumao Otsuka and Raymond Masashi Otsuka Memorial Scholarship from the UH Hilo pharmacy college.

“As a doctoral student, I must come up with my own thesis question and design all of my experiments from scratch,” Nealand explains in an email. “I can get many research ideas from scientific journals, visiting scholars in our laboratory, and from other mentors, but ultimately, I must design and carry out all of the experiments in support of my thesis on my own and also seek out and forge connections with scientific collaborators for experiments outside of my expertise. This means that I must often teach myself new instruments and techniques by trial and error and that initially, I may miss certain crucial information. There may be many failures, dead ends, mistakes and repeat experiments to contend with and solve. This freedom to design and carry out my own experiments […] can be both exciting and, at times, discouraging. Every day in the lab presents new challenges that require inventive solutions.”

Nealand has also studied with microbiology professor Christine Case, her staff and students at Skyline College, San Bruno, California, where Nealand conducted preliminary investigation and anti-microbial assays of hundreds of fractionated samples of G. stricta var. platyphylla extract.

Nealand received her master of science in pharmaceutical chemistry from the University of Florida in Gainesville. She earned her bachelor of science in chemistry/biology at Excelsior College, Albany, NY. Following her doctoral studies, she hopes to find work in a pharmaceutical research laboratory where she can further investigate “the properties of fascinating anti-mycobacterial compounds and how they work.”

“For the future, I wish to work at developing these compounds into useful healthcare products, if possible,” she says.


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.