Pharmacy, Chemistry work together at UH Hilo

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Date: Monday, June 22, 2009
Contact: Alyson Kakugawa-Leong, (808) 974-7642

For Immediate Release

Collaboration between the College of Pharmacy and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo is giving students from both units more opportunities to get hands-on experience with high-end analytical equipment this summer. Faculty researchers are involving students on a variety of projects involving federal grants from institutions such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health.

Dr. Charles Simmons, associate professor of chemistry and director of the Minority Biomedical Research Support X-ray Diffraction Laboratory, is sharing room in his lab for Dr. Ken Morris' Powder X-ray Diffractometer. Morris acquired the approximately $280,000 instrument when he joined the College of Pharmacy as a professor last year. The shared space has given rise to several joint projects as well as providing training for students on the same equipment used by the best private and public laboratories world-wide.

"Though we anticipate ample facilities in the planned College of Pharmacy building, we need to establish our research programs now to insure future success and to provide opportunities for our students," Morris said. "Analytical instrumentation such as this is essential for my continued research in pharmaceutical materials science that has been my focus for some 30 years. Without Dr. Simmons’ generosity, it would have been difficult or impossible for me to so rapidly establish a laboratory and achieve the success we’ve already had. We are now collaborating on a range of projects that, hopefully, should benefit both UH Hilo and our community."

In addition to Chemistry, the instrument is also being put to use on research by Dr. Ken Hon, chair of the Geology Department.

The Powder X-ray Diffractometer is used to look at the internal structure and properties of bulk material in everything from food and drugs, polymers, geological samples and semiconductors, Morris said. He currently is using this equipment for an NSF project that will help determine how to design tablets.

Tablets are typically made up of drug crystals, which are delivered as molecules when the tablet dissolves. Morris and his team of three Pharmacy students are helping to discover how being compressed into a tablet changes the internal arrangement of molecules in order to predict how easily they can be made into tablets.

"To be able to design a tablet, you need to know how strong the crystal is," Morris said. "The students are learning research from the ground up. They now know how to grow and characterize their crystals and then how to test the strength of their creations in the x-ray diffractometer. Then, they will compare their results to the computer simulations to see if we really understand what’s happening."

All of the students working in the Morris lab this summer will be second-year Pharmacy students in the fall. Lauren Ruffino is originally from New Orleans. She has had some experience working in a microbiology lab, but this is her first job in a lab working with drugs. She is testing the strength of aspirin crystals.

Paul Kim, from California, didn't have any experience in a research lab before entering the Pharmacy program. With a bachelor's degree in political science, Kim worked in the legal sector, where his interest in pharmaceutics was sparked when he worked on a patent litigation involving drugs.

"I was surprised at the kind of drugs that are being made and it made me really think about my career choice," Paul said. He said he hopes the experience in the lab will make him more competitive for an internship or research associate position after he earns his Pharm.D. in 2012.

Daniel Hu, from Kurtistown, also hasn't had any experience working in a research lab and, at first, didn't realize he was going to be paid when he applied for the research position in Morris' lab. Hu said he was just naturally interested in pharmaceutics.

"Working in a research lab will give me an idea of whether I want to continue with research in the future much the same as my work at the hospital pharmacy during my first year of study," Hu said. Hu also is working with a project in the Chemistry Department with assistant professor Dr. Mazen Hamad.

"What we hope to do with undergraduates here is give them enough experience so that when they go to graduate school, they'll know what they like to do," said Hamad, who was a research chemist at the Food and Drug Administration before joining UH Hilo.

Tanya Tavares, from Hilo, has been working with Hamad before earning her BS in biology and BA in chemistry this year. She hopes to use her experience in Hamad's lab to help define her future in medical school and beyond. She has accumulated years of research experience during her undergraduate program through internships from the Keaholoa STEM program, but said her experience in Hamad's lab is helping her pull it all together.

"I've found there is an overlap in biomedical research equipment, so what I learned making lactose tablets can be applied in many other places," Tavares said. She is hoping to be admitted to medical school soon, and said her research experience will help her tie in multiple roles in her chosen profession.

Simmons, whose research interests include determining the structures of molecules that identify the active site in hemoglobin, said that most students who study chemistry at UH Hilo go on to various medical programs. He said it’s a mutual benefit for Chemistry students to have the opportunity to interact with students and faculty from the College of Pharmacy.

"It's a benefit for Chemistry students to interact with professionals in the healthcare field," Simmons said. "But maybe more importantly, our collaboration puts the emphasis on research. Chemistry students here aren’t required to have research experience, so this gives them the opportunity to learn how to work in a lab while showing research as an essential part of their education."

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