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Someday, long after Gozde Ulas ’05 (Nicosia, Cyprus) leaves Lafayette, scientists using a method of synthesizing a chemical compound she developed in college could stumble upon the cure to one of the world’s numerous diseases.

Maybe it will be Ulas herself who discovers the cure to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Along with William Miles, associate professor of chemistry, she worked this summer on developing a new method of making a compound similar to vitamin D, called calcitriol, which regulates calcium in the body. Miles received a grant from the American Chemical Society for his research in this area. A paper coauthored by the pair will be submitted for publication to a scientific journal and for presentation at a conference.

Developing a new process to make the compound is, in itself, a ground-breaking feat and could give Ulas recognition as someone who helped find a way to make a form of calcitriol that fights psoriasis or kidney failure without the side effects of known versions of the compound.

But there are much bigger implications for the chemistry community at large, says Ulas, who is pursuing a B.S. in biochemistry and A.B. with a French major

“The steps that [we made] will hopefully facilitate what happens in the future,” she says. “Someone [had] to do this in order to go to the next step.”

She handled potentially dangerous chemicals, patiently watched and controlled time-consuming experiments, and was tenacious about working on a problem until it was solved, Miles says.

Ulas and Miles worked together as part of Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars Program, which allows students to conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

Ulas, who chose Lafayette based on its biology department and the opportunities for undergraduates to conduct research, says being a part of this project was quite exciting.

“It’s a thrill to discover something new, to tell the world I’ve discovered it,” she says. “Even if I add a speck of knowledge to the world, that’s something (significant) to me.”

Being part of such a pioneering project teaches lessons that reach far beyond chemistry, Miles says.

“Research is sort of the ultimate learning experience,” he explains. “When things work out, they’re creating new knowledge, they’re adding to the knowledge of the world — as Gozde [did] with her project. There are things that she has worked on that are new to the world and I think it’s pretty hard to emulate that situation. It’s hard not to get excited about doing something like that.”

“Research does not occur in stages; unexpected things happen, so you have to think about what to do next, which is not preprogrammed,” Miles says. “Then you have to start thinking about what to do next after you do a reaction — how are you going to make it better? You can’t learn that unless you’re doing research.”

Working with Miles, which Ulas began doing as a junior last summer, confirmed her desire to devote her life to biochemical research — specifically, exploring the various aspects of the medical profession at the cellular level. It’s also given her a feel for what skills and experience she’ll need as she begins writing her senior thesis and attends graduate school, she says.

In Ulas’ work, Miles says, there was never a question as to why the experiment went awry.

“Her tenaciousness [was] always rewarded,” he adds.

Ulas is a member of the International Students Association. She spent her junior year studying abroad in Paris.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty-two students were accepted to present their work at the last annual conference in April.

Categorized in: Academic News