Seeking Cures in Medicinal Plants
After Category 5 Hurricane Ivan devastated her native Jamaica in 2004, Chantal Adlam saw her grandmother use medicinal plants to treat an outbreak of waterborne diseases. "It's a practice passed down generation to generation, but there's not enough research being done to advise on the effectiveness of plants," says Adlam (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, B.S. in forensic toxicology, 2014).
As she begins studies toward a Ph.D. in organic and analytical chemistry at SUNY Stony Brook, with a full tuition waiver and a $100,000-plus W. Burghardt Turner Fellowship from the university, she says her "ultimate vision is to travel to underrepresented regions of the world and train young scientists to identify medicinal plants and utilize them as a method of lowering the cost of health care there. There are a lot of parasitic diseases plaguing those areas, and they're neglected diseases because pharmaceutical companies do not devote resources toward finding cures. So as I study, I wish to help mitigate health incongruities that fall along ethnic, socioeconomic and national lines."
Adlam started higher education at Borough of Manhattan Community College, where she completed the forensic science program in two years and transferred to John Jay. "I met incredible people at BMCC," she says.
At John Jay she found a mentor in Anthony Carpi, a professor of environmental toxicology and chemistry, who invited her to research mercury in the environment. "I've done computational chemistry to determine how various hydrates of mercury degrade in the environment," she says. She sought ones that are most likely to release toxic elemental mercury as they disperse in water and are degraded by sunlight. She presented her work at the 2013 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, the largest professional conference for minority students who intend to pursue advanced training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Her studies at Stony Brook will begin with rotation through various laboratories, as she looks for the mentor who can best help her learn to synthesize drugs derived from plants. "Plants are the source of a lot of drugs on the market, but I've found that most are synthetic. Parasites have evolved to evade treatment with these synthetic drugs, and I feel you have to revert to the natural product to combat these diseases." One example is schistosomiasis, a sometimes deadly disease caused by a waterborne parasite that affects more than 200 million people in Africa, Asia and South America. Her contribution to the scientific community, she says, "is to understand and advance not only my community and my country, but humanity."
SUNY Stony Brook named its version of the statewide Underrepresented Graduate Fellowship Program after W. Burghardt Turner, a former professor who was dedicated to supporting underrepresented students. This $100,000 W. Burghardt Turner Fellowship supports study in disciplines including the biological sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, medicine, humanities, engineering and the arts.
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