December 2011 Features

GSAS: In the Chem Lab with Prof. Malachowski

By Maria Jacketti

Can sparks of motivation happen between chewing over the day’s events and passing the mashed potatoes? Chemistry Professor Bill Malachowski thinks so. He vividly recalls a tradition of evening meals during his boyhood, daily gatherings that nourished more than his body, nourishing his imagination and his character, as well.

Chem Lab

Chemistry Professor Bill Malachowski mentors grad student Maria Winters in the lab.

At that dinner table it seemed natural that his mother, a registered nurse, and his father, a pharmacist/teacher, would talk about their daily experiences, and how the science they practiced improved the lives of ordinary people. Inspired by his parents’ enthusiasm and commitment to their work, young Bill decided to study chemistry, with a practical aim of doing research that might lead to the treatment of the diseases his parents saw every day. At the same time, the budding chemist developed a strong desire to teach and mentor those with similar aspirations.

Both of those endeavors, important research and opportunities for teaching, come together in the Bryn Mawr chemistry department chaired by Malachowski.

The highly respected department has received numerous grants. Several of these grants—like the current National Institutes of Health grant to pursue research with the enzyme IDO—could hold significant promise for future treatment of disease.

Some may be surprised that this cutting-edge research is taking place at Bryn Mawr rather than at a large university. Yet, smaller is sometimes better.

“Most small colleges don’t have these kinds of robust research activities,” says Malachowski. “The fact that we have a graduate program really helps a lot in terms of successfully applying for these grants, and it’s a dynamic that’s fairly unique to Bryn Mawr among the top liberal arts colleges.”

For the student enthused about the sciences, Bryn Mawr’s chemistry department provides not only a chance to be a part of important research, but also a supportive, encouraging environment not always found at universities.

About the opportunities for students, Malachowski continues, “Unlike large universities, we have a nurturing department that fosters close interactions between faculty and students. And unlike most small liberal arts colleges, we have a graduate department that gives us greater intellectual diversity and resources.”

The experience of Maria Winters, M.A. ’11, illustrates the combination of important research and a nurturing environment that makes Bryn Mawr’s chemistry program unique. Winters chose Bryn Mawr for her master’s degree because of the reception she received when she visited the department.

“I visited bigger schools, too,” Winters says, “but I felt really comfortable with the professors and grad students at Bryn Mawr. They were so welcoming. There were really good vibes.”

Now working on her Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry, and working on the IDO research, Winters is leaning toward a future of teaching and research. She is also getting the chance to mentor undergrads in the lab, working with them on all-important reaction-based experiments, and helping them feel grounded in new procedures.

In Bryn Mawr’s chemistry labs women can advance with confidence in a discipline that once belonged almost uniquely to men. Half of the faculty are women, demonstrating that it is possible to balance life goals and gain parity in the laboratory.

New path in cancer research

The Chemistry Department, funded by a recent National Institutes of Health grant, is designing and synthesizing compounds to inhibit a crucial enzyme that regulates the immune system in the hopes of developing a new strategy in cancer treatment.

The enzyme, called indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase—IDO, may play a role in preventing a pregnant woman’s immune system from attacking the fetus, according to previously published research. Medical scientists hypothesize that IDO might also be preventing the body’s immune system from recognizing invasive cancer cells. If the production of IDO could be blocked, the immune system might be able to recognize and react to the cancer cells.

The research is in its earliest stage. Hundreds of compounds have been synthesized and patented by department chair Bill Malachowski and a collaborator. They are being used in research by the pharmaceutical company NewLink Genetics to look for potential anti-cancer agents.

The five-year grant will bring nearly $425,000 in funding to the College, which will be used to support the salary of an undergraduate research assistant and a graduate student fellowship. Malachowski has brought nearly $1 million worth of grant funding in support of research and teaching to the College in the past two years.

Comments on “GSAS: In the Chem Lab with Prof. Malachowski”

  1. There are no small schools, just small thinkers! Thank you for highlighting the work of two very big thinkers at Bryn Mawr!

  2. Good to see science being supported, and supporting worthy aims!