As bacterial drug resistance increases at an alarming rate, chemists are faced with the need to develop new and better antibiotics. Aurelio Mollo ’17 spent nearly two years working in the lab of his thesis advisor, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Louise “Lou” Charkoudian ’03, trying to do just that. The chemistry major and biochemistry concentrator worked to synthesize complestatin, which has antibiotic, anti-HIV, and neuroprotective effects, in an efficient and environmentally friendly way.
His thesis, “Accessing a biomimetic synthetic route to the bismacrocyclic heptapeptide antibiotic complestatin via P450-mediated biaryl and phenolic cross-couplings,” continued the thesis work of Alfred “Niki” Nikolai von Krusenstiern ’15, who worked out the experimental procedures that Mollo drew from. With more refinement, Mollo’s synthesis process could pave the way for more efficient antibiotic production.
“We hope that the route we are developing might one day be used to further explore the molecule’s activity and maybe synthesize derivatives which are more potent and selective,” he said.
Mollo will pursue a Ph.D. in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University this fall. As an international student from Turin, Italy, it took a leap of faith for him to come all the way to Haverford. It was “definitely not an easy choice to make,” he said, “but it turned out to be the right one.”
How did Lou help you develop your thesis topic, conduct your research, and/or interpret your results?
As far the actual research is concerned, I enjoyed the fact that Lou [Charkoudian] was relatively hands-off with me—and others as well—allowing me to carry out my experiments and explore different routes without excessive oversight. At the same time, however, she was always available, any time, to meet to talk over past results and plan for future experiments—even this year, when she was technically on maternity leave, she was always around! In this regard, her experience and advice have been crucial—there are many times an experiment did not work, but with her intuition we were able to figure out what was wrong, or devise an alternate route that worked equally well. She has been helping me build this intuition, which is crucial to any chemist.
What did you learn working on your thesis?
First of all, the motto I always like to repeat is that research is not a sprint, but rather more like a marathon. With some exceptions of course, nothing good can come out of rash experiments—it is important to know where your limits are and what level of research you can sustain without compromising quality. Another important lesson that Lou [taught] me is to “keep my eyes on the prize.” As I have learned over and over—and can’t seem to learn enough—it is easy in research to get carried away by minutiae and to explore secondary routes that ultimately turn out to be “dead ends.” One of the important takeaways from this thesis work is the ability to instinctively tell which routes are best to explore and which ones are best left out, even though they are still interesting in their own right.
-Michael Weber ’19
Photo by Holden Blanco ’17.
“What They Learned”is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.