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Student Profile in Total Synthesis

Jake Aquilina

Organic Chemistry Graduate Program

Mentor: Myles Smith, Ph.D.
Undergraduate Degree: Forensic Science Toxicology
Undergraduate Institution: CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Hometown: Sayville, NY

Awards/Fellowships: Graduate: Biochemistry Molecule of the Year Award, National Institute of Health Chemistry-Biology Interface T32 Training Grant Fellowship; Undergraduate: NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Honorable Mention, Outstanding Presentation in Organic Chemistry Award Rice University Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium

Jake Aquilina

How did you become interested in science and/or research?

My initial interests in science came from watching TV shows like cold case with my grandfather, who was once a New York City Police officer and trying to understand the science behind each criminal investigation. I pursued forensic science for my undergraduate studies at John Jay with the idea of going to medical school afterwards. However, my career protectory shifted after my first summer undergraduate research internship at Michigan State University, where I found myself doing organic synthesis. I was excited by the intricacy and challenges found within synthesizing complex molecules that were biologically relevant as potential future medicines. I explored many other organic chemistry research opportunities at John Jay as well other institutions such as Caltech and Brookhaven National Laboratory, which confirmed my decision to come to graduate school continuing my passion for the synthesis of complex molecules and development of new synthetic methodologies for drug discovery.

Please describe your research.

In the Smith lab, I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a few projects revolved around complex natural product synthesis. My first project was focused on the synthesis of an antimalarial alkaloid including the development of synthesizing the natural product in an asymmetric fashion. My other projects have also been focused on synthesizing other biologically relevant natural products and the synthetic methodologies that go along with constructing these complex targets.

Why did you choose UT Southwestern?

While searching for graduate programs, I wanted a program that had a strong foundation in synthetic organic chemistry and reaction development with many applications towards medicine. At UT Southwestern, I found a unique organic chemistry program with exceptional professors, passionate about organic synthesis, chemical reactivity, reaction development as well as medicinal chemistry. What really stood out to me was the friendly collaborative environment that exists here, between faculty and students across multiple disciplines that can drive research past the bench top to the clinics. All the required course work is finished in the first year, with no required teaching responsibilities, and the ability to do rotations to decide which group a student would like to join. Additionally, UT Southwestern is a world-renowned institute with many Nobel laureates, major scientific breakthroughs, and strong desire in the translation of basic science from the bench to the clinic.

What do you think makes the Organic Chemistry Program one of the best?

The organic chemistry program at UT Southwestern is highly focused on organic synthesis, synthetic methodology and the development of organic materials for novel therapeutics. All the professors and faculty here are experts in their respective fields, but also contain a breadth of scientific knowledge that they are eager to pass onto all their students. The small class sizes allow for a more personal connection to the faculty as well as a more individualized learning experience in the classroom and the lab that is unparalleled at larger universities.

What do you love about the Organic Chemistry Program?

The Organic Chemistry program focus on complex chemical synthesis, development of methodology and their applications towards potential therapeutics is unmatched. The extremely friendly and collaborative environment here between scientists who push to be experts in their respect fields, as well as the strong passion for translational medicine is what makes UT Southwestern unique to me.

- Jake Aquilina

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