Dinner With Discoverers: An Evening With Dr. Mansukh Wani

(by nccurise) Nov 05 2011

Dr. Mansukh Wani with NCCU pharmaceutical sciences master's students Edward Garner (left) and Adama Secka (right). Credit: DJ Kroll

On the evening of October 26th, we had the remarkable pleasure to have dinner with Dr. Mansukh Wani, Chemist Emeritus of RTI International (formerly Research Triangle Institute). Together with his longtime collaborator, the late Dr. Monroe Wall, Dr. Wani and colleagues isolated and determined the structures of the anticancer drugs Taxol and camptothecin. Taxol has been a mainstay in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer while camptothecin gave rise to two, semi-synthetic FDA-approved drugs: topotecan (Hycamtin) and irinotecan (Camptosar).

For these discoveries they received numerous awards culminating in the naming of the RTI Natural Products Laboratory as a National Historic Chemical Landmark of the American Chemical Society in 2003. The landmark application was led by Dr. Nick Oberlies, now in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; he and Dr. Kroll formulated the application and supplementary historical information into a 2004 review article in the Journal of Natural Products (DOI: 10.1021/np030498t)

Shalonda Ingram and Adama Secka, master's students in pharmaceutical sciences, show off one of the original isolates of taxol from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, Taxus brevifolia.

In this interview for an Indian publication in the Research Triangle, Dr. Wani shares what it was like to move to North Carolina in 1962. He graciously accepted our invitation to tell these and other stories to us at Sitar Indian restaurant, a Durham favorite.

Rather than recap his discussion of his career, we thought it would be more valuable to share with you student insights from their evening with this remarkable, warm, and humble man.

From Adama Secka, M.S. Candidate, Pharmaceutical Sciences:

Wednesday, October 26th 2011 will be a day that I will always remember for the rest of my life; I met the most incredible man in our science world. He was most genuine, kind, patient, and supportive - I mean he is the co-discoverer of the anti-cancer agents Taxol and Camptothecin and he found time to have dinner with us and give us his autograph. What an incredible man! During the dinner, he showed interest in every one of us and gave us advice, I was so impressed with him, his life story and the road to discovering Taxol. He has inspired me to NEVER give up and always believe in my work. Thank you very much Dr. Wani.

From Melony Ochieng, RISE Scholar, Senior, Pharmaceutical Sciences & Chemistry:

On October 26 2011, I had the privilege to have dinner with Dr. Wani, who is accredited with the discovery and characterization of camptothecin and Taxol. Taxol now constitutes 22% of all major cancer chemotherapy drugs in the world market. Last year alone it grossed in 2.4 billion dollars, lengthening millions of people’s lives.  As an aspiring medicinal chemist, I know very well that is hard to discover a biologically active compound, but even more elusive is the discovery two compounds. With these facts in mind, I wanted to know what makes someone a great scientist. What were the rules of success?

For two hours, I listened attentively to Dr. Wani as he narrated his life story and came to this conclusion; I want to be like Dr. Wani. I want to find satisfaction in my work so much so that I can persevere during down times of research. I want to surround myself with people who continuously pursue their dreams. In addition, I want to have a mentor like Dr. Wani’s whom will recognize my potential and helped me gain the confidence to pursue lofty dreams. Lastly but not least, I want to continuously strive for excellence. As he reiterated, the structure of Taxol is complex. It has 11 chiral centers, that is 2048 stereoisomers. With so many possibilities, they might have not published the correct structural configuration of Taxol, if they were not striving for excellence. Above all, I like Dr. Wani want to serve others something of value.

NCCU Eagles RISE and NCCU science students with Dr. Mansukh Wani. Left to right: Anthony Clark, Edward Garner, Veatasha Dorsey, Melony Ochieng, Dr. Wani, Dr. Kroll, Shalonda Ingram, Adama Secka, and Jovia Ochieng.

From Anthony Clark, Senior, Biology:

A few days ago I was invited to attend a dinner with some of my friends and other classmates. I did not expect it to learn anything, just a night out as a college student hanging with friends over food and drinks. However when I arrived, there sits an older man chatting with a few of the students whom arrived earlier. From my perspective all I see is a nice elderly gentleman who is soft spoken and mild mannered enjoying a few appetizers and the company that sits around him. As people settle in Dr. Kroll briefly introduces Dr. Wani and tells us that he has some words that he would like to share. He shares with us that he (Dr. Wani) is one of the (if not the most important) discoverers of Taxol and Camptothecin. Two of the major anticancer agents still used today…WOW.  Not what I thought when I first saw him. And it’s not as much as what he did but how he did it, through perseverance and determination. What I gained most from that dinner was to never give up on your dreams and dedicate your life to a good cause and you will enjoy it.

From Shalonda Ingram, RISE Scholar, M.S. Candidate, Pharmaceutical Sciences:

Dinner with Dr. Wani was a mind blowing and monumental experience that I will FOREVER remember. Although there was SO much to gather from the night, the most important messages that really hit home were the messages of humility and perseverance, both of which seem to have played an essential role in the success of Dr. Wani. Having the opportunity to sit beside him and experience his presence and expertise for just those few hours provided a lot of inspiration to continue in the path of my career to achieve all that I wish to achieve. 

And last, but certainly not least, Environmental Science & Political Science Senior, Veatasha Dorsey shared with us her 14-minute video reflection on meeting Dr. Wani:

Thank you, Dr. Wani, for a most memorable evening!

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Aletheia Burrell: Toward Non-Surgical Treatments for Uterine Fibroids

(by nccurise) Sep 24 2011

Dr. Friederike Jayes, Aletheia Burrell, Dr. Phyllis Leppert, and Dr. Darlene Taylor after Aletheia's summer research presentation, 26 August 2011. Photo credit: DJ Kroll/NCCU RISE

Today's NCCU RISE Scholar perspective comes from Aletheia Burrell. Aletheia has been conducting her research project with Dr. Darlene Taylor, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at North Carolina Central University. Dr. Taylor is a fellow of the Duke University BIRCWH program of the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health, a collaborative NIH K12 program aimed at developing the careers of junior faculty dedicated to the study of women's health.

Aletheia benefits from Dr. Taylor's own mentorship by Phyllis Leppert, MD, PhD, a recognized Duke physician-scientist researcher in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Department of Pathology. As Dr. Leppert transitions toward retirement, we at NCCU RISE are particularly grateful for the continued mentoring by Friederike Jayes, PhD, and her commitment to the mission of the NCCU Eagles RISE program. What's been most exciting to me as a RISE program director is just how involved Dr. Jayes and Dr. Leppert have been in Aletheia's development toward doctoral training. 

Well, perhaps I should let Aletheia tell you. . . - DJK

Toward non-surgical treatments for uterine fibroids
by Aletheia Burrell, North Carolina Central University

Hola Scientopia; ¿Como estas?

I’m Aletheia Burrell, a junior biology major, with a Spanish minor, from Sanford, North Carolina via Athens, Alabama (originally ). My current aspirations involve obtaining a MD/PhD…. I’m not entirely sure about what I want my PhD in yet, but Obstetrics and Gynecology is a definite interest as far as the MD is concerned!

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RISE mentors in NCCU promo video!

(by nccurise) Sep 22 2011

A few weeks ago, a camera crew from WRAL-TV in Raleigh was on campus to capture our gestalt for their College Road Trip program featuring Research Triangle-area universities.

We're really proud of the entire piece because it shows the comprehensive nature of NCCU. However, it's nice to see two of our RISE mentors - Dr. Antonio Baines from Biology (and former UNC-Chapel Hill SPIRE Fellow) and RISE P.I. Dr. David Kroll - representing the sciences here.

Drs. Baines and Kroll are in the segment running from 1:55 until about 3:00 but please watch the whole video so you can learn about our outstanding university environment here in Durham, North Carolina.



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Diversity from the top

(by nccurise) Aug 04 2011

While not necessarily related to science directly, we pay a lot of attention to general issues of diversity in the workplace. So do some of our scientific organizations.

Today, we received the Diversity eBrief from the American Chemical Society, a newsletter with great links to diversity issues in science and the business of science. One of the more interesting articles cited was written for Harvard Business Review by the former CEO of the Campbell Soup Company, Douglas R. Conant.

In his article, How to Make Diversity and Inclusion Real, Conant writes:

I believe that when a CEO visibly stands for openness, diversity, and inclusion, it sends an essential message to the organization. In too many companies, the managerial ranks lack role models for women, people of color, and the LGBT community. But in my company's (Campbell's) case, diversity is about more than breaking glass ceilings — whether color, sexual, or generational. It's about mirroring our consumers, 80% of whom are women from all ethnicities and walks of life. How can we possibly serve them well if the managers in our company don't viscerally understand them?

Conant follows with five steps he took at Campbell beginning with "Face the brutal facts," an approach he took by soliciting an external firm to look at the makeup of the company:

The brutal facts were that our products were on the shelves of virtually every American home, but our workforce was insufficiently representative of the diverse people we were serving. Also, if we maintained a narrow recruiting framework, we would be also be missing out on some terrific talent. We simply had to do better.

Conant opens with an interesting personal story and while relatively short, the article is a good read.



Conant, Douglas R. How to Make Diversity and Inclusion Real. The HBR Blog Network, Harvard Business Review, 28 July 2011. Last accessed 4 August 2011 at:



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Victoria Jones having a sweet research rotation in Hershey

(by nccurise) Jun 30 2011

We've been a bit silent since the end of the semester as many of our RISE scholars have gone off for their summer research experiences at PhD-granting institutions. Missives have been slow coming in while the students become familiar with their summer projects. Today, the illustrious Victoria Jones shares with us her current experience at Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

Victoria shining in the sun (and in the lab!) at Penn State Hershey.

Greetings Scientopia!

I’m Victoria Jones, a rising NCCU sophomore chemistry major from Raleigh, North Carolina. My ultimate aspiration is to earn an MD/PhD.

This summer I’m currently participating in the American Heart Association’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (AHA-SURF) program at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. It is a ten-week program that allows us to conduct research and present our findings via poster presentations at the final Research Symposium.

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NCCU remembers Harry Glenn

(by nccurise) May 03 2011

The death of Osama bin Laden this week has brought back memories for friends and families who lost loved ones not only in the September 11 terrorist attacks but in other acts attributed to bin Laden and al-Qaeda such as the 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Of the 2,977 victims of the 9/11 attacks, there were just three were listed as having homes in North Carolina.

At North Carolina Central University we remember New Jersey resident, Mr. Harry Glenn, NCCU Class of 1983.

A campus memorial to Harry Glenn, NCCU Class of 1983. A larger version can be viewed by clicking on the photo.

If you walk across the south side of the Hoey Administration Building, you'll see a commemorative stone for Mr. Glenn set there by his fellow students of the Class of 1983. He met his wife, Sharon, here at NCCU where they both earned degrees in business administration. I suspect that her name is the reason that a Rose of Sharon tree was selected to shade Mr. Glenn's marker.

Mr. Glenn grew up in East Harlem, came to NCCU for college, and then returned to the New York City area with his wife. There, he worked for AT&T in Piscataway, New Jersey, then held other positions until joining Marsh & McLellan in the World Trade Center. On September 11, 2001, the 38-year-old husband and father of a son, Jalen, was working as assistant vice president in the global technology service department.

The Chicago-founded insurance corporation occupied eight floors of the WTC North Tower and lost 295 employees and 60 contract workers on that day.

Mr. Glenn's Legacy.com entry tells the story of a life that we expect of all of our NCCU graduates, one of excellence, truth and service. From The New York Times:

Harry Glenn was the pride of his family, the fourth of five boys, the son who said he was going to college to learn all about computers, and then went and did it. Mr. Glenn's father, Roosevelt, loved to brag about his boy Harry, 38, how he kept his promise and how he managed to get a good job looking after Marsh & McLennan's elaborate network of computers. "A lot of people didn't believe he could come out of Harlem and do as well as he did," Mr. Glenn said. "But Harry had a goal that he set for himself, and he followed it. I don't think he had any idea how many people were proud of him."

And from Ashley Grey of the Newark Star-Ledger:

"He was a very focused individual," Mrs. Glenn said. "A very hard worker . . . Everybody loved Harry. He just had that gift. He was always helping out."

He was not only a good father to his son, but a father figure to neighborhood children.

"He was a very good person to everybody. He spoke to everybody, he was a very warm person," said Susan Burwell, whose family lived next to the Glenns for seven years.

He volunteered in a black leadership mentoring program while at AT&T as well as other mentoring programs throughout his career.

As I walk past the Rose of Sharon and commemorative stone a few times a week, I have a continuous reminder of our responsibilities as mentors of the NCCU RISE scholars who write here.

We cannot bring back Mr. Glenn but we can act in a manner that honors his memory.

Mr. Glenn continues to be remembered online at his Legacy.com guestbook and at the 9-11 Heroes guestbook.

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Samantha Cacace: The psychology of choosing psychology

(by nccurise) Apr 28 2011

One of the stated goals of the NIGMS RISE mechanism is to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups who pursue doctoral education in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. We are fortunate here at NCCU to have an excellent Department of Psychology (and other social sciences departments) who collaborate closely with the basic science departments. Psychology and Public Health Education faculty are key members, for example, of projects within a NCI U54 cancer research program to examine behavioral and community-based approaches to increasing cancer screening among local minority groups.

The position of the NCCU RISE internal advisory board has been that the behavioral sciences are intertwined with critical issues where basic sciences directly influence the human condition. What good is understanding dietary causes of diabetes, cancer, and/or obesity, if people don't or can't use this information to reduce their disease risk? And how do our interactions with one another influence our health?

Today, we bring you one of our RISE scholars from the Department of Psychology, Samantha Cacace. Sam is a completing her first year in the Master's Program in Psychology after getting hooked on the field over at our constituent member institution, NC State University in Raleigh (about 20 miles away). We've asked Samantha to tell us about her path to this discipline and elaborate on her first professional meeting presentation earlier this month.

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Melony Ochieng: A Thomas J. Bardos Science Education Award winner reflects on her first AACR Meeting

(by nccurise) Apr 20 2011

NCCU RISE Scholar Melony Ochieng is currently a junior at North Carolina Central University where she is a double major in Pharmaceutical Sciences and Chemistry. She is currently the president of the NCCU student chapter of the American Chemical Society and a coordinator of Women Inspiring Learning Momentum, a mentoring program for middle-school girls.

Melony Ochieng. Photo: Nzingha Saunders
Melony Ochieng
Photo: Nzingha Saunders

Aside from her leadership positions, she is currently working on developing a drug delivery system for breast cancer under the guidance of Dr. Darlene Taylor in the Department of Chemistry. In addition to her NCCU experiences, Melony has interned at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill doing research in biophysics, at the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznan, Poland, doing research in photophysics and photochemistry in conjunction with Dr. Stefan Franzen, North Carolina State University.  This coming summer she will intern at The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

In this post, Melony journals her experience at the 102nd Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). Melony competed in the undergraduate research caucus as a 2011-2012 AACR-Thomas J. Bardos Science Education Awardee. (Background on Dr. Bardos and his named award can be found here.) Melony's project with Dr. Taylor was to synthesize a nanoparticle conjugate of the poorly-soluble breast cancer drug, fulvestrant, to enhance selective delivery of the active compound.

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Thoughts are with Shaw University

(by nccurise) Apr 17 2011

An area of south Raleigh, NC, in and around the university was hard hit yesterday by a tornado.

Those of you in the US are probably aware that a huge swath of bad weather across the Southeast spawning tornadoes has killed dozens of people, 22 here in North Carolina alone.

One area hit heavily was just south of downtown Raleigh, the state capital, in and around the campus of Shaw University. Shaw is an independent, historically Black university founded in 1865.  Shaw was also home from 1881 to 1914 of Leonard Medical School and School of Pharmacy that graduated some of the most influential African-American physicians and pharmacists of their day. Among those was the late Dr. James E. Shepard, founder of our university.

While Shaw was fortunate that no students or staff were killed or injured, damage to the campus was extensive enough that Shaw President Dr. Irma McClaurin has canceled classes for the rest of the semester. A detailed letter explaining how school activities cannot be safely conducted is contained within this PDF of a letter released today.

The city has set up a shelter at Southeast Raleigh High School for all in the area, including about 150 Shaw students who are reported displaced. While the campus is normally easily accessed from the S Saunders St exit on Interstate 40 (#298), streets in the area are closed and authorities recommend that all except trained aid and utility workers stay out of the area today.

Update 1: This assembly of time-lapse images from WRAL-TV shows a large column developing from the south toward downtown Raleigh.

Update 2: The NOAA report (PDF) on the tornado activity across a 63-mile path indicates that the tornado decreased in intensity as it hit Shaw, then strengthened again as it moved northeast.

Update 3 (Mon 18 Apr): Columnist Barry Saunders of the Raleigh News & Observer wrote this morning that a fund has been established to defray the costs associated with this weekend's tornado damage:

President McClaurin said the school has set up a disaster relief fund at Mechanics & Farmers Bank at 13 E. Hargett St., Raleigh, 27601. [Indicate on checks that the funds are intended for the "Shaw University Disaster Relief Fund."]

I've been live-streaming Shaw's excellent jazz radio station, WSHA 88.9 FM, since I finished teaching this morning and am learning that the community is really coming out in support of all those affected by these tornadoes.

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Welcome to the NCCU Eagles RISE blog!

(by nccurise) Apr 17 2011


Greetings from North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in Durham, North Carolina in the heart of the Research Triangle Park Region.

We are a four-year, comprehensive university that grants bachelor's, master's, and law degrees as one of 17 constituent institutions in The University of North Carolina system.

Founded in 1910 by pharmacist, theologian, and businessman, Dr. James E. Shepard, NCCU is also classified by the US Department of Education as one of the country's 105 historically-Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). HBCUs were defined by Congress in Title III of The Higher Education Act of 1965 as, "any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans." Among these, NCCU was the nation’s first state-supported liberal arts college for African-American students when North Carolina took fiscal responsibility for the school in 1925. This is a good primer on HBCUs in general.

While the current student body of 8,600 remains approximately 80% African-American, students from all backgrounds are welcome and seek out NCCU for its specialized programs in the sciences, the liberal arts, business, and law. As this blog develops, we will share with you some of the historical figures and current success stories that have originated at our institution.

What is RISE?

NIGMS has been operating the Minority Based Research Support (MBRS) program since 1972.

But you are a Scientopia reader and probably want to know what we have to do with this community. NCCU Eagles RISE is a project funded through a R25 mechanism by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). RISE, or Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement, is one component of the NIGMS Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) Program.

The goal of this program is to increase the number of NCCU students from underrepresented groups majoring in biology, chemistry, pharmaceutical sciences, and psychology that attain doctoral degrees and proceed to postdoctoral research training.

Why do we need such a program?

Students from underrepresented groups are just that: the percentage of students in the biomedical and behavioral sciences are far below those of the general population of the United States. Recent studies have revealed three major reasons for the poor entry rates and large attrition rates of minority students in doctoral programs: 1) less than desired student academic performance, 2) a failure to feel a part of the scientific community, and 3) a failure to feel capable of doing the work of a scientist (scientific self-efficacy). Dr. Martin Chemers, a social psychologist from UC-Santa Cruz whose research focuses on the success of underrepresented minorities in science and mathematics, reported that scientific self-efficacy and identity as a scientist were mediators of a commitment to a research career and recommended that programs should focus on these psychological factors.

The NCCU RISE program provides B.S. and M.S. students with research opportunities and one-on-one mentoring at NCCU and collaborating PhD-granting institutions together with the career development skills necessary for success in the tribe of science. One component of this program is the establishment of this blog as a mechanism for RISE Scholars to interact with members of the larger scientific community.

Who are we and why Scientopia?

This site is edited by NCCU RISE Principal Investigator, Dr. David Kroll (author of this post), and will feature the activities and writing of RISE undergraduates and master's students. Scientopia readers will recognize me as a long-time science blogger. I have been impressed by the power of this medium to increase the interaction of trainees with mentors - and each other - from across the US and around the world.

In fact, many of those who freely share their advice and experiences across the science blogosphere are right here at the Scientopia network. And Scientopia is also home to writers and scientists who have a strong track record of vocal commitment to diversity and opportunity in the STEM disciplines. I am grateful to the Board for being willing to facilitate this experiment at the network.

Other contributors will be NCCU RISE Program Coordinator, Kenneth Cutler, Director of NC Project SEED, and Chair of the NCCU RISE Internal Advisory Board, Dr. Faye Calhoun, former Deputy Director of the NIH's National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In future posts, we'll feature each of these program leaders.

And, in closing, here is our standard disclaimer to keep us in good stead with our affiliated institutions:

Opinions expressed here are solely those of faculty and student authors and do not in any way reflect the views of the North Carolina Central University, collaborating universities and institutes, NIGMS, or the National Institutes of Health.

Again, welcome - we look forward everyone learning about our RISE Scholars and interacting with the greater scientific community.

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