Cancer work: UW-Green Bay students help push science forward

student researchersEvery year, in UW-Green Bay’s Natural and Applied Sciences program, students work toward a cure for cancer.

Students under the direction of Julie Lukesh, assistant professor of Natural and Applied Sciences, are working with a natural compound called obolactone. Found in the cryptocarya obovata tree native to North Vietnam, the substance has been shown to act against certain types of cancer.

Lukesh and her students have been working to synthesize the compound since January 2006, when she began the project.

So far, no dramatic breakthroughs, and no multi-million research grants. All the same, the students who assist Lukesh are polishing their laboratory and problem-solving skills at the same time they’re helping the scientific community cover new ground in a potentially promising field of research.

“We have completed several synthetic steps and are maybe half done,” Lukesh says.

Progress is gradual, Lukesh explains, because of both the challenging nature of the science and the fact her student research team naturally experiences turnover.

“It takes a long time for students to learn the lab techniques and it always seems that as soon as they become comfortable in the lab and are making progress, they graduate,” she says.

Roxanne Alvarez, a chemistry major with the American Chemical Society certification through UW-Green Bay, has been working on the project since last fall.

Alvarez describes an average day in the lab as a painstaking, step-by-step process of gathering the necessary chemicals for the reaction, setting up glassware or other equipment and then carrying out the experimental procedures. She runs several product purification and identification techniques to confirm the previous step worked correctly.

“Sometimes there are setbacks, but it is always satisfying when a reaction turns out,” she says.

“It is very exciting to think that the research being done today could lead to the cures and treatments of tomorrow. Even though I may never see the final synthesis of obolactone during my research experience, what I do get finished will build another layer of the foundation needed for someone else to eventually find the cure or treatment for cancer.”

Lukesh estimates that final results will be several years away. The project is funded by the UW-Green Bay Research Council’s Grant in Aid of Integrating Teaching and Research.

— Story by Rachel Rivard, spring editorial intern and May 2009 graduate