Richard Mullins has blue-green algae on his brain. Not literally, of course. On his mind is more like it. The assistant professor of chemistry can’t stop thinking about a specific strain of blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria, which is found only in the deepest parts of the ocean.
For the last two years and for the next three years, cyanobacteria is at the center of his thoughts, because deep within the bacteria is a molecule that has been found to halt tumor production and may, ultimately, put a halt to cancer. Other organic chemists have already developed a process to reproduce the molecule in a lab setting, but it is a long, multi-step process with many complexities.
So Mullins is focusing on synthesizing and quickening the process. The Research Corporation awarded him the Cottrell College Science Award, a five-year, $35,754 grant that covers research expenses, including funding of two student assistants. The University matched part of the award to cover the cost for a third student. All of which is especially impressive considering Xavier isn’t considered, by definition, a research institution. But Mullins, who joined the faculty in 2004 after receiving his Ph.D. from Indiana University, does not let definitions define his work.
"I don’t believe you are a scientist merely by studying science, but by actually doing it,” he says. “And as an academic, I’m not doing it for the practical, commercial aspect. To me, it’s more of an interesting question. And I think that the answer is important and will be important to other people as well.”
The work is just beginning, though, and the answer is still several years away—if then. So they slug away, conducting experiments that change tiny elements of the kalkitoxin molecule in order to see what parts of the molecule are essential to its use as a tumor-halting agent, and what parts can be replaced with simpler elements. This could mean making hundreds of test compounds before achieving that perfect result.
“We will be working on it for at least the next three years, perhaps longer depending on the success of the project,” Mullins says. “Whether or not the research will look exactly the same five years from now, I don’t know. But the research we will be doing then will be derived from the groundwork we are laying now.” But for Mullins, nothing could be more exciting than this tedious process. “Behind every drug that is known to man is an organic molecule. And more than likely, an organic chemist had something to do with it,” he says. “Why be a doctor that prescribes a drug when you can be an organic chemist that makes the drug?”
And he has passed this enthusiasm down to his students, who often spend up to nine hours a day in the lab and even come in on weekends in order to finish experiments. The prospect of being part of a project that might one day cure cancer is worth it to Leke Oni. “If we were just making some random molecule, it wouldn’t be worth it,” he says. Junior Amy Grote agrees: “This is a great cause. Everyone knows someone who was affected by cancer. There have been a lot of roadblocks and restarts, but you just have to come in and work on it. It’s like a huge puzzle and one day it will be complete.”
For Mullins, the long days are worth it. “There is nothing that I would rather be doing,” he says. Then he smiles and turns back to his work.