DNA Strings on dark background


Hands-On Learning at the Intersection of Chemistry and Biology


Research partners Charlotte Berkes, Ph.D., and Jimmy Franco, Ph.D., interpret lab results with students.

On any given day, you can find Merrimack students in the lab or in the field conducting original research guided by Merrimack College School of Science and Engineering faculty. “Mentoring undergraduate research is an important part of our teaching,” explained CHARLOTTE BERKES, PH.D., associate professor of biology. “We believe students benefit from conducting hands- on research in the lab. It helps them understand and analyze a problem, say an infectious disease, down to the molecular level.”

Berkes found a kindred spirit in organic chemist JIMMY FRANCO, PH.D., associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Together, they have embarked on a long-term, multidisciplinary, antifungal drug development initiative aimed at finding a cure for histoplasmosis, a life-threatening disease caused by a pathogenic fungus.

“Several of my students use a combination of organic synthesis, biochemistry, and computational chemistry to identify and synthesize compounds in a quest for a cure,” said Franco.

“Not only does it help them understand the importance of what they’re doing; it makes them feel good about the work they’re putting into it.”

Their research into histoplasmosis has already yielded promising discoveries. “In recent years, there haven’t been many advances in the treatment of histoplasmosis—creating great need for the development of novel therapies. At Merrimack, we recently discovered that a subset of kinase inhibitors are potent inhibitors of Histoplasma growth,” remarked Berkes. Franco agreed, saying, “When you first start these adventures, there’s no guarantee it will work out, so that first breakthrough was a very exciting moment.”

Two years ago, Berkes presented their collaborative research findings at an antimicrobial chemotherapy conference, which inspired the Structural Genomics Consortium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to share a pharmaceutical compound library—the GlaxoSmithKline kinase inhibitor library—with Merrimack. “This was a huge win for us. Last spring, two Merrimack students screened the entire chemical library of 320 compounds, and we identified a handful that are strong inhibitors of Histoplasma growth, which we presented at the American Society for Microbiology General Meeting,” said Berkes.

The benefits of hands-on research experience extend far beyond the classroom. “Many of our students have gone on to pursue master’s degrees—their interest often sparked by their drug discovery experience,” explained Franco. “Yet, these advanced degree programs are really competitive. So having solid undergraduate research experience, sometimes even presenting work at a conference, really helps Merrimack students stand out.”