The way chemist Joe Langenhan sees it, undergraduate research is the pinnacle of academic excellence. Partnering with students in his groundbreaking research and mentoring them as they grow from novices into experts is just as important to him as his own scholarship.
Langenhan is himself a formidable scholar and the holder of two patents related to cancer-fighting drugs. He is also the author of 24 peer-reviewed articles in leading science journals such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and the American Chemical Society Medicinal Chemistry Letters.
A member of the faculty since 2005, when he began his search for a university that would make use of his skills, Langenhan’s mission was clear. He sought a small school where undergraduates are the singular focus of science programs. As a university that intentionally chooses to concentrate on interdisciplinary research in the sciences for undergraduates, Seattle University fit the bill and provided the diverse academic environment for him to excel at the junction between biology and organic chemistry.
What he and students can do to affect human health continues to inspire him. Together, Langenhan and his students alter the structure of biologically relevant molecules to understand how they work, then find ways to change their functions. They might synthesize 100 molecules, do biological testing, apply a drug to human cancer cells and look for its potency and selectivity. It’s a bad sign if a drug kills all the cancer cells, an indication the drug might kill normal cells, too. Langenhan’s peer-reviewed publication in the American Chemical Society Medicinal Chemistry Letters, “A Direct Comparison of the Anti-cancer Activities of Digitoxin MeON-Neoglycosides and O-Glycosides: Oligosaccharide Chain Length-Dependent Induction of Caspase-9-Mediated Apoptosis,” compares two anticancer approaches he developed with his students.
Langenhan and his students also conduct research involving new antibiotics, which constantly require changes to battle ever-mutating infections. With infections, viruses and cancers, the search for new drugs never ends, says Langenhan, which sometimes frustrates students. His response: that’s why it’s called research, not search. Doing it again and again is part of the quest.