Inside CAS

College of Arts and Sciences

News and Notes

UNCW senior creates compounds in hopes of treating neurodegenerative diseases

Friday, May 13, 2016


Article and Photo by Amanda McGahey '16

Honors student, published writer, SURCA winner, American Chemical Society National Meeting presenter, and chemistry and biology double major – these are just a few of senior Kristen Maiden’s outstanding accomplishments during her time at UNCW. With more than 14,000 undergraduates attending UNCW, students find it difficult to stand out among their peers; however, Maiden has undoubtedly made her mark.

Before attending UNCW, Maiden knew she wanted to pursue a degree in health care. Because of her interests, she began taking courses in biology and chemistry and immediately fell in love with the opportunities both departments offered. Prior to beginning college, Maiden intended on sailing through by completing the bare minimum.  Her mindset changed when she reached out to her Organic Chemistry II professor, Dr. Jeremy Morgan.

“Kristen was a top student in my organic chemistry lecture,” says Morgan. “I always take notice of these students and approach them about their interest in independent research. She was a rare case as she was a biology major with a strong passion for organic chemistry. She was able to add a chemistry major and began research the next semester.”

Through their countless meetings, Maiden began making a set of new compounds which she hoped would interact with brain receptors. These compounds, called tryptamines, have three places Maiden can chemically change through her experiments.

“By varying these three places, I was able to make a set of related, but unique compounds,” says Maiden. “These compounds were then tested at UNC Chapel Hill for their ability to interact with brain receptors. Finding a compound with the strongest interaction suggests that specific chemical structure could have a medicinal use.”

As Maiden described the procedure, the creation of the numerous compounds is merely step one of a forty-step process. However, it is a tremendously vital step that could help treat patients with neurodegenerative diseases.

“Making a medicine takes many, many steps,” says Maiden. “We are hoping to target receptors that could be important in treating neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.”

Maiden’s research findings were so impressive that she was selected to present them at the American Chemical Society National Meeting in San Diego on March 13-17. This national meeting draws in nearly 16,000 scientists and only 500 were chosen to present their research to the attendees. For her presentation, Maiden was able to converse with other renowned scientists about her research and even received suggestions on next steps she could take with the study.

“It was amazing see what other undergraduate researchers were doing,” says Maiden. “I was blown away at how much we contribute to our labs and the chemistry community as a whole.” 

Many undergraduates do not have the opportunities Maiden has been presented with, and she says she owes it all to the Summer Undergraduate Research and Creativity Award (SURCA), sponsored by the Center for Support of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CSURF), that allows students to be paid to work full-time in a lab. This is the most productive time of the year for students completing research studies because they can focus all of their attention solely on their lab work.  

SURCA also allowed Morgan to hire Jesse Kidd, a senior chemistry major from Concord University in West Virginia. Kidd and Maiden collaborated all summer to create a total of 26 compounds – each of which were vital steps in their study. Creating compounds is a time-consuming and intricate process and therefore, Maiden was especially thankful to have Kidd’s guidance. 

Publishing research is a dream come true for any scientist. This dream came to life when Maiden, Morgan and Kidd worked together to publish their study in the renowned journal, Tetrahedron. Their article, titled, "Synthesis of β-substituted tryptamines by regioselective ring opening of aziridines,” is currently available online and will be published in print this summer. Even after presenting her findings at the national meeting in San Diego, publishing these findings is her greatest accomplishment.

“Having the funding, facilities, classrooms and labs really feeds into being able to think about and do research in an independent foundation,” said Maiden. “I know a lot of people at other universities that don’t get to do nearly as much independent research as an undergrad and for that, I’m truly thankful to say I am a Seahawk.”