University of Minnesota
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Undergraduate research helps hone skills of budding scientists

Interest in science + passion for helping others = a possible future as a chemist or doctor for Mohamed Ahmed. He is a senior undergraduate student who has been conducting research since June 2013, under the tutelage of Professor Mark Distefano and Graduate Student Jeffrey Vervacke.

Following the civil war in his home country of Somalia, Mohamed and his family immigrated to the United and States and Minnesota in 2010. Mohamed said that his family was fortunate to live in the northern part of Somalia—a stable and safe place to live with good education and health care. Mohamed finished his high school education at the Ubah Medical Academy, a charter high school in Hopkins, MN. After graduating from high school, Mohamed took classes at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) before transferring to the University of Minnesota in the spring of 2013.

By June 2013, Mohamed was engaged in research, working in Distefano’s organic synthesis laboratory through the University’s Multicultural Summer Research Opportunity Program. He has also received support for his studies and research from the Community Health Initiative, the NorthStar Stem Alliance, and the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. In Distefano’s laboratory, Mohamed is engaged in a broad range of research, conducting synthesis work for graduate students.

“I have always liked science,” said Mohamed. Pursuing chemistry where I can really see, touch and realize the difference our research makes really interests me.”

Mohamed’s undergraduate research project involves the synthesis of phosphonophosphate analogs of farnesyl pyrophosphates (FPP) to study the posttranslational modification, protein prenylation. For this project, Mohamed learned and preformed an array of small molecule synthesis techniques requiring purification of complex reaction mixtures. Having successfully completed his synthesis, Mohamed’s compound is currently being used in in vitro studies by collaborators at the Medical School of Wisconsin.

“Mohamed is great undergraduate researcher, said Vervacke. “He is organized in his preparation, and shows a refined skill in both lab awareness and execution. Above all, Mohamed is respectful; always doing what he can to help better the lab even if sacrificing his own free time is required.”

After graduating from the University this spring, Mohamed plans to take a year off to perhaps work in industry before returning to graduate school with a focus on chemistry or on medical school.

“I like working in a lab, but I also like interacting with people while serving my community, which is why I may pursue the medical field,” said Mohamed. “There are so many people in the African community in need, and they need someone who can speak directly to them in their native language.”

Mohamed is not the only one from his family interested in chemistry and medicine. His brother Abdimalik graduated last May, and conducted research under the tutelage of Edgar Arriaga.

Professor Distefano has long served as an adviser to student researchers from diverse backgrounds. “The State of Minnesota is home to a diverse population originating from a range of cultures,” he said. “As part of our mission to promote education and create new knowledge, members of the Chemistry Department are committed to engaging a diverse group of students in research activities. An inclusive environment is key for maintaining the scientifically literate populace required for our technologically advanced society. Working with students from different backgrounds and watching them develop into productive scientists and achieve their dreams is one of the great joys of being a faculty member at Minnesota.”

In addition to his studies and research, Mohamed also has a strong commitment to helping others. He tutors MCTC students in chemistry and math, and tutoring young students in math and science at the Franklyn library on Saturdays.

“When you receive help, you have to give it back,” he said.