Chemistry student’s Harvard opportunity

Growing up in South Carolina, Seresa McDowell developed an interest in science that led to her starting a premed major in college. While she decided she didn’t like the hospital part of the work, she did really like working as a chemistry lab assistant.

Eventually, after earning a chemical technology degree from a community college in North Carolina, she moved to Milwaukee seven years ago to work as a quality analyst at PPG, which makes paints and coatings. When she decided she wanted to advance in the field, she came to UWM to work on a chemistry degree, expanding her interest into organic and biochemistry.

She helped design and construct molecules as an undergraduate researcher in the lab of her mentor, Associate Professor Alan Schwabacher of chemistry and biochemistry. The lab is part of UWM’s Milwaukee Institute for Drug Discovery. She is now heading to Harvard for a post-baccalaureate research program that will be a bridge between her UWM work and graduate school.

Her interest in research grew out of her major. Students had the option of doing a thesis or research to complete their degree. McDowell chose research.

“Where I wanted to be was in the lab. Luckily, this was actual research I liked.” Her work in the lab involved working with a team that is designing molecules that interact with biomolecules in specific ways, and are sufficiently soluble to be studied in living organisms, according to Schwabacher.

The project is part of a collaboration of Schwabacher’s lab with Harvard University. The goal is to help develop and test new therapeutic drugs and possibly rejuvenate some drugs, like antibiotics, that have lost their effectiveness.

In summer 2020, with lab time limited for undergraduate researchers, McDowell turned to the library and the web, researching and writing about the issues involved in this area of drug development through the Ronald E. McNair program.

“That helped me get the bigger picture of what was going on. That ignited my interest even more.”

Throughout the summer, she kept in close contact with her mentor, who was impressed with her ability to put together and write about the pertinent information she was gathering from her research. One of Schwabacher’s collaborators, Professor Daniel Kahne of Harvard, was also impressed. He asked McDowell, “what would you think about coming over to Harvard to continue the research?”

McDowell is excited about heading to Harvard, but also nervous, she said. However, her UWM experience helping others research gives her confidence.

“I enjoy being a team member in this research and am excited to pursue my aspirations in this avenue of chemistry – in a lab.”

By Kathy Quirk, University Relations