08/25/2011 07:00:00

Young Amgen Scholar Thrives in Summer Research Program

For many 17-year-old students, the summer before senior year represents a last hurrah before the reality of planning for life after high school sets in. But for Angela Guerrero, the summer before senior year represents an important step in an already flourishing research career. She may be 17, but she's prepping for her final year in college, with plans to pursue an MD/PhD upon graduation.

Guerrero worked at Caltech this summer in the lab of Brian Stoltz, Bowles Professor of Chemistry, as part of the Amgen Scholars Program. Similar to SURF, the program is a student-faculty summer research program that provides students who are interested in biology, chemistry, or biotech a 10-week opportunity to live on campus and conduct research in a laboratory. A double major in chemistry and biochemistry at California State University, Los Angeles, Guerrero entered college at the age of 13 through the university's Early Entrance Program. Determined to continue her studies beyond her undergraduate experience, Guerrero found the Amgen Scholars Program while browsing for summer research internships.

"I became very interested in the ongoing chemistry research at Caltech," says Guerrero, whose ultimate goal is to become a physician-scientist, so that she can teach at a university while maintaining an active research lab and practicing clinical medicine. "I had explored different areas of chemistry that I could possibly do my PhD work in, and synthetic organic chemistry was one of the fields that I wanted to learn more about."

Guerrero found her match in the Stoltz lab by literally roaming the halls of Caltech after an information session about the summer research programs.

"I was walking through Schlinger when I found the Stoltz lab, and a nice graduate student introduced me to Dr. Stoltz," she recalls. "After I communicated with Dr. Stoltz via phone and e-mail, he found a postdoc who was willing to mentor me, and I was matched to the variecolin project."

The Stoltz group focuses on synthesizing important and complex biologically active molecules, such as variecolin, which has proven to be a potent anti-HIV-1 natural product with the potential to be used in medications. In order to be used in pharmaceuticals, variecolin—an organic compound produced by fermentation of a fungus (Aspergillus variecolor)—needs to be synthesized to get large quantities. For her summer project, Guerrero—with the help of her mentor, Kun-Liang (Phil) Wu—constructed the AB-ring fragment, a necessary step in achieving the total synthesis of variecolin.

"The AB-ring fragment of variecolin is a diabolically tricky and has tormented us for some time, and Angela immediately utilized a novel route employing a photochemical reaction to achieve the B-ring precursor," says Wu, a postdoctoral scholar in chemistry. "I found it particularly impressive that she exhibits a strong penchant for scientific research and contributed many independent ideas to the variecolin project."

In addition to working in the lab, Guerrero says the experience taught her more about ongoing research at Caltech and that summer student events such as seminars, pizza parties, and group activities provided networking opportunities for future career development.

"What I like most about Caltech is that it is a very tight-knit scientific community," says Guerrero. "The camaraderie among the Amgen Scholars that has developed over the summer has been great, and I’m sure that many of the other Amgen Scholars have also built lasting friendships with one another and with other members of the Caltech community."

When she's not making friends on campus and pursuing her passion for chemistry at Caltech, Guerrero enjoys playing the violin and piano—both of which she has been playing for over a decade. In addition to her double major, the Downey native will also celebrate a minor in music when she graduates this spring.

For more information on the Amgen Scholars Program at Caltech, visit http://www.amgenscholars.caltech.edu.

Written by Katie Neith