Focus on Faculty: Adam Cassano

“The way that you learn science is to do science”

December 2023 – Drew University’s Adam Cassano, associate professor of chemistry, joined us for our Focus on Faculty series, where we highlight the many accomplishments, research, and scholarship of Drew’s incredible faculty members.

Cassano’s scholarship is a prime example of the strong and valuable mentorship available to Drew students. Together with Research Institute for Scientists Emeriti (RISE) Fellow Neal Connors and Drew students Zarina Akbary C’19, Honglin Yu C’22, Ivelisse Lorenzo C’22, Karyme Paez C’23, Narisa Lee C’23, Kayla DeBeVoise C’22, Joel Moses C’24, and Nathaniel Sanders C’20, Cassano co-authored a published article, “Electron withdrawing group-dependent substrate inhibition of an α-ketoamide reductase from Saccharomyces cerevisiae” in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications

We sat down with Cassano to learn more about his research, Drew’s RISE program, and the research opportunities available to Drew students. Read on to learn more.

Tell us about the experiment that led to publication.
I have always been interested in how enzymes work. It is my belief that enzymes can be very useful in industry, not just as targets of drugs, but also useful in solving a lot of chemical problems. Neal Connors, a microbiologist by trade, was working with Zarina Akbary, a biochemistry & molecular biology major, to clone a group of enzymes from a strain of yeast that are closely related and catalyze similar reactions that are important industrially. I thought it was a really cool project; it was Zarina’s honors thesis.

The project was picked up by Nathaniel Sanders, another biochemistry and molecular biology major. We were working in the same lab space on different projects when Nathaniel observed substrate inhibition during his experimentation, a phenomenon where if you increase the amount of reactant it will eventually slow the enzyme down. 

The project grabbed Neal’s attention as it was not something he had not experienced before. We combined efforts to continue the research. It was a nice collaboration between a RISE Fellow and a faculty member. 

The project took a pause due to the pandemic, but garnered interest from additional students once in-person classes resumed. Each student worked on their own substrate to learn how it behaved with the enzyme while we figured out why this substrate inhibition was happening.

Why is the RISE program such a valuable resource for students studying the sciences?
RISE is fabulous. Working with RISE fellows creates many research opportunities for our students because students can get started earlier and work for longer. Working with the RISE fellows also allows for a greater variety of projects and brings more of an industrial and pharmaceutical mindset to the research projects. We really allow for great synergy between the research done by the RISE fellows and faculty.

What’s wonderful about RISE is how much we work together for the students. I have enormous respect for our students as scientists, and I think they have a lot of respect for the faculty and the research we do. It is such a benefit to our students, they have additional intellectual resources and research opportunities. 

Why are hands-on and independent learning essential in chemistry?
The way that you learn science is to do science. It gives students a lot of experience with the process of science. Doing research allows students to wrestle with the uncertainty of science, developing critical thinking and technical skills to perform experiments. Often they end up liking science even more—that rush that they get to be the first person in the world to know something. 

For our size, Drew has amazing research opportunities for our students. Getting research experience as an undergrad is absolutely key for students who want to find a career in science. At some universities, the research opportunities might only be for superstar students. What makes Drew stand out is that we have these opportunities available for everyone.

The students own their projects, which helps when they go out on interviews. They can describe the adversity behind their research projects so interviewers know they can handle problems. The experience the students get, the excitement they get out of it, and what they’re able to show people at the next level are all extremely valuable.

How does your research benefit your students?
Oftentimes, my teaching helps my research. I teach a class on chemical biology, where a lot of the aspects of the class are directly relatable to the research project that I’m currently working on. The students’ research will oftentimes drive the content of the classroom. And sometimes, the content in the classroom brings insight into the research lab.

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