Daniel Amat is a sophomore pursuing the pre-medical track with a major in chemistry and minors in math and English. Daniel is a chemistry lab teaching assistant (TA) for second- semester chemistry, and is currently in the process of starting a chemistry club with Dr. Tegan Eve. He is also currently doing research with Dr. Roger Leblanc in the Chemistry Annex located here at the Coral Gables campus. He is presently working on developing non-toxic carbon “dots,” which can serve as a drug-delivery technique for cancer patients.
What is your research about?
Our research focuses on non-toxic carbon-dot-based anti-cancer drug delivery. There are many medications that we currently use for cancer. Although these medications are supposed to alleviate pain and facilitate the treatment of the cancer, they provoke many adverse side effects that eventually hurt the patient more than helping them. Carbon dots are basically small nanoparticles that can serve as better transport systems for anti-cancer drug delivery and therapies because of their ability to be absorbed by the body as well as their biocompatibility. In the lab, I make the small carbon nanoparticles, then infuse these C-dots with drugs. Each round of C-dots requires a different study and a different set of research. Although most C-dots are made the same way, the mechanisms through which the drug is absorbed or taken in by the C-dot are very different for each medication. The point of C-dots is that, if successfully administered, painful side effects (such as mouth sores, bleeding and swelling) will be reduced as a result of their encapsulation by the C-dot.
Why did you decide to do research in this area?
I decided to do this research because cancer is so prevalent. It is affecting so many people in the United States alone, not to mention the number of victims it affects in other countries. In 2015, 600,000 Americans are projected to die of cancer. It is something that should be looked at: Tons of people die and yet, even with all of the research being done, it still isn’t enough. I’m also very passionate about providing healthcare for those in need and those who come from underprivileged communities. Chemistry wasn’t the thing that came the easiest to me. Chemistry, however, is basically in my blood: my grandfather got his Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry in Russia, and both my parents are also chemists. Other things came easier to me, but this is the major and type of research by which I felt most challenged — it was the type of research I thought I could help with most. I decided to make chemistry my major not because it came easy but because I decided to work so much at it that it became easy and interesting.
What makes this research particularly challenging?
Carbon dots are relatively new to the chemistry world. Of course, they were discovered a while ago, but the process of medical uptake is not yet completely figured out. There is a constant need to develop new ways to produce the carbon dots and to investigate the mechanisms behind the ability of the carbon dots to encapsulate and deliver the medicine that they need to provide. There are also a lot of resources that we need but that we, unfortunately, do not have. Therefore, we are constantly trying to find newer and less expensive methods of producing C-dots of equal or greater quality. There is never a dull moment. It can be hectic and difficult but, in the end, once the carbon dots are produced, it seems like pure bliss.
Can you remember your first day of lab?
Of course I can. Again, it was hectic and difficult because the researchers were trying to explain everything. There were new techniques of which I had never even heard prior to my first day. It was difficult to keep up, and I had to learn quickly. There is so much information and so much time that goes into making even a “small” batch of C-dots. Each way to produce a carbon dot somehow varies from the original — the slightest of errors can throw off the entire experiment. Some carbon dots take from six to 12 hours; others take days. Some are of different fluorescence, have different properties and are of different sizes. There is no way to memorize anything; each dot is a world of knowledge with an abstract method behind it. The way to create a carbon dot is not standardized — it is all innovated in that moment.
What techniques have you learned?
I have learned plenty of techniques: carbon dot creation through dehydration of carbohydrates, high performance liquid chromatography and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry.
You are only a sophomore and yet you already do so much. What did you do to get here and how do you balance everything? Do you have any advice for other undergraduates that may be interested in research?
As far as balancing, I know how to manage my time. I’d like to think I’m responsible and hardworking. There is no way to succeed if you aren’t willing to put in the work. Go to class and TRY. The only sure way to fail is to not try. As far as getting involved in research, become familiar with the research that you may be interested in. Find a couple of papers on PubMed or even on the researcher’s web page. Read these papers and then read more on the subject. Become an informed student; you never want to appear clueless in front of a professor, much less about something that they’ve dedicated their life to. But, most of all, be confident in your abilities to contribute something to the lab. The researcher was once in your position, asking for their first research opportunity. If you are informed, you’re already one step ahead. Lastly, do not fake interest. Research is one of the most interesting things students can do but, if they aren’t interested in what they are researching, they will see it as a tedious task, and the professor will pick up on it. Choose something that you’re passionate about that you don’t mind picking up and starting back over again. Science is all trial and error — and when I say that, I mean it is error upon error until, one day, you finally achieve meaningful results and are able to add something to our collective repository of scientific knowledge.
What else are you currently involved in at school?
I’m currently a TA in the undergraduate second semester chemistry lab. I’m a part of MedLife, SERT, Chess Club, Math Club and AED. I’m hoping to start a chemistry club with the help of Dr. Eve, as well.