Saint Louis University

Sarah McNitt
Pre-med student Sarah McNitt works on a better drug to fight malaria in the Center for World Health and Medicine's medicinal chemistry lab. Photo by Riya V. Anandwala

Sarah McNitt is the first undergraduate student to work in the Center for World Health and Medicine's (CWHM) medicinal chemistry lab at SLU. She transferred to the university from St. Louis Community College in her junior year with the hope to get more hands-on research experience. At SLU, she is getting exactly what she had dreamed of.

"I have a passion for organic chemistry," said McNitt, a senior majoring in biochemistry at SLU and a lab assistant at the center. "I like to work with organic compounds and see how different reactions behave."

As soon as McNitt joined SLU, she hit the ground running to dig for research opportunities. A pre-med student, McNitt was particularly interested in SLU's chemistry research being done on malaria. Her motivation and drive led her to CWHM. At the center, McNitt works under the leadership of Dr. Marvin Meyers, research fellow and associate research professor at SLU.

Meyers' team manages the chemical aspects of all the projects at the center. Currently, it is focused on creating new drugs and treatment for malaria in partnership with China's Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health (GIBH) and childhood diarrhea with OneWorld Health in San Francisco.

Meyers' lab was a perfect fit for McNitt, who was determined to work toward developing effective drugs for malaria. 

"I have been interested in studying malaria for a while," McNitt said. "About six years ago, a friend who lived in Zambia came down with malaria and was in a comatose state. I was really worried but couldn't do anything. That catalyzed an interest in me to learn more about the disease."

A mosquito-borne disease, malaria affects millions of people every year in various parts of the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  In 2010 alone, approximately 216 million cases of malaria occurred worldwide and 655,000 people died.

Since the beginning of this year, McNitt has been working under Meyers' direction to develop a series of compounds that can kill a parasite called plasmodium that causes the malarial infection. Meyers says one of the biggest problems with malaria is that the parasites have developed resistance against the known drugs. His team, including McNitt, is working on developing a new kind of anti-malarial drug that will have different mechanisms of action compared to the previous drugs. Along with Meyers', McNitt's role in this project is to create new compounds that don't get metabolized too quickly, instead remain stable, and also improve the potency.

"We are starting off with a scaffold compound. It's a compound that shows some efficiency in killing the malaria parasite," McNitt said. "We are working to optimize different species of that compound."

This unique opportunity of working on a significant project with an experienced medicinal chemist and researcher is one of the factors that instantly attracted McNitt to SLU. 

"Dr. Meyers has been a great guide and teacher," said McNitt. "Through this project, I've learned a lot of skills that are necessary for a lab setting, and also how to be more independent."

McNitt uses a range of lab equipment at the center that most undergraduate students don't usually have access to. Some of this equipment includes High Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), Mass Spectrometry (MS), Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) and Reversed-Phase Chromatography (RPC).

"Sarah has an interest in what our center is doing. She was driven and motivated when she came to us. We continue to increase the level of her responsibilities in the project as she has the desire to learn," Meyers said. "She does a good job in the lab, she's meticulous. She also works well with other people in the lab and also shows up for 6:30 a.m. meetings with our partners in China."

In addition to working in the lab, McNitt is also involved with SLU's Chemistry Club that promotes science among St. Louis area school kids, helps out with local scout group projects and organizes food drives. She is also a member of Alpha Epsilon Delta (AED), a pre-health professional club that engages students in lectures, community service projects and networking opportunities. 

At SLU, all undergraduate chemistry and biochemistry students have the opportunity to work on research projects with faculty members. Dr. Alexa Serfis, professor and associate chair of the chemistry department, was impressed with McNitt when she met her and knew she would be perfect for Meyers' lab.

"Sarah is working on synthesizing some of the potential drug compounds, which is a very long process of identifying one chemical that could demonstrate a drug activity. It takes a lot of time and effort to make and screen compounds." Serfis said. "Her work is significant. She is working on a very important research project, with the overall aim of helping people in another country."

For McNitt, gaining the research experience is important, but working for an important cause is what drives her. "Working on this project is an amazing feeling. The fact that someone is going to benefit from this, is gratifying," she said.