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Studying Cancer-Fighting Antioxidants

When chemistry prof. Miriam Rossi sent her son, Alessio Caruso ’16, off to Italy for semester of international study last fall, he provided her with an unexpected dividend. Caruso was working in a chemistry lab at the University of Parma when a student there told him about a friend named Ilaria Costanzini who was doing graduate research at a nearby university on the benefits of antioxidants in the fight against cancer.

PhD candidate Ilaria Costanzini and her mentor Miriam Rossi in front of Vassar’s single crystal X-Ray diffractometer

Caruso knew his mother had been doing similar research at Vassar for several years, so he arranged a long-distance introduction. Thanks to some help from dean of the faculty Jon Chenette, Costanzini is spending the fall semester at Vassar, finishing her research for her PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry under Rossi’s guidance.

“Working with Miriam has been a fantastic experience; she’s a great teacher,” says Costanzini, who will earn her degree from the Universita di Modena e Reggio Emilia next spring. She’s been working since August in a lab in Mudd Chemistry analyzing nine synthesized antioxidants that originate from mushrooms.

Antioxidants have proven to be effective in counteracting substances called free radicals that have been linked to cancer, diabetes, and other diseases, Rossi explains.

“When the body is stressed or subjected to poor nutrition, there is an excess of free radicals,” she says. “Antioxidants are known to be able to block these harmful substances from doing any damage.”

Costanzini is using Vassar’s single crystal X-Ray diffractometer to determine the molecular structure of the antioxidants. She says using the diffractometer, a device that was not available to her in her lab in Italy, is especially helpful. “It took me some time to learn how to use it, but it helps me get better pictures of the antioxidants I’m working with,” Costanzini says. “In Italy, we are taught a lot of theory, so I am really enjoying the hands-on lab experience I’m getting here at Vassar.”

Costanzini is also running some experiments using special computer software to measure these compounds’ effectiveness as anti-tumor agents in certain proteins. Asked if Costanzini has encountered any setbacks or roadblocks in her research, Rossi replies, “Not so far. Ilaria’s been charmed; the work is really going forward.”

Rossi says that while she is enjoying her role as Costanzini’s advisor, she is especially pleased to be working with someone with a depth of knowledge about her research. “We collaborate with other scientists on projects from time to time, but this is the first time we’ve had a graduate student working full time on research in the Chemistry Department,” Rossi says. “Working with Ilaria has been more like working with a colleague than a student.”

When they finish their research, Costanzini and Rossi plan to publish a paper that ranks the effectiveness of all nine compounds. They’ll present their findings at a scientific conference in the United States before Costanzini returns to Italy to present her work to a team of professors at Modena University. She will defend her research during an oral presentation next spring.

Costanzini says she has vacationed in the United States several times, visiting the West Coast and New York City, but she’s especially enjoying this more lengthy stay at Vassar. “I love this beautiful campus, and I’ve been meeting a lot of students and faculty; everyone is so friendly here,” she says.

Costanzini says she’s looking forward to earning her degree and launching her career developing anti-cancer drugs. “Since I was a girl, I’ve wanted to be a scientist, and in the region of Italy where I grew up, there is a lot of cancer,” she says. “I had an aunt who had cancer and has since recovered. She is very proud of me and the work I’m doing.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted by Office of Communications Friday, October 2, 2015