PhD candidate Sonia Lin on working towards a new therapy for HIV/AIDS, rising to challenges, and pursuing a future in pharmaceutical R&D
Your PhD research is in the field of developing new drugs to treat HIV/AIDS – specifically, toward the development of small molecule inhibitors of HIV alternative splicing as a new therapy. What does this involve?
SL: My research belongs to the field of medicinal chemistry, which couples synthetic organic chemistry with the underlying biological principles of the target of interest. We make small molecule inhibitors of HIV alternative splicing as a new therapy for HIV/AIDS. Alternative splicing is a process that happens in the eukaryotic cells. Despite the current success of antiviral therapy (ART) in controlling viral loads, resistant strains continue to emerge which complicates the management of HIV and leads to the transmission of drug-resistant strains to newly infected individuals. We hope that this novel strategy will be effective against these strains and serve an unmet need in the area of HIV therapy.
What do you see as the biggest challenges in your research?
SL: Since the project involves the syntheses of molecules, there will always be difficulties in getting the target compound. Also, we are trying to target the serine and arginine (SR) proteins that are involved in the process of alternative splicing. These proteins are intrinsically disordered and therefore do not have definite structures. The biggest challenge lies in the optimization of the molecules to enhance the biological activities because there isn't a clear picture of what the target looks like.
How do you deal with these challenges?
SL: For synthetic challenges, we look at what others have done before, examine systematically why experiments didn't work out, and seek alternative strategies.
What inspired you to pursue this area of research in the Grierson lab?
SL: My background is in inorganic porous materials and I've always hoped to extend my knowledge beyond chemistry by bridging concepts from different fields. Dr. David Grierson offered me the chance to join his lab, and his proposed project was a great opportunity to expand my chemistry knowledge to the design, synthesis and purification of biologically active/important organic molecules. I was very interested to see how these molecules act in vivo, and learn more about the the process whereby active molecules can ultimately become drugs. Understanding the mechanisms behind drug actions and, in particular, the process of HIV replication, is extremely important to the conception of inhibitors with the maximum potential biological activity.
You have worked as a mentor for UBC Undergraduate Research Opportunities. What did you find rewarding about this role?
SL: My role was to lead a group of undergraduate students in developing a theoretical research proposal or project to be presented as a poster at the Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Conference (MURC). The students were tremendously driven and interested in research, and it was a pleasure to listen to their ideas and insights. It allowed me to build connections and leadership skills and gave me the chance to explore topics that are indirectly related to my own research.
Where would you like to be five years from now? How do you feel your experiences at UBC Pharm Sci are preparing you to achieve your goals?
SL: I hope to work in the pharmaceutical industry after I graduate. The UBC Pharm Sci PhD program has allowed me to work with several different professors to further develop my skills as a chemist, and to advance my knowledge of drug development and the biological application of my research. I've felt well supported along the way and am confident that the training I'm receiving here will prepare me for a fulfilling career.
Image Credits: (Header) Ivan Yastrebov. All other images thanks to Sonia Lin.
About this series
Graduate Student Spotlight is an ongoing interview series designed to highlight our exceptional PhD and MSc candidates and their work, achievements, and experiences at UBC Pharm Sci.