Global Undergraduate Awards

CU Denver student shortlisted for the Nobel of undergrad research awards

October 1, 2019

CU Denver senior Hoai Tieu Bao Pham was named one of seven “Highly Commended” students in Chemical & Pharmaceutical Sciences category for The Global Undergraduate Awards. The international awards recognize the top undergraduate work from 25 categories of academic disciplines around the world. Out of 3,400 submissions, Pham was also crowned the regional winner for North America.

Pham had never heard of The Global Undergraduate Awards until earlier this summer, when his friend from Vietnam nudged him to apply. The catch? The deadline was in three days. Pham, an organic chemist major, penned a 35-page research project report titled, “Investigating the Effects of Methoxy Groups on Salicyl Alcohol Derived Photolabile Protecting Groups for Carbonyl Compounds.” Without time to send it to a writing lab or even show his advisor, associate professor Scott Reed, he sent it off. Three months later, he received the good news via email.

“I was shocked,” says Pham. “The other students came from colleges like Harvard University, UC Berkeley, National University of Singapore. I did not expect to make the short list.”

From applying to developing chemical reactions

Pham began studying chemical engineering at Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology, where he explored the chemical processes that produce industrial and everyday products like cosmetics, perfumes and lotions. As a chemical engineer, he applied chemical reactions to lotions to control their rate of absorption, and ensure the products were stable and effective through their expiration dates. But he wanted to do more.

“Instead of applying the chemical reactions as a chemical engineer, I wanted to develop them,” said Pham. “As an organic chemist, I could develop the knowledge that engineers rely on.”

He transferred to CU Denver in fall 2018 and in that short time, he was received a grant through the EURēCA! fellowship that paid him to work full time in the summer. Part of that time involved working on the research that earned him the UA commendation. Pham found a new pathway to synthesize photolabile protective group (PPG), a chemical modification to a molecule that can be removed with light.

Two new paths to understanding PPGs

PPGs enable biochemists to control the release of bioactive compounds, such as medicine, in living tissue. New cancer therapies involve injecting nitrobenzaldehyde, a chemical compound, directly into the tumor to allow it to spread into the tissue. Doctors then use UV light to target the PPGs within the compound, which kills cancer cells.

Pham’s research discovered a novel structure bearing two functional groups that can absorb the UV light, furthering the understanding of PPGs. In the future, it could help doctors further control the release of medicine, its timing and intensity.

Pham’s project report ranked in the top 10% of submissions in his category category, and as a result, he will receive a certificate of recognition, publication of his submission on The Undergraduate Library, access to the UA Alumni Portal, and the opportunity to attend the UA Global Summit.