When 17-year-old Hendryck A. Gellineau applied to Cornell in 2014, he believed that having a strong understanding of biology would prepare him for medical school. He was also interested drug development research and didn’t know what would help prepare him for it. That all changed during his freshman year at Cornell when he received the opportunity to work in Justin Wilson’s bioinorganic medicinal chemistry lab, Chemistry and Chemical Biology. Now, four years later, Gellineau realizes that to be as skilled a physician and researcher as he hopes to be when he graduates from Cornell, he must explore the connections between the human condition, biology, and chemistry.
“I want to practice medicine, absolutely. I want that human interaction to solve the problems of individuals, to alleviate suffering in my community; but my arms only extend so far. There are a lot of other problems in medicine that we have yet to solve. And here I am, doing all this work for Professor Wilson, and I’m seeing the power of what chemistry can do.”
How Curiosity and Passion Led to Undergraduate Research, and a Change in Major
Gellineau took CHEM 2070, general chemistry, which most freshman dread during their first semester at Cornell. In the supplemental class, CHEM 1070, taught by Stephen Lee, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Gellineau further explored his interest in chemistry. After reading an article about copper being used as an antimicrobial agent to coat doorknobs in hospitals, he asked Professor Lee if copper could be used to fight infections inside the body. Lee responded, “No, but ask Dr. Wilson.”
“I want to practice medicine, absolutely. I want that human interaction to solve the problems of individuals, to alleviate suffering in my community.”
Soon afterward, Gellineau followed his curiosity, and by November of his freshman year he began work in Justin Wilson’s medicinal chemistry lab, focusing on new cancer treatments.
Gellineau continued his work in Wilson’s lab during the summer following his freshman year as a member of the Cornell-HHMI Accelerating Medical Progress through Scholarship (CHAMPS) program. He was researching cancer cell targeting in the lab, while taking an intensive six-week organic chemistry class. It soon became clear to Gellineau that a change in majors would be beneficial to him. After one and a half semesters and a summer spent with the Wilson research group, Gellineau changed his major from biology to chemistry. “Chemistry is biology. It’s the chemistry that makes it all work,” says Gellineau
Metal Compounds as Cancer Drugs
The research in Wilson’s lab focuses on medicinal applications of metal complexes. Gellineau has spent his undergraduate years in the lab, making cobalt compounds and testing their effectiveness as cancer drugs. His research specifically concentrates on hypoxia targeting, aimed at solid tumors with oxygen deficiencies that enable tumor cells to survive longer. He researches how to design new ligands—compounds that attach to metal ions—that can modify the selectivity of his compounds to hypoxic tumor cells. Hypoxic tumors have a characteristic acidic and reductive environment. Gellineau has been trying to make his compounds act only in this environment by changing the electronic properties of his compounds such that they are more susceptible to reduction (the gaining of electrons).
“Essentially, we are just trying to figure out how to design compounds that are more selective for cancer. There are a bunch of different ways to do it. Everyone in the group works on a different method. I work on hypoxia targeting in solid tumors. Other people in the group do light-activated chemistry in order to kill cancer cells. Some people are just now starting to look at radionuclide chemistry to make radioactive compounds that shuttle into cancer cells to kill them. It all falls under the umbrella of medicinal chemistry.”
Making the Research in the Lab Work for People, the Public
While Gellineau finds the work he does in Wilson’s lab rewarding, he wants to focus more on how people may benefit from the research they do. He looks beyond the science of the work. Gellineau says that in a research lab, it’s easy to forget how the research may impact people. He thinks about price and accessibility when making compounds that require many steps and techniques. He realizes the many social determinants that affect people’s access to medicine. When he speaks of the importance of the human condition, this is what he means.
“If I do all this crazy stuff to make a compound, I have to think about how that drives up the cost for the patient. Some people won’t be able to afford these medicines. Cross-cultural and socioeconomic understanding is important to be a functioning member of society but also a doctor or scientist.”
As an African American man, Gellineau understands the human condition from a different perspective and hopes to incorporate his experiences into how he learns and practices medicine. He’s aware of the large healthcare disparities among black communities, from lower standards of care to blatant discriminatory clinical practices. He sees himself as a black man involved in chemistry and medicine who can not only address healthcare gaps but also make a difference as a role model and healthcare provider in his community.
“Being at Cornell is a political action. Some people may not want us to be here. Some people may not want to see us succeed. If I’m going to do something and do it well, people are going to see me doing this, and that’s enough to make an impact. It’s to let people know that these are possibilities for black people.”
After Cornell, Gellineau intends to continue his education in a dual MD-PhD program, studying chemistry’s impact on medicine and the human condition.