At the suggestion of his father, who was an economist, Alfredo Angeles-Boza set off for college in his native Peru with designs on becoming an industrial engineer. That was before he took his first college chemistry course. Once introduced to the world of atoms and ions and especially the myriad challenges of working with inorganic matter, he was hooked on science and has never looked back.
As part of its expansive faculty hiring initiative, UConn plans to add 500 professors over four years in order both to strengthen its academic core and to boost its standing as a top public research institution. Angeles-Boza, a scientist at the beginning of his career, has been hired to help accomplish both goals.
According to department head Amy Howell, “We were looking for a young inorganic chemist to come here and to grow with us as we continue to make strides to be a nationally ranked research department. More than expertise in a particular area, we wanted someone who had already demonstrated creativity and initiative … someone who projected a sense of confidence in his chosen field. That describes Alfredo perfectly.”
Not unlike thousands of graduate students before him, Angeles-Boza’s academic path was initially influenced by the research of others. While completing undergraduate studies at Pontifica Catholic University of Peru, he had read about work being done by a researcher at the Michigan State University using metal complexes as anti-tumor agents in the fight against cancer.
“I was reading a book on anti-cancer compounds,” he said, “and there were only a few [research] groups in the world working with metal complexes as anti-tumor agents. I loved the chemistry the book described and I told myself that I had to work in this [area].”
By the time he was ready to apply to graduate school, that researcher, Professor Kim R. Dunbar, had begun working at Texas A&M and that is where Angeles-Boza completed his Ph.D.
As a graduate student, Angeles-Boza’s research involved synthesis and characterization of new metal-based compounds with applications in medicinal chemistry. He conducted structure-activity studies to enhance characteristics of these molecules for their application in Photodynamic Therapy. PDT is a minimally invasive way of treating conditions such as wet age-related macular degeneration, as well as some cancers.
After accepting a position as a post-doc at A&M, he worked in a lab devoted to finding new ways to deliver small molecules and proteins inside cells. Through the use of native chemical and expressed protein ligation, he studied ways to improve the activity of cell-penetrating peptides.
“I seem to be on a path that takes me north, where it keeps getting colder,” says Angeles-Boza with a smile, on a day in Storrs when the cool weather wouldn’t draw much notice from a New Englander. “My next stop was in Baltimore, Md., where I had a post-doc at Johns Hopkins.”
At Johns Hopkins, he worked in a lab where he studied mechanisms of reactions on enzymes and inorganic catalysts as well as the use of 180 isotope effects and density functional theory (DFT) methods to explain water oxidation reactions.
Angeles-Boza was well established at Hopkins when he became aware of UConn’s hiring initiative. “One of my requirements when I looked at jobs was that there would already be a thriving Ph.D. program in place. I was excited to learn that UConn was hiring so many new faculty. The [chemistry] department hired three of us this summer, and has plans to hire more. That was very encouraging to me, because I want to be part of something that is dynamic and growing.”
Now established in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, where his teaching and research efforts are under way, his focus is on the use of synthetic inorganic chemistry as a tool to design and construct new molecules for targeted applications. His research is centered on two key areas. The first, which has many applications in the fight for a clean environment, is using molecular chemistry to convert carbon dioxide into higher-energy products.
“Carbon dioxide is a very unreactive molecule,” says Angeles-Boza,” that’s why when we burn fossil fuels the result is CO2 and it doesn’t convert to anything else. I have the idea that we can take CO2 and turn it into something we can use, such as methanol. In theory, it is possible to do this using already available solar energy.
“The reason for converting CO2 to methanol,” he adds, “is to create something that can be converted later into other products or as an energy source itself.”
The other aspect of Angeles-Boza’s research reflects his initial interest in the use of metal complexes to fight tumors. “We now know that an imbalance of metal ions – either too many or too few – can cause disease. I’m trying to develop special molecules that can remove metal ions from specific places in the body or, on the other hand, deliver them to organs or cells where they are needed.”
He is currently focusing on angiogenesis. “We normally think that’s a good thing,” he says, “because new blood vessels can form from existing vessels as part of a healing process. But one of the problems is that angiogenesis is also an important function in the growth of tumors. So what I want to do is create molecules that can not only stop growth, but actually turn the metal compounds back on themselves to destroy the original tumor cells.”
Angeles-Boza’s research initiatives hold promise for the health and well-being of future generations. He says it’s a long process, but one that’s worth it to him as he spends time introducing a new generation of students to some of the things that captured his attention at the beginning of his own academic career.