Biochemistry Student Wins American Chemical Society Fellowship for Innovative Work

George Maoi presenting his research poster at the 2nd Annual Science Fair at Lehman College.

The path to an undergraduate degree majoring in biochemistry has been anything but typical or easy for Lehman junior, George Maio. The 29-year old graduated in 2009 from Saint Thomas Aquinas College in Rockland County with a degree in marketing. After several years in the marketing and advertising industries, he realized he wanted a career in the sciences, and came to Lehman in 2013.

His second time around as a college student has been an unqualified success for Maio whose academic achievements and strong work ethic, has won him the respect of his professors and classmates. In March, he also won the admiration of the New York Section of the American Chemical Society, when they awarded him the annual William H. Nichols Fellowship. The fellowship is described as a “summer research opportunity designed to support the advancement of New York area college juniors who are interested in chemistry, biochemistry, and aligned fields.”

As part of the fellowship, Maio will receive a $5,000 stipend and present his research at the 2017 Nichols Award Banquet. Maio’s research focuses on “Finding bispecific aptamers for increased stability in human serum.” “George is an exceptionally motivated student who has shown so much commitment to his research project,” says his research advisor, Prabodhika Mallikaratchy, an assistant professor of analytical chemistry. “He feels responsible for his project, and that is a very important characteristic to have as a researcher. So this award is recognition for his commitment to research and his goal of pursuing a Ph.D. in bimolecular engineering.”

Mallikaratchy calls Maio’s work in her laboratory with myeloid leukemia cells “innovative.” The experiment deals with aptamers, which are small single stranded DNA molecules that fold into distinct shapes that can bind to a specific target cell with high affinity. Maio’s goal is to stabilize the aptamer by modifying some of the DNA bases, involving complex molecular engineering and chemical syntheses in order to form analogues of the molecule. The reengineering of the molecule is necessary because even though the aptamer molecule can recognize the myeloid leukemia cells, it’s not stable in human blood. These analogues with modified nucleic acids, make the molecule stable in blood, allowing it to be used in targeting leukemia cells in the bloodstream.

In recent years, there has been considerable research using aptamers to develop cancer treatments, clinical diagnostics and therapeutic applications. The hope is that chemically synthesized apatamers can be used for leukemic cell detection and potential cancer treatment.

In addition to working in Mallikaratchy’s lab, Maio is teaching a chemistry lab and also tutoring students in chemistry and biology at the Science Learning Center. When he’s not at school, the Yonkers native is working to pay for his education as a server and bartender at several Westchester restaurants.

Maio says he considers Mallikaratchy a supportive mentor who has helped him apply to doctoral programs and advised him on how to maximize his chances of acceptance. He’s applied to Ph.D. programs in bio molecular engineering at Cornell, Yale, Virginia Tech, and CUNY among others. He says he became interested in researching cancer because several members of his family have died from the disease. He also says Professor Pamela Mills, the chair of the physical chemistry department, has provided invaluable help in his development as a fledgling scientist. “They recognize that I’m not afraid to put in as much time as necessary to attain what I want to attain,” he says about his professors. “My motivation and thirst for knowledge has led them to guide me and mentor me.”

He left advertising because it wasn’t “as fulfilling or as interesting as I thought it would be,” and is finding that he strongly prefers learning how to culture cells and the “nitty gritty prep” of building and purifying a molecule. “You can really change everything if you have the time, resources and motivation,” he says relating both to building a molecule and the changing of his career trajectory.