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Chemistry Ph.D. candidate Pedro DeJesúsCruz wins NIH Fellowship

May 13, 2020

By Alice Zhao 

From the Johnson Group, Ph.D. candidate, Pedro DeJesúsCruz is the recipient of the Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Fellowship from the National Institute of Health. 

In 2017, Pedro DeJesúsCruz, an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico, took the opportunity to participate in the Summer Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program in Chemistry (SUROC) here at Carolina. At the conclusion of the summer program, his mentor at the time, Dr. Schoenfisch, offered DeJesúsCruz a position to perform research for a full year in his lab. It was during this time that DeJesúsCruz decided to venture off from his intended career path of pharmacology and into chemistry. 

“I had the honor of working with Dr. Schoenfisch for that summer, and after obtaining my B.S., Dr. Schoenfisch offered me a position to perform research for a full year in his lab. During that time, I learned two skills, among many others, that have impacted my career trajectory: fluency with the English language and proficiency in synthetic techniques, the study of which has now become my passion.” 

It did not take long for DeJesúsCruz to call Carolina home.  

Dr. Schoenfisch provided me with so many fantastic opportunities, and I am privileged to have the opportunity to work with two incredible scientists in this outstanding department. The collegiality of everyone here persuaded me to abandon the tropical weather of Puerto Rico to pursue a degree in chemistry here in “chilly” North Carolina. To this day, I feel that I’ve been fortunate in many ways by deciding to stay here to complete my graduate studies, but I miss living by the beach.  

At Carolina, DeJesúsCruz decided to continue his research with the Johnson Group.  

“In the Johnson lab, my work focuses on the synthesis of complex bioactive molecules, and the development of enantioconvergent reactions that set multiple stereogenic centers in a single synthetic operation.”  

DeJesúsCruz reflects on his time with the Johnson Lab. 

“I want to thank Jeff for believing in us! Working for him has been a formidable experience because we have the freedom and flexibility to explore chemistry problems that are genuinely interesting for us.  

When I first joined the group, I had close to no experience in synthetic organic chemistry, but everyone in the group was happy to guide me through all the hardships that come with chemical synthesis. Most of the knowledge I have acquired over the last few years I’ve learned from them, and for that I will be eternally thankful.” 

His work with the Johnson lab led to DeJesúsCruz winning the Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Fellowship from NIHThe prestigious fellowship enables promising predoctoral students to develop into productive, independent research scientists and requires mentored research training while the fellow conductdissertation research. 

The title of DeJesúsCruz’s project is, “Expanding the Synthetic Utility of β-Keto Esters in Enantioconvergent Addition Reactions and Progress Towards a Convergent, De Novo Synthesis of Jervine.” The project focuses on using simple copper catalysts to convert readily available starting materials to stereochemically dense carbocycles with embedded handles for downstream manipulations. DeJesúsCruz will work with Dr. Jeff Johnson as his mentor.  

“Fortunately for me, I have the privilege of working with Dr. Jeff Johnson, an extraordinarily bright chemist and kind mentor. I am looking forward to finishing these projects and seeing what other ideas we will develop in the future.” 

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