How one man’s passion for medicinal chemistry was written in the stars.
Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month we travel to Chicago, IL, United States, to chat with Augustine Osuma, scientist, medicinal chemistry, AbbVie.
A long time ago, in a densely populated West African country, a young Augustine Osuma dreamed of galaxies far, far away. Fascinated by 70’s television space shows and science fiction films, he fantasized about one day traveling faster than the speed of light to explore worlds beyond our own. Now firmly grounded on planet earth, he spends his days designing molecules and gazing into microscopic universes of his own making.
Tell us the story of how you fell in love with science.
Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, my family lived close to the local airport and air force military barracks. During the not-so-quiet nights, I recall vividly listening to the sounds of airplanes taking off and landing. My fascination with the wonder of air travel was magnified every October on Nigeria’s Independence Day when military jets would fly over our family home. I remember watching in amazement, wondering just how these massive machines could fly so high and so fast. This concept of jets traveling faster than the speed of sound was initially difficult for me to grasp, but really enhanced my curiosity and played a role in my own misconception that fighter planes soared into space. It didn’t help that my brother and I were also obsessed with popular 70’s television sci-fi (and cartoon) shows like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Captain Scarlett and Thunderbird. It was during this period where my curiosity deepened about space and science. I imagined becoming an air force pilot and flying into space just like the cartoon space shows. As I grew older, I came to the realization this was not how things worked, however my desire and passion for everything outside our earth continued to deepen. I feel as though it was my destiny to become a chemist working with elements originating in the stars.
I understand you are a medicinal chemist. For us non-scientific people, can you explain what exactly your role entails?
My job is to design and create molecules that can help patients manage a disease. Imagine a leaking water pipe with an open/close tap; the leaking water will damage your home unless you stop the leak. First thing would be to identify where along the pipe the leak is stemming from (analogous to what and where in our body to target specific proteins to reverse the effect of a disease). Once identified, then we can begin to design and synthesize a potential medicine (medicine A) to plug the hole along the pipe. Or we can design a different type of valve (medicine B) to simply turn on and off the pipe, depending on where the hole along the pipe is.
What is your advice to kids interested in a career like yours?
Future scientists are needed to join the cause of understanding, maintaining, and repairing the various components in our body to maintain healthy lives. Our current group of scientists are building a legacy for our young (and future) scientists just like we benefited and continued from the work of legendary scientists such as Dimitri Mendeleev (father of the periodic table) and other legendary pioneers that forged a path for us to invent our current medicines. The future of our world depends on our up-and-coming scientists; equipped with better technologies in the future, what seems impossible in our world today will most likely be possible in a century or two from now.
I understand you are extremely passionate about mentoring young kids. Can you shed a little light on this?
I understand you and your family are huge sports fanatics, and that you once attended the World Cup championship in Brazil. Can you share with us some highlights from this amazing experience?
Our weekends revolve around our favorite football sports team: the Indianapolis Colts. Season-ticket holders for over the past 24 years, our vacations are planned around Colts away games with the goal of visiting every NFL Stadium — up to 21 stadiums visited to-date. So engrossed are we in sports games that our families know any calls placed to our home on NFL Sundays will go unanswered. We are also passionate about soccer and avidly follow the Nigerian National team, the Super Eagles. As a young boy growing up in Nigeria, the World Cup years were like Christmas festivities in the summer. It didn’t matter if our team qualified for the tournament or not; every World Cup game was treated as a grand celebration. In 2014, my son and I were fortunate enough to attend the World Cup tournament in Brazil. I will never forget attending a match between Spain (defending world champions) and Chile (at the time, an up-and-coming powerhouse team) at the world-famous Maracanã stadium. Even with heightened security, it wasn’t long before hundreds of ticketless Chilean fans crashed the gates and started climbing the stadium walls for a chance to watch their beloved team compete. The jubilation continued inside the stadium as we witnessed ecstatic celebrations and tears flowing upon Chile defeating the defending champions. A once-in-a-lifetime memory I will never forget!
In your opinion, why does science rock?
Everything we do can be connected to various forms of science, even the simplest tasks such as jogging, reading, or sitting down. In my field of chemistry, it is quite intriguing to think about the origin of atoms and elements in the universe and to better understand where they come from. When we look up into the night sky and see the stars, we are looking at the genesis of every single element in the periodic table. The birth of a star in a nebula is the beginning of the creation of all elements we know. A very large star, bigger than our sun, has enough energy to combine hydrogen or helium protons to form the next element, and then the next. When this large star eventually goes into supernova and implodes, these elements are scattered into space. Gravitational energy then allows the dust (containing all these elements) to be scattered into space, which recombines, fuse into asteroids and then eventually form into planets. In essence, not only does science rock, but SCIENCE is literally contained inside the ROCK that is planet earth.