Biochemistry Ph.D. student wants to help educate public and gain knowledge to find treatments and cures for illness

Biochemistry Ph.D. student wants to help educate public and gain knowledge to find treatments and cures for illness

F rom an early age, Martin Alcantar, ’18, has always been fascinated by the sciences. As he grew, he realized that one of the most interesting branches of science was studying biological processes and the chemistry that drives them. Later, he would find that his work could help alleviate food insecurity. 

Martin Alcantar selects viable, 12-day-old healthy plants to be used in pathogen infection assays where he observes the plant's ability to restrict bacterial growth.
Martin Alcantar selects viable, 12-day-old healthy plants to be used in pathogen infection assays where he observes the plant's ability to restrict bacterial growth.

“My specific career path was not chosen with a job in mind, but rather from a want to further my education and gain a higher level of understanding of what drives life,” Alcantar said. “I wanted to learn the intricacies of how biological processes work.” 

Today, he’s a third-year student in the Biochemistry Ph.D. program at the University of Missouri. Once he graduates, Alcantar hopes to make an impact in helping individuals who suffer from severe illness.

He works in the lab where he focuses on plant-pathogen interactions.

“We work towards explaining the pathways that plants use to fight off pathogenic bacteria upon infection,” Alcantar said.

More specifically, he works with a family of signaling molecules thought to be the missing link in an important signaling pathway responsible for initiating plant defense responses when sensing bacterial pathogens.

“This is important, because gaining an understanding of the strategies employed by plants will allow us to engineer crops to be more resistant to pathogenic attack,” Alcantar said. “In turn, it will help decrease the loss of crops and increase food security.”

He nurtured his love of biochemistry at Georgia College.

Martin Alcantar stands by an abstract DNA model located in the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center atrium. The building hosts a variety of research ranging from HIV to plant research that employ any number of interdisciplinary techniques.
Martin Alcantar stands by an abstract DNA model located in the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center atrium. The building hosts a variety of research ranging from HIV to plant research that employ any number of interdisciplinary techniques.

“I enjoyed the challenge that the chemistry courses at Georgia College gave me,” Alcantar said. “The professors went above and beyond to not only teach the course material, but to ensure I could think critically rather than regurgitate information.”

Alcantar’s favorite professor for coursework was Dr. Chavonda Mills.

“By learning and understanding the basic concepts of immunology and pathology, the general public can then make much more educated decisions without a fear of what they don't understand.”
– Martin Alcantar

“It was through taking her biochemistry class that I discovered a real interest for the field,” he said.” Dr. Mills’ class was quite challenging yet very intriguing, and these aspects drew me in.”

Another professor who made a large impact on his life was Dr. Catrena Lisse, who served as his research advisor. Lisse taught Alcantar that understanding concepts and applying them in real-world scenarios is critical for success.

“Through her mentorship, I developed critical thinking and research skills that I’ve carried into my Ph.D.,” he said. “In my Ph.D., I apply this on a daily basis, as many experiment outcomes are unknown. So, it’s up to me to predict outcomes based on previous work of other researchers and draw my own conclusions.”

Alcantar also learned many crucial, soft skills including communication, time management and organizational skills that he applies daily. He predicts he’ll apply these skills for years to come.

Being a member of the Georgia College Chemistry Club also helped Alcantar grow professionally.

“The magic shows hosted by the Chem Club allowed me to practice communicating scientific topics to members of the nonscientific community,” he said.

Ultimately, Alcantar aspires to work as a biochemist studying infectious disease. The COVID-19 pandemic has motivated Alcantar even more to work as a biochemist.

“The disconnect between the scientific community and the general public is one of the greatest motivations for continuing on my career path,” he said. “This pandemic is not the first nor the last health crisis we will face in our lifetime. However, the lack of trust in science has never been more prevalent. This comes from a lack of understanding of the science by the general public.”

One of his career goals is to communicate to and educate the general public, so that when situations like this arise, the professionals can be trusted without a high level of skepticism.

Martin Alcantar (left) teaches an undergraduate student the proposed model for the interaction between the two model organisms: plant and bacterial pathogen, which are worked on in his lab.
Martin Alcantar (left) teaches an undergraduate student the proposed model for the interaction between the two model organisms: plant and bacterial pathogen, which are worked on in his lab.

“By learning and understanding the basic concepts of immunology/pathology, the general public can then make much more educated decisions without a fear of what they don't understand,” he said.

Alcantar has two-to-three years left of school depending on his research progress. Once he graduates, Alcantar would like to move back to Georgia and work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The CDC studies a number of pathogens responsible for human illnesses throughout history,” he said. “I believe working at the CDC will expose me to a variety of different pathogens that I learn about and use in my pursuit of knowledge about biological processes.”

Through working with these pathogens at the CDC, Alcantar hopes to one day shed some light on the mechanisms by which they work and find ways to fight off many illnesses, therefore ensuring healthier lives.

“I hope that my work makes an impact, no matter how small, in moving towards curing illnesses,” Alcantar said. “I’m inspired by the ability to help those around me and offer some relief to those suffering from severe illnesses.”