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Manipulating molecules and minting chemists

Ryan Nangreave conducts complex research in a Lake Havasu lab, mentors ASU undergraduate students

Two men in a research lab

March 16, 2023

Arizona State University at Lake Havasu is known for its picturesque beauty, access to outdoor activities and small campus feel.

But under its quaint façade, there is hard-hitting research taking place in a lab.

Ryan Nangreave, an assistant teaching professor in chemistry, and one of his students are conducting work on synthesizing novel molecules for production of non-natural proteins. Yes, it sounds complicated — and it is — but it’s got important real-world implications.

“This type of genetic engineering allows scientists to create new proteins with unique activities, properties, labels and methods for further conjugation to other molecules,” said Nangreave, who teaches general, organic, bio- and environmental chemistry at ASU at Lake Havasu, and was a postdoctoral fellow of ASU’s Biodesign Institute.

“This allows future researchers to advance health, medicine and cancer research.”

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

It's the seventh year Nangreave has engaged in an undergraduate research project. The goal is to complete the research and present the findings at the next American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans in 2024.

What takes place inside the lab is superseded by what’s taking place outside the classroom — Nangreave is preparing undergraduates for graduate work and minting future chemists and STEM workers through his mentorship.

Just ask Aidanek Ruslanbekova, who graduated from ASU at Lake Havasu in 2022 with a biology degree. She said it would not have been possible without the guidance of Nangreave.

“I used to work on the Havasu campus at the office, but I quit my job in order to fully commit my time and energy to research in Dr. Nangreave’s lab,” said Ruslanbekova, who will receive a full scholarship at Tulane University in New Orleans to pursue her PhD in chemistry, as well as $33,000 to conduct research. “My research and teaching experience at ASU at Lake Havasu gave me the opportunity to be considered by graduate schools.”

She said her first day in Nangreave’s class was life-changing. He conducted an experiment with balloons filled with different gases to demonstrate the concept of chemistry.

“He concluded the lesson with, 'That’s why I love organic chemistry,’” said Ruslanbekova, who is a native of Kyrgyzstan. “His passion for the subject, I believe, is the reason why I have developed a passion for chemistry, too.”

Nangreave is now instilling that same passion in Cem Arkun, a second-year biology student. Arkun, who hails from Turkey, originally applied to a medical school in Italy but COVID-19 prevented him from entering the country. He applied to ASU and was going to attend at the West campus, but then discovered ASU at Lake Havasu.

“Havasu offers the same major, but I like the small-city feel,” Arkun said. “You really get to know the people, the community and your instructors.”

The latter definitely applies to Nangreave, who spends up to 12 hours a day with his latest protégé. In fact, they are like family.

“The drive to excel and success Cem possesses is amazing,” Nangreave said. “He’s in my office every day asking questions. He works with me with in the lab for 20 to 30 hours a week, even on weekends. He makes me match his passion. He pushes me to be a better teacher.”

Student in chemistry lab

Second-year biology student Cem Arkun gently mixes a liquid solution that will protect an amino acid structure in a lab at ASU at Lake Havasu. Chemistry Assistant Teaching Professor Ryan Nangreave is mentoring Arkun, who plans to pursue a medicine and PhD route to become a researcher. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Arkun said he has plans to become a medical doctor and the research he conducts with Nangreave is preparing him for that day.

“I don’t feel like I’m working on an undergraduate research project. I feel like I’m getting grad-level experience right now,” Arkun said. “It’s in the way he (Nangreave) treats me, the way he teaches things, the way he explains things. He is my mentor. I would say I am greatly benefitting from this experience.”

Nangreave said the feeling is mutual.

“There’s some downtime in the lab, and that’s when you really get to know your students,” Nangreave said. “They get to know me as a person. I get to know them and their background and where they came from. I exchange gifts with his family for the holidays. I view them as part of an extended family.”

RELATED: ASU at Lake Havasu celebrates 10 years of community education

Why students come to Havasu is no mystery; why Nangreave is there is a bit of a fluke. In 2014, Nangreave and his wife, Janette (a physical chemist lecturer at ASU at Lake Havasu), were in the middle of their postdoctoral work in Tempe when he received a call to teach a semester in Havasu. The prior instructor left in the middle of the semester to take a job at another university and a replacement was urgently needed. Nangreave was offered a position as an adjunct faculty member to fill the slot.

“I felt it was a good opportunity to get some teaching experience, but the idea was always to go back to Tempe, finish my postdoc and proceed into an industrial position,” Nangreave said. “But when I got up here, I thought it was paradise.”

The students thought the same of Nangreave, who were appreciative of his commitment to them and the job. When the position was posted after the end of the school year, students begged Nangreave to apply. They also applied pressure on then-director David Young to hire Nangreave. Young listened to his students and tendered the job offer to Nangreave when he submitted his application. Nangreave called his wife and asked her to leave her position at the Biodesign Institute, where she ran the lab — not a small ask. They moved their family from Chandler, Arizona, to Lake Havasu City in 2015 and never looked back.

ASU at Lake Havasu Executive Director Carla Harcleroad said she’s glad the Nangreaves made the campus their new home.

“Ryan and Jeanette Nangreave embody the best of ASU at Lake Havasu, and they continue to help shape this location,” Harcleroad said. “Their commitment to student success, their colleagues and ASU is inspiring, and their community engagement in STEM education is admirable. I can’t wait to see what they do next on campus and in Lake Havasu City.”

Nangreave’s next move is to simply stay put… and continue to inspire students.

“After my third year teaching at this position, I received a job offer to teach at my alma mater back East,” Nangreave admitted. “It was a great job offer and I talked it over with my wife and my children. But we all agreed that Lake Havasu is our home now.

“I’m exactly where I should be.” 

Top photo: Second-year biology student Cem Arkun uses a pipette to add a chemical mixture to his experiment designed to protect an amino acid structure in a lab at ASU at Lake Havasu. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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