The best thing I've experienced on campus is Maryland Day - good times!

Wright Makambi
Hometown: Silver Spring, Maryland
Expected Ph.D. completion date: Spring 2023

*Wright completed his chemical engineering degree in 2019 and is currently working on his Ph.D. We chatted with him recently to learn more about his tenure at UMD...

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I was born in Nairobi, Kenya. However, I have spent most of my life in Silver Spring, MD and I consider that area to be my hometown. My father has his Ph.D. in biostatics, my mother has her masters in sociology. Throughout my life, I have had constant support from them and my older brother, from driving me to school at the latest hour. to providing me with my school supplies, including my first laptop. All the support I've received from them and advice from friends has cleared the road, so I can be where I am right now.

No one specifically encouraged me to go into engineering, but from the time I was in middle school, I was always participating in STEM-related clubs. Engineering is a field to which I was naturally drawn.

So, why did you choose to study at the University of Maryland (UMD)?

I chose UMD because I live in the area, and I was fortunate enough to have an ABET accredited college in my area that was willing to accept me.

This question has 3 parts: Why did you choose to major in chemical engineering? What is your current research focus and what motivated you to work with Dr. Karlsson?

I'm working in chemical engineering because I have always been good at chemistry and mathematics, and been equally fascinated by physics and biology, too. Chemical engineering is a broad major that brings together aspects from these different fields into one, while also giving you a diverse pool of career choices in the future.

I'm currently working in Amy Karlsson’s lab, which is focused on protein engineering. During my undergraduate studies, I was always interested in joining this lab, and I was fortunate enough to get in for my graduate studies. Protein engineering involves changing residues in proteins to enhance their performance or give them new functionality.

My project specifically focuses on Candida albicans, which is a commensal and opportunistic pathogen, or fungual infection, that exists in different mucosal sites. In a healthy body, this pathogen is virtually harmless, however in immunocompromised patients, such as those with cancer, this pathogen can cause oral candidiasis, or thrush. Although there are some antifungal agents that can kill the organism, C. albicans can become drug resistant making these agents ineffective, and some of the treatment’s methods are proven to be toxic to the body.

To address limitations to current treatments for C. albicans related infections, I'm studying and engineering a natural peptide called histatin 5, which regulates the amount of the organism in the body. This peptide exists in the body without any toxic side effects, and C. albicans have not gained any resistance to it. However, as a defense C. albicans produce enzymes that cleave the positive residues of the histatin 5. My research focuses on engineering a Histatin 5 variant, which has high antifungal activity and is resistant to cleavage by the pathogens defense enzymes. Through these studies, I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the interactions between fungi and human peptides, while also finding novel solutions for treating fungal infections.

What is the best thing about your experience on campus thus far? Any challenges you've had to overcome?

The best thing I have experienced on campus is Maryland Day. In a typical spring, UMD hosts a campus-wide fair. Students and professors can show off their research, clubs and majors in this fair. I've been fortunate enough to be on both sides of the Maryland day kiosks, getting a chance to show off chemical engineering, and seeing what other students in the school are doing, while also participating in some events they have - good times!

The greatest challenge I've faced is during my freshmen year of undergraduate studies. I was living in the dorms, but I didn’t feel like meeting any of my neighbors, and school became a task. I would just go to class, go to my room, study, watch some shows, sleep, and repeat. I was getting stressed out with my class load, and I had no outlet because I was going at my studies alone. When I finally decided I needed to leave my room and hangout in the common area to meet my neighbors, my stress reduced by a lot. I found out that some of them were in the same classes I was in, and I could talk to them for help. The lesson from this is that there is also a social part to education - if you miss out on that, it could cause some issues.

So, when you’re not in class, how do you spend your time?

Outside of class, I spend a good amount of my time working out at the gym, running and every now and then, playing video games. When I am with friends, I enjoy playing sports, going to parks, hiking and exploring. I also attend church where we feed the less fortunate.

Do you have any post-commencement plans at this point?

I plan on becoming a professor when I graduate in a few years. I enjoy being able to teach other people, watch them progress, and learn how they take feedback. It's important to give back and pass our knowledge on.

Very true! Last question: engineering is a complex major – do you have any advice for incoming students as to how they can be successful?

Engineering courses in general are hard to understand sometimes. I recommend that you form a study group/friend group, this way you have people you can always talk to. It will make for a good time, and you can get your work done simultaneously. I also recommend going to faculty office hours. They understand what is confusing you best, so they might be able to come up with an analogy that could help you understand better.