Alexis Blake, ‘19, wanted to be a doctor as early as elementary school. “I remember being seven or eight and watching them performing surgeries on the health channel,” she said.

Blake came to Richmond planning to major in chemistry, and was also intrigued by the integrated approach to science that was offered in the SMART (Science, Math, and Research Training) course for first-year students. “I saw that SMART was studying antibiotic resistance and HIV and thought that was really cool,” she said. “They’re using chemistry, biology, and calculus to solve real world problems.”

While she formed a close connection with all three of the professors who taught the course, her bond with chemistry professor Carol Parish was particularly strong, so when she completed the SMART course and had the opportunity to do research, Parish’s computational chemistry lab was a great fit.

Blake’s research uses molecular dynamics to understand the binding interaction between human pepsin, a stomach protein that aids in digestion, and reverse transcriptase inhibitors, drugs given to patients with HIV that prevent the virus from converting its RNA into DNA and replicating. “The people who take reverse transcriptase inhibitors tend to have gastrointestinal side-effects,” she said, “so we were thinking that the drugs might be having some kind of adverse interaction with pepsin that causes nausea or vomiting.”

Blake says her biggest takeaways from SMART and her research experience are the ways she learned to think critically about a real-world problem. “I went into the SMART course with a pretty good background in chemistry and biology but it allowed me to take what I already knew and think about it in a more complex way and to ask bigger questions,” she said.

“It changed the way I think about science,” she continued. “We talked about a lot of different drugs, but we didn’t just talk about the science behind it, we also discussed the ethics. We talked about pricing, about who these drugs affect, and how you can use science to make the world a better place.”

Changing the way she thought about science also changed Blake’s career trajectory. She added a law and liberal arts minor to her chemistry major, and now plans to go to law school. “I want to do criminal justice reform regarding drugs,” she said. “My chemistry background and my research will help me as I try to use actual facts to make laws more representative of how harmful drugs actually are.”

“I want to make a difference, everyone does, but I want to take two things people normally wouldn’t think go together and be able to utilize them to really make a change,” she said. “I’d like to make science something that isn’t so far-fetched for most Americans.”