Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
December 11, 1998

Scientific matchmaking results in discovery

by Skip Derra

Pat Murphy had a problem. As a food toxicologist, Murphy had been working in the hot research area of phytochemicals (chemicals from plants), specifically on compounds called isoflavones. Phytochemical compounds appear to provide several health benefits.

The problem is that some isoflavones aren't very well understood. Murphy wanted to learn more about one particular compound -- glycitein -- by doing some tests. But very little of the compound exists, and making or isolating the compound requires more chemistry expertise than Murphy had.

"You need to be an organic chemist to make this stuff," Murphy said of the multi-step procedure to isolate glycitein from soy.

Mary Ann Evans also had a problem. Evans was trying to hook up several women scientists from various countries with Iowa State researchers as part of an eight-week summer program run by the International Women in Science and Engineering (IWISE) program. Evans co-directs the program with political science professor Ardith Maney. IWISE is a program of the International Institute of Theoretical and Applied Physics.

The goal of the IWISE summer program is to provide leadership development to international women scientists, help them establish networks in the United States and, while they're here, get them in ISU labs for a little research using some high-tech equipment.

Sometimes making matches between the visiting researcher and an appropriate ISU scientist can be exasperating. But it's an essential part of the IWISE summer program, which Evans said is the only one of its type in the world.

Last year more than 100 women from across the world applied for the program. Nineteen were selected; among them was Caroline Lang'at, at the time, a senior lecturer in the chemistry department of Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya. She was paired with Murphy.

Evans' matchmaking came up with a winner. An organic chemist, Lang'at was able to find a much simpler way to make glycitein. Gone was the exacting, multi-step process, replaced by a simple mix and microwave method.

"What Caroline did was come up with a way to make a key intermediate (an essential chemical to obtain glycitein) in a process of 'organic chemistry for dummies,'" Murphy said. "Caroline sort of came up with a cake recipe. It's a one-bowl process. That's the beauty of it."

A simple way of making glycitein should be a boon for research into isoflavones, Murphy explained.

Isoflavones are found naturally in some plants, most notably soy. There are three isoflavones in soy -- genistein, daidzein and glycitein -- that act like natural estrogens. Nutritionists believe these compounds reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and age-related cancers of the breast, prostate and colon. But they don't entirely understand how or why.

Researchers currently know a lot about genistein and daidzein because they are easy to obtain. But glycitein has been something of a mystery and its scarcity has limited the volume of lab work done on it.

Murphy says that should change with Lang'at's process. She added that knowing how all three compounds act together will give researchers a much clearer picture of what makes these compounds healthful to consumers.

Lang'at gained from the collaboration, as well.

She said the program gave her much needed exposure to recent advances in her area of research, and the opportunity to work in established laboratories and conduct collaborative research with U.S. scientists.

"This program can boost a woman's scientific career, enabling her to compete more effectively in a male-dominated field," she said.

Lang'at already has recommended the program to other women Kenyan scientists.

"I think these women benefit in a lot of different ways, depending on their own personality and needs, and the matches we make with the ISU scientists," Evans said of the IWISE program. "Some of our summer participants, like Caroline Lang'at, have really opened doors for them-selves through their participation."

Other benefits of the IWISE program for Lang'at included a summer of meeting new people, forging new alliances and developing leadership qualities she most likely will use, now that she's been appointed chair of her department at Kenyatta University.

"Having completed the IWISE program has made it easier for me to face my new challenge," Lang'at said.

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