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Making the Grade at CSU Biotechnology Research Symposium

By David Ogul

A gifted artist who grew up in Valley Center, James Oakley’s dreams of becoming an illustrator went by the wayside because industry dynamics were lacking in appeal. So he enrolled at Cal State San Marcos to explore other alternative careers.

It turned out to be a good move.

“I signed up for a general chemistry course, and it just changed my life,” Oakley said. “I was captivated at how from a small set of elements we can design and create vastly complex molecules that serve to benefit humankind in so many different ways.”

His passion is paying off. With plans to enroll in a Ph.D. program this fall, Oakley was chosen as a finalist for the Glenn Nagel Undergraduate Student Research Award at the 30th Annual California State University Biotechnology Symposium in Santa Clara from Jan. 11-13. A student team led by Oakley and mentored by Professor Robert Iafe investigated new chemical methods for designing molecules using gold catalysis to synthesize a structural scaffolding found in various medications. Oakley mastered a novel, multi-step synthesis of a 1,1‐diarylmethane, resulting in a presenting-author manuscript submitted to an international peer-reviewed organic chemistry journal.

Oakley’s was one of several CSUSM teams at the symposium.

“I’m just really happy to represent my school and the Iafe Lab at Cal State San Marcos,” Oakley said. “A lot of hard work went into this research, and it truly is an honor to be recognized.”

The symposium is among the most prestigious of its kind in California, and it brings together CSU students, faculty and administrators with biotech professionals working in academia, government and industry in an effort at broadening exposure to cutting-edge biotechnologies and innovation, and the spectrum of career paths available in the life sciences.

“The CSUPERB Symposium gives students a unique opportunity to discuss their scientific discoveries with a wide scientific audience,” Iafe said. “The chemical transformation that James researched simply cannot be found in an organic chemistry textbook because it wasn’t discovered yet. Students at CSUSM are truly pushing the frontiers of science.”

Iafe’s research interests are in manipulating organic compounds for pharmaceutical uses, and he is known for involving students in his projects. In 2016, Iafe earned the Award for Outstanding Faculty Student Collaboration, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, at CSUSM.

Oakley will enter a Ph.D. program in organic chemistry this fall. He has so far received offers of admission from Princeton University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Illinois. His goal is to become a medical chemist and develop new compounds to treat various maladies.

Not bad for a student who never took more than the required science courses to graduate from Valley Center High School.

“My success speaks to the impact that Cal State San Marcos has,” said Oakley, who still draws often and sometimes sells his artwork online. “It’s such an amazing place, a school that allows you to find out what you’re really interested in and where the student-faculty collaboration is so special.”

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