Shaping the future of research: Transforming students into scientists

November 01, 2022

Dr. Rivas in the cell lab with two students

LSU Chemistry Assistant Professor Fatima Rivas in the laboratory with undergraduates Emily Seighman and William Smither. 

– Katherine Seghers, LSU Office of Communications & University Relations

BATON ROUGE - Academic faculty leave a legacy more impactful than performing experiments and publishing papers: they are training the next generation of scientists. 

In the laboratory of Fatima Rivas, assistant professor of chemistry, undergraduates are contributing to potentially life-saving research for treating various cancer subtypes and other metabolic diseases with natural products. 

With recent extramural funding from various agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Pennington Biomedical Research Center/Louisiana NORC, Rivas is providing undergraduates with life-changing research experiences, transforming students into explorers. 

“By working in my lab, the next generation of scientists are being trained. I support student growth and development in conceptual understanding and technical execution of chemical biology,” Rivas said. “I am extremely proud to contribute to this academic endeavor as I am certain my students will make great contributions to society.” 

In addition to direct training of undergraduate students in the laboratory, Rivas plans to incorporate protein synthesis modulation via chemical probes as part of her bioorganic chemistry course next year, a project which was recently funded by an R15 NIH grant.   

“Science is increasingly interdisciplinary and the ability to navigate organic chemistry and molecular/cellular biology enables my students to become more effective at developing collaborations and driving innovation,” Rivas said. “Being an effective scientist can make you more competitive in securing funding or finding a competitive job.”

Undergraduate researchers Emily Seighman and William Smither from the Rivas group speak to the impacts this experience has had on them and their contributions to biomedical research.


Emily Seighman

Biochemistry senior Emily Seighman

Emily Seighman

Hometown: Walker, Louisiana
Senior, Biochemistry 


Why LSU?

Growing up with LSU alumni parents and grandparents, I have been surrounded by LSU culture my entire life. It was clear from the beginning that I wanted to attend LSU for my collegiate career, and as I learned more about the many opportunities that LSU could offer me, that decision was only further solidified. 

How did you get involved with the Rivas research group?

After talking with a couple of friends and hearing stories about their research experiences, I really got the urge to join an undergraduate research lab. The opportunity to research with the Rivas group came about in November of 2021, and after talking with Dr. Rivas, I knew that her research group was the right fit for me. Being new to research, I was definitely nervous to begin, but everyone in the lab welcomed me in, and they continue to help me learn everything I need to know. 

Describe a typical day like for you in the lab.  

A typical day in the lab can vary depending on what stage we are at. Most days, I am purifying compounds that we extracted from our biological samples using column chromatography, all with the help of Dr. Taotao Ling, the Rivas’ group research staff scientist. The purification process is the bulk of what we do, and it is done with the hope of finding a compound that we can biologically test to see what kinds of properties it may contain. 

What is your research project? 

The Rivas group has a large focus on utilizing natural products as possible therapeutic agents. The project I help collaborate on focuses on understanding the phytochemistry and exploring the biological function of a species of mushroom called Ganoderma multiplicatum. As we explore its biological function, we are hoping to find anticancer and antiproliferative properties that can be used to eventually treat multiple forms of cancer. 

How has being involved in this project impacted you? 

Being involved in this research project has given me some great friendships and offered me new opportunities to collaborate with undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and a sister research group located in Puerto Rico. 

Aside from hard skills, being able to partake in this research has also impacted me as an individual. A lot of our biological testing that we do in the lab specifically involves looking at activity of the mushroom against breast cancer cell lines. As the granddaughter of a breast cancer survivor, this project really hits close to home. As an undergraduate student, it has really been the opportunity of a lifetime to join in on the research to possibly treat and cure cancer.

What are your plans after graduation?  

After graduation, I hope to attend dental school and begin my journey to becoming a dentist. Being involved with research has helped me develop both personally and professionally, and I know that a lot of the skills I have learned will be the foundation for success in my future career. 


William Smither

Biochemistry and psychology senior William Smither

William Smither

Hometown: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Senior, Biochemistry and Psychology 


Why LSU?

Being in-state, it was a very affordable option with solid STEM departments and research opportunities.

How did you get involved with the Rivas research group?

I heard about the Rivas lab last April from my mentor, Jose Garfias, who was working as my organic chemistry lab TA at the time. I had expressed to Jose my desire to diversify my research experience beyond just psychology, so he introduced me to Dr. Rivas and the other members of the lab to see if I would be interested in trying my hand at chemistry research. There was a steep learning curve coming from an entirely different sector of research to organic chemistry, but the rest of the lab group was incredibly helpful in teaching me the ropes.

What is a typical day like for you in the lab?

I usually come into the lab around 9:30 a.m. after my morning class. I set up my laptop, make coffee, and check with our research staff scientist, Dr. Taotao Ling, for any updates or important developments before I get to work. It’s difficult to describe a set routine that I fall into because each day presents a radically different set of challenges, but most of my time is spent reading articles, setting up reactions, purifying compounds, and testing compounds with biological assays.

Explain your research project.

My research project is focused on the development of a novel, bioactive molecular scaffold to be used in drug discovery against colorectal cancer. The philosophy of our lab is that the best designs for medicinal compounds come from the natural world; so, by drawing inspiration from and modifying preexisting natural products we’re provided easy access to a staggering number of clinically useful, anticancer compounds. 

The scaffold I’m working on, specifically, is heavily inspired by a naturally occurring flavonoid found in dozens of common terrestrial plants like oak, buckwheat, and cannabis. If this project yields the results we hope it will, it could provide clinicians and pharmacologists with an inexpensive, reliable tool for the development of new colorectal cancer treatment options.

How has being involved in this project impacted you?

Being a part of the Rivas lab has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life thus far. The work isn’t easy but overcoming the challenges it presents with the help of my lab group has undoubtedly made me a more confident communicator as well as a sharper, more determined student. I’ve never learned so much in such a short amount of time, and I’ve made invaluable personal connections that will likely stay with me for the rest of my academic career.

What are your plans after graduation?

After I graduate, I plan to pursue an MD-PhD in oncology and hopefully start a lab of my own one day. I was originally planning to pursue an MD in psychiatry but working under Dr. Rivas has given me an intense respect for the field of cancer research, and I can absolutely see myself building a meaningful career in it.


 For additional information about Rivas’ research, please visit the Rivas research group webpage.