Foerster-Bernstein Fellow 2016-17 and 2017-18: Subha Bakthavatsalam, PhD


Ms. Bakthavatsalam is currently working with Dr. Ankona Datta, her PhD supervisor at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai where she is scheduled to complete her PhD in Chemistry later this year.  Her doctoral research has involved a combination of chemistry and biology associated with the distribution and activity of manganese (Mn) in living systems. Mn is an essential co-factor for numerous enzymes, yet overexposure to this metal can, among other things, lead to neurological disorders with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s Disease.  While the biological regulation of this metal shares some features with trafficking pathways used by metals like Fe and Zn, the unique chemical features of Mn impose challenges that require unique mechanisms for regulation. Many unanswered questions remain about how living systems distribute Mn and deal with Mn stress. During her doctoral work, Subha made two important contributions toward the understanding of biological Mn distribution:  1) she designed and synthesized the first fluorescent sensor that responds selectively to this metal ion and is compatible with live cell and whole animal imaging, and 2) she developed a zebrafish larval model for elucidating the neuronal and molecular effects of Mn overexposure. The transparent vertebrate animal model allows her to use her fluorescent probe for imaging manganese distribution in a living animal and evaluate its correlation with neuronal manganism. Building on her aforementioned skill set and under the advisement of Drs. Katherine Franz (A&S, Chemistry) and Tian Zhang (Med, Duke Cancer Institute), she would like to design and test prodrugs for targeted delivery of chemotherapy agents specialized for castration-resistant prostate cancer (CRPC). More specifically, the development of a Cu prochelator as a prodrug for prostate cancer. To date, Ms. Bakthavatsalam has published 3 journal articles and given 9 conference presentations. Moreover, she has attended 6 international science conferences and has participated in various science outreach activities.

Mentor: Katherine J. Franz, PhD, Professor of Chemistry


Dr. Franz joined Duke’s faculty in 2003. She is currently Full Professor in the Department of Chemistry, Chemistry, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences (2015) and holds a faculty appointment in the Duke Cancer Institute. Dr. Franz completed her PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000. The Franz group is involved in elucidating the structural and functional consequences of metal ion coordination in biological systems using a combination of synthesis, spectroscopy, and biochemistry. The group is particularly interested in understanding the coordination chemistry utilized by biology to manage essential yet toxic species like copper and iron. Understanding these principles further guides our development of new chemical tools to manipulate biological metal ion location, speciation, and reactivity for potential therapeutic benefit. 


Mentor: Tian Zhang, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine


Dr. Zhang joined the School of Medicine as a Medical Instructor in the Department of Medicine in 2015 after completing a Fellowship in Hematology Oncology at Duke University’s School of Medicine. She completed an Internal Medicine Residency at Duke University following the receipt of her Medical Degree from Harvard Medical School in 2009. She is currently a member of the Duke Cancer Institute.