Science Student Spotlight: Alison Domzalski

May 24, 2021

Alison Domzalski

For Alison Domzalski, it all started with forensic science. Alison came to New York City in 2001 to get a Master’s degree in Forensic Science at John Jay College. Soon, she was assigned to teach organic chemistry, and her love for the chemistry of life was awoken.

After graduating, she obtained a position as a forensic biologist at the NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), where she used DNA technology to aid in the investigation of homicides, sexual assaults, and missing persons cases. While her days were spent looking at semen-covered sheets, bloody clothing, bones and teeth, and the DNA profiles contained in the evidence that would help solve the case, she continued to teach organic chemistry at night. Working with bright-eyed students in her classes filled Alison with inspiration and helped balance the grim nature of forensic work.

Her life took another turn when given an opportunity to do international volunteer work in the Tibetan exile community after befriending a monk named Khenpo Pema Wangdak. She left her job as a forensic scientist and moved to Asia, where she engaged in community work as a photographer and a science teacher in India and Nepal. The experience really changed Alison’s life and made her realize how important international outreach and cultural exchange are to her. Upon her return she decided to pursue a career where she could balance teaching with being creative. This meant teaching on a full-time basis at many college campuses across New York City while working as a photographer.

The next step in her career came when Alison decided to go back to school to earn a PhD and to pursue research in the area of natural products chemistry. Because of her loyalty to CUNY and positive impression of the Biochemistry Program, she came to the Graduate Center for this. In her teaching, she was always excited by the chemistry of the natural world—the sea sponges that produced anticancer drugs or the toxic venom from insects. Her fascination with going into the field and collecting samples to learn more about the molecules that nature created is what led her to the laboratory of Dr. Akira Kawamura at Hunter College.  Dr. Kawamura’s work on herbal medicines and the importance of their resident microbes in modulating the human immune response intrigued her greatly, and consequently she decided to join his lab for her dissertation research.

Alison started a brand-new project focusing on microbial natural product discovery that combines her interest in natural product chemistry with her affinity for international collaboration as she collected samples in Costa Rica and investigated the properties of the new molecules in Japan. Working with samples from plants to ants, Alison and co-workers have found compelling results that demonstrate how mixed communities of microorganisms can elicit the production of biologically active molecules involved in interspecies communication. Because most scientists in the field favor the use of monocultures instead of mixed culture, these molecules may have been overlooked in previous studies, in spite of their potential to benefit society in both medical and industrial applications.

Alison submitted a paper to Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry about the promise of mixed microbial culture as a reproducible platform for molecular discovery. Additionally, she is writing a second paper about the unambiguous stereochemical assignment of isolated diketopiperazines, which underlines the connection between stereochemistry and activity in these bio-active molecules, and she recently presented these findings at the Spring 2021 American Chemical Society meeting.

Upon graduation, Alison hopes to be a postdoctoral fellow in natural products either in academia or industry to continue exploring the potential of microbes. She is aware that her pre-doctoral work in this field is just the tip of the iceberg, and with her experience in analytical chemistry, bioinformatics, synthesis, and biology, she expects to be able to learn much more about microbes as powerful, renewable sources of molecules that have already demonstrated their value in both medicine and industry. A particular interest of hers is how the flavor and fragrance industry use fermentation to produce fragrance molecules instead of eliminating endangered forests or facing agricultural challenges due to climate change. Lastly, the international and collaborative aspects of her thesis research have been really rewarding and crucial to her success, and this is something that she hopes to continue throughout her career. Alison’s long-term career goal is to work at a Primary Undergraduate Institution where she can further pursue her passion for teaching and innovation in research and share those experiences with her students.

List of Awards:

Flavor Extract Manufacturer’s Association (FEMA) College Scholarship, 2020
Irwin H. Polishook/Belle Zeller Doctoral Scholarship recognizing both academic merit and community service, 2020
Biochemistry PhD Program Travel Award, 2020
Rose K. Rose Award for Graduate Student Excellence in Teaching, 2019
Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Short-Term Summer Fellowship, 2019
Ernesto Malave Merit Scholarship, University Student Senate, 2018
Provost’s Pre-dissertation Fellowship, Early Research Initiative, CUNY Graduate Center, 2018
Doctoral Student’s Research Grant, CUNY Graduate Center, 2018
Cliff Soll Travel Award, Hunter College, 2018
Gertrude Elion Scholarship, Hunter College, 2017

List of Papers:

2021 submitted: Journal: Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry
Title: Uncovering Potential Interspecies Signaling Factors in Plant-Derived Mixed Microbial Culture
Corresponding Author: Dr. Akira Kawamura
Co-Authors: Alison Domzalski; Susan D. Perez; Barney Yoo; Alexandria Velasquez; Valeria Vigo; Hilda Amalia Pasolli; Athenia Oldham; Douglas P. Henderson

Rosales, E. et al. (2019). An Exam Wrapper Intervention in Organic Chemistry I: Impact on Course Performance and Study Behavior. J Coll Sci Teach 49,53

Horowitz, G., Domzalski, AC, J. Elizalde-Utnick, G. J. Coll. Sci. Teach. (2018) Can We Teach Science in a More Culturally Responsive Way Without Sacrificing Time or Content?. J Coll Sci Teach 47 (6), 8-10

Domzalski, A.C. (2004). The Effects of Environmental Exposure on Human Scalp Hair Root Morphology, Master’s Thesis, Lloyd Sealy Library, John Jay College.

Maddox, J. F., Domzalski, A. C., Roth, R. A. & Ganey, P. E. (2004) 15-Deoxy Prostaglandin J2 Enhances Allyl Alcohol–Induced Toxicity in Rat Hepatocytes. Toxicol Sci 77, 290–298