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From Drug Discoveries to Empowering Young Women, Chemist Leyte Winfield Finds Answers

Leyte Winfield smiles wearing green shirt, arms crossed over shirt.
Leyte Winfield, Ph.D. Image courtesy of Spelman College Office of Communications.

Leyte Winfield knew she wanted to be a chemist before she knew there was a word for it.

As a youngster, she experimented by mixing colors to create different shades of nail polish, and combined lotions to get better hydration. Then one day, a cosmetics commercial on TV revealed there was a perfect career for her.

“They showed scientists for the Pond’s Institute in white coats, doing some of the things that I was just tinkering with at the house. It made me think, ‘I want to be a scientist who does that.’,” she says.

By high school, she knew chemistry was her calling. At a senior-year seminar, a guest speaker described the work he did in medicine as a pharmaceutical chemist. Winfield felt he was describing her dream career.

Now a AAAS Member, Leyte Winfield, Ph.D., is also an Associate Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry; Division Chair for the Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Spelman College, an esteemed Historically Black College (HBCU) in Atlanta, Georgia.

The research at her organic chemistry lab at Spelman, focuses on medicinal drug design, synthesizing compounds to combat problems triggered by existing cancer therapies. She has received six patents on the small molecules she studies, benzimidazoles. She evaluates their therapeutic potential on cancers that disproportionately impact Black Americans.

Winfield has studied some popular anti-inflammatory drugs  (including Celebrex® and Vioxx®) that provided critical relief for some people with arthritis, lupus, and sickle cell anemia, but caused dangerous and sometimes deadly reactions, such as heart attacks and strokes in other patients.

“A lot of my work was to look at that drug [Celebrex®] to see how we can reduce its toxicity, while still delivering some of the beneficial drug-like properties that we want to see on the market. It was also found that this drug was useful for reducing and inhibiting cancer growth, so we've used it as a template to identify how to improve its activity and also reduce some of its side effects,” says Winfield.

Her team recently published a paper about the effects of anti-inflammatory drugs on a form of ovarian cancer. “We're still exploring the different ways the molecule can be useful against reproductive cancers,” she says.

As a medicinal chemist, Winfield develops disease treatments. But she is also focused on other roles beyond the lab. As teacher, scholar, administrator, and mentor, she promotes equity for women of African descent to pursue and thrive in STEM careers.

Just as her own passion for chemistry was sparked by the things around her, Winfield says outreach to young science recruits must help them recognize the relevance of chemistry in their everyday environments. For young girls, it might be making ice cream or dropping Mentos into a bottle of Coca-Cola. For teenagers, the spark can come from probing something else that’s part of their routine.

In her organic chemistry course, she uses real-world examples that explain, “Why there are different [octane] percentages of gasoline or why straightening your hair requires high-temperature tools to get the silking effect," she says. “The more that we can demonstrate the relevance of science, the more students’  natural interest in knowing why takes over, and then they start exploring on their own."

One of her colleagues recently used the viral video of a woman who used Gorilla Glue instead of her regular hair styling product. Millions on social media followed the woman’s dilemma for days. So, the search to extract the glue instantly became the engaging topic of an organic chemistry lecture, says Winfield, because that’s real chemistry in real life.

At the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting in February, held virtually because of coronavirus, Winfield co-coordinated the workshop, “Inclusive Online Teaching: Toward More Impactful and Engaged Learning.” 

The panel explored how the new reality of online learning could still bolster the inclusion of women of color and other diverse groups in STEM majors.  Participants shared culturally relevant insights into effective student training in a COVID-altered world. Winfield has broad experience in that mission, leading NSF-funded research to strengthen the participation of underrepresented groups in science careers.

The panel also enabled Winfield and her colleagues to share how lockdowns and online learning have revealed deeper racial and economic inequities, but also empowered young scholars to speak out.

“For us, as faculty, [we can] help them create their science identity so that when we ask them, 'Are you a scientist?’ They don't feel bashful about saying, ‘Yes, I'm a scientist, and this is why. I'm a scientist, and this is what I can do with science.’ I think that the pandemic has heightened the need for people to understand the broad cultural impact of science and to understand how they may contribute to this understanding.”

She says The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, isn’t designed to ignore other lives, but to reckon with the fact that Black lives, and, for example, the contributions of HBCUs, have been minimalized for so long. A move toward equity can begin when traditional institutions and industries can begin “valuing our intellectual contributions and building appreciation for what we have to offer,” Winfield says. 

Even as an advocate for virtual and inclusive learning, Winfield longs for the camaraderie and serendipitous knowledge that come from gathering with colleagues in real life.

“There is something physical that happens when you get on a plane and go to a conference in person, you disconnect from all your other responsibilities. But, on Zoom, you can put on a great background, and kids are throwing spaghetti at each other in the background, and you're trying to get them under control between sentences. The way that we interact as humans, that's missing from the virtual space. I cannot wait to return to that in-person existence,” says Winfield.


Marsha Walton