Alexander GorkaWhen Dr. Alexander Gorka began college at Monmouth University, he did not originally intend to pursue a degree in Chemistry. Instead, he was enrolled as a criminal justice/forensic science major. As time went on, he came to realize that he most enjoyed the physical sciences courses and that a degree in Chemistry would provide the broadest opportunities. This was solidified through undergraduate research, where he “caught a glimpse of just how fun and rewarding it can be to challenge yourself with your own questions and ideas.” Hence, a chemistry career was born.

Upon graduation, Dr. Gorka moved to Washington, D.C., to earn his Ph.D. under the guidance of Prof. Paul Roepe at Georgetown University. Dr. Gorka then completed a Cancer Research Training Award (CRTA) Postdoctoral Fellowship with Dr. Martin Schnermann at the National Cancer Institute. In Fall 2017, Dr. Gorka joined the faculty at the University of Connecticut (UConn) as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry.

Dr. Gorka is excited to both teach and to launch his research lab at UConn:

“What drew me to this career was that there’s never a dull moment. Things are fun, crazy, terrifying, and fulfilling, all at the same time.” Dr. Gorka is most looking forward to mentoring students—helping them to form their own paths and careers—and exploring new ideas in his research lab. His goal is to answer important questions, do impactful science, publish high-quality articles, present at conferences, build networks to collaborate, and “be as good a mentor to [his] students as [he] can be in helping them achieve their goals.”

Dr. Gorka is teaching the graduate Organic Reactions course this Fall and the undergraduate Organic Chemistry II course in Spring 2018. His goal for these classes is to be an effective and innovative teacher who engages students in such a way that they not only learn, but also can appreciate the applications of those fundamentals in the “real world.”

Dr. Gorka’s research group will center on the development and application of chemical tools that can probe and manipulate biological phenomena. Specifically, Gorka explains:

We are interested in various types of host-pathogen interactions in the context of the microbiome and infectious disease. We aim to develop small molecule therapeutics and fluorescent imaging agents that can be activated or deactivated in response to specific, localized stimuli like light, pH, or intracellular processes. We will utilize these tools to study how the microbiome influences cancer progression and treatment, as well as the role of quorum sensing (bacterial communication) and intracellular growth on pathogenic events and antibiotic resistance. A parallel goal is to understand if these aspects can be controlled for therapeutic benefit in a manner which avoids and/or addresses drug resistance. In addressing these and other questions, our laboratory will develop and apply methodology in organic synthesis, photochemistry, biological chemistry, and optical imaging. Our workflow will generally begin with design and synthesis of target molecules, and progress through chemical/photophysical characterization and in vitro evaluation (cell culture).

The Gorka Research Group is currently accepting new members. Dr. Gorka is looking for:

“Highly motivated students with a positive and collaborative attitude, who always want to improve…who work hard to achieve their goals and who are passionately interested in broadening their horizons.”

Dr. Gorka is a firm believer that “most risks are worth taking” and leads by example in stepping outside of his comfort zone in teaching and research. He recommends that aspiring Chemistry graduate students “not have tunnel vision: strive for excellence across your academic, professional, and personal lives. That being said, don’t try to do everything on your own. Always ask for and consider constructive criticism: it will only make you better.” As for current UConn undergraduates, Gorka advises:

“[Don’t] think that GPA and grades are all that matter. The earlier you start to realize what activities and jobs get you out of bed in the morning, the earlier you can get involved in identifying and building your path. Again, don’t be afraid to reach out. Most times, you’ll be amazed at how positive and generous the response will be! Help others help you.”

In looking towards the future, Dr. Gorka hopes to promote discussion and communication between Chemistry and other departments at UConn: “I hope to bring new research techniques and equipment to the department and broaden our research and teaching portfolio so as to continue to attract the best and brightest students, staff, and faculty.”

By Esti Nof, B.S. Biological Sciences ’18