Meet Assistant Professor Alexander Aksenov, a chemist who is passionate about exploring the underlying chemistries of the molecular world using mass spectrometry.
Growing up, chemistry had always piqued young Alexander Aksenov’s interest. Although having a physicist as a father certainly helped, it wasn’t until he found a mentor in his chemistry teacher that he decided to pursue the subject further. “That’s how it always starts doesn’t it…. I had not considered that path, but my teacher encouraged me to continue with chemistry, and the rest is history,” Aksenov says. He went on to complete his Bachelors of Science in Chemistry at Moscow State University.
From there, Alexander says that his path becomes a winding one. Coming to the US was not a part of his original academic plan, after receiving offers to continue his graduate studies in Moscow and the United Kingdom. Regardless, he found his way to the University of Florida, where he earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry. It was at this point that his interests shifted from physical chemistry to all-things mass spectrometry. Alexander explains:
It wasn’t something that I ever expected myself to become interested in…. Physical chemistry and mass spectrometry are two different worlds. I was convinced to switch fields by my Ph.D. advisor, Professor John Eyler, and I was surprised to find myself excited and engaged by it.
After earning his Ph.D., Alexander became a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he worked on the mass spectrometry of ultra-heavy ions. He then worked in the United Kingdom as a research scientist. In this role, he gained experience with administrative processes in chemistry settings, but quickly realized that he much preferred research. Seeking to return to the field, he joined the Bioinstrumentation and BioMEMS Laboratory in the Mechanical and Aerospace Department at the University of California, Davis, working to develop portable sensors. Alexander then began serving as a Project Scientist in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science at the University of California, San Diego. At UC San Diego, his work focused on mass spectrometry, metabolomics, and the connection between chemistry and the microbiome.
Coming to UConn
Dr. Aksenov came to UConn seeking a new environment conducive to the profound research that he aims to conduct. “First and foremost, UConn is a great school,” Alexander says, “but that’s not the only thing I was looking for.”
Not only was it the academics that drew him here, but it was the atmosphere and relationships generated by the UConn Department of Chemistry. “When I sat down and interviewed with the committee, I found that I liked them all! And I am very lucky to be able to say that – you don’t just find that everywhere. Being part of a cluster hire naturally provides a path to collaborations outside of my field.”
When it comes to research and teaching, Alexander explains that the people you are surrounded by is of the utmost importance. He says, “What really generates an impact on the work that you do is people. Joining an environment full of other great faculty and staff means that you yourself can expect success.”
“Plus, the seasons here are beautiful,” he adds.
Alexander’s primary research interest centers on metabolomics — the study of small molecules known as metabolites — which come about from chemical processes and products of cellular metabolism. He explains:
Our environment — and in fact all things we interact with — leave their molecular imprints on us, and we on them. The ways we interact with the environment, the foods we consume, or microbes that we harbor in our bodies are all deeply influenced by social and cultural factors. The underlying chemistries are tremendously complex, but it is important to understand them as they directly and indirectly affect our health and wellbeing.
Alexander’s metabolite research focuses largely on the use of mass spectrometry, a powerful technique initially developed to measure molecular masses. He states, “Mass spectrometry is a tool that is undergoing explosive growth and revolutionary advances due to its huge and growing role in chemistry and biology.” Novel data analysis techniques, computers, and mass spectrometer hardware now allows for the exploration of tremendously complex chemical distributions at the global scale. Studying, for example, the chemical imprints of human interactions on the environment in a social context is a new frontier. This is something that was not really possible before, and it opens the door for exciting new possibilities that Alexander will explore as a faculty member at UConn.
In recent years, Alexander’s studies have led him towards new, multidisciplinary areas, such as sociological impacts on chemistry data. Carrying out studies and sampling populations is much more interdisciplinary than one would initially expect. Alexander states, “It is critically important to include diverse cohorts of people that are representative of various backgrounds, social statuses, races and lifestyles to get the most comprehensive picture.” One example of his work is the development of a breath diagnostics approach for detecting esophagogastric cancer. Alexander explains:
Early detection of this cancer is paramount for greater odds of survival. Unfortunately, at this time, the only reliable diagnostics is endoscopy, which is an invasive and expensive procedure. People from underserved communities who have limited access to healthcare, or general mistrust of the medical system, tend to have this cancer detected at later stage, leading to poorer prognosis and lower survival odds. The breath test is inexpensive, non-invasive, and can be administered outside of the hospital. Providing such screening tools to triage those with suspicions or symptoms would greatly improve the chances of catching this cancer early. As chemists, we are good at analyzing samples, but reaching out to communities to promote the adoption of new approaches is a challenging task that will require efforts of experts in social science and policymaking, among others. UConn provides an excellent platform for such collaborations.
Alexander is excited by the uncharted territory that he is entering at the intersection of social science and chemistry. Having always focused on the chemistry side of research proposals and studies, he is interested in delving more into bridging the gap between chemistry and sociology.
“Chemists alone are not equipped for sociological issues. Collaboration with social science experts is key in exploring the complexity of different cohorts of people, and UConn provides an excellent platform for such collaborations,” Alexander explains. “I am hoping to reach out to the new faculty in other departments and see if there is something we can do there.”
As Alexander takes on his new educator role at UConn, he is excited to provide students in his general chemistry class with a solid understanding of the molecular world he is so fond of. He is a proponent of using interactive, hands-on learning opportunities, while also directing students toward resources where they can discover their own answers. Alexander hopes to become a mentor for students in the same way that his teachers and advisors have been for him over the years. He reflects, “Being a great mentor is a way for you to leave your mark on future generations — what you accomplish will live on through them.”
He encourages all students, especially undergraduates, to reach out and connect with him if they are interested in his research. “In my experience in past research groups, I’ve seen a lot of success and energy from undergraduates…. Students, in general, should not be underestimated,” he says.
To express interest in joining Dr. Aksenov’s research group, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: Ngan Thach, UConn Department of Chemistry