Alisha Caliman cuts across disciplines as a computational chemist

In a #WhyIScience Q&A, a Broad research scientist describes the interdisciplinary nature of her work and what inspired her to pursue science

Alisha Caliman, a research scientist in the Broad’s Center for the Development of Therapeutics (CDoT), is a computational chemist. That means she wields the latest and most powerful mathematical tools available to help accomplish the center’s mission: to leverage biological insights to create medicines with the potential to treat human disease. Working closely with structural biologists and chemists, she uses computers and computer simulations to predict how effective a new drug might be at mitigating a particular target, often ranking potential compounds based on their physical and electrostatic properties—all with the goal of making the hunt for cures safer, faster, and more efficient.

A graduate of Spelman College (BS in biology), Caliman earned her PhD from University of California, San Diego last year. This is her first year at the Broad, where she’s currently working on developing therapeutics for different types of cancer.

In a #WhyIScience Q&A, she describes the interdisciplinary nature of her work and how she came to pursue it:        

Q: What got you interested in science?
I give a lot of credit to my high school biology teacher, Ms. Eggleston. Her AP biology class made me realize that I wanted to major in biology. I enjoy solving problems and answering questions, and I like that, in math and science, the answers are mostly objective.

Q: What ultimately made you decide on computational chemistry as a career?
 My undergraduate school, Spelman College, embeds in its scholars the desire to change the world. I graduated Spelman with a sense of duty and the confidence to bring my ideas and experiences to the world of science, first by pursuing my PhD. In graduate school, I realized I could combine multiple interests. I started by combining my interests in coding and biology and then began studying computational chemistry. I ultimately decided on my current field because computational chemists are chimeric—we study computational science, physics, chemistry, and biology!

Alisha Caliman uses powerful computational tools to help turn biological insights into new drugs to treat disease.

Q: What, in your opinion, has been your biggest scientific accomplishment?
I got my PhD in May of 2017. During my studies, I published four papers as a first-author focused on computer-aided drug design methods targeting diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

Q: Who has inspired you during your career?
In addition to my thesis advisor and teachers, my mother, father, and my grandparents inspired me. In terms of public figures, I would say Jeanette Epps. She has a PhD in aerospace engineering, was selected to be an astronaut, and was supposed to be the first African-American to live on the International Space Station. She lived underwater for nine days as an aquanaut on the NEEMO 18 underwater expedition, and she speaks Russian. When I first heard about her story, I decided to apply to NASA’s training program, but I am unfortunately too short.

Q: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges scientists need to deal with today?
The public’s trust in science has decreased over the last decade. There are many reasons for this, including the rising costs of drugs, but one key source of distrust are the confusing and often contradictory news articles that emerge about science, health, and medicine. I think scientists need to do a better job communicating their work to the larger public, and this will require leaders who can also be advocates. They need to be able to make their case to the public why research is the most rational and reliable approach to solving problems if we’re to increase the public’s trust in what we do.