Kargbo, Pham, and Tuga receive Merck Underrepresented Chemists of Color Research Award

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (4/12/2024) – Three Department of Chemistry PhD students were recently honored with the Merck Underrepresented Chemists of Color Research Award. Sallu Kargbo, July Pham, and Beza Tuga are recognized for their excellence in research and dedication to community and mentorship.

Sallu (Sal) Kargbo came to the University of Minnesota in 2021, after completing his undergraduate studies at Grinnell College. Here at UMN, he works with Professor Courtney Roberts to study organometallic chemistry; Sal’s recent research explores 5-membered N-heteroarynes utility in synthesis. “As I approach the midpoint of my graduate career, I have taken an interest in the pharmaceutical industry,” Sal says. “The mentorship I will gain access to through this award, in addition to the experience I will gain at my internship at Merck this summer, will propel me towards my goal of working in this industry.”

Le Dung (July) Pham earned her Bachelor’s degree at Drury University in Springfield, MO. She joined the Lamb Group at UMN in Fall 2020. When it comes to chemistry, July is interested in small molecule synthesis and methodology. “Right now I'm working on a project that involves controlling the activation of an organocatalyst, which is a powerful and greener class of catalyst!” July says. “My work will hopefully give access to unprecedented bond-forming reactions and advancing catalyst recycling.” When she looks toward the future, July sees herself pursuing pharmaceutical research. “I'm also an advocate for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) within the research space, especially for South East Asian (SEA) chemists who are still a minority in the field,” she says.

Beza Tuga joined the Haynes Group in 2019 after completion of her undergraduate studies at SUNY Plattsburgh. She says her academic mentors have played a huge role in cultivating her interest in pursuing chemistry. “Like most graduate students, I had originally planned to go to medical school,” Beza says. “But after doing research as an undergraduate and connecting with my former mentor Dr. Rajesh Sunasee, I realized that pursuing a career in chemistry research was an option for me.” The versatility and foundational nature of chemistry research sparks excitement for Beza. She is currently working to develop nanoscale materials for sustainable agriculture. When she thinks about the future, Beza says: “I’m focused on finding the best career path that fits my interests and I hope this award will better introduce me to working in the pharmaceutical industry – I’m honored to have been selected, and want to thank my advisor, Dr. Christy Haynes for her support!”

The Merck Research Award for Underrepresented Chemists of Color was established in 2021 to “create a supportive, inclusive networking environment for rising chemists of color.” The award program matches students with both a scientist and an executive-level mentor at Merck & Co. – a research-intensive biopharmaceutical company​ headquartered in Rahway, NJ. The award includes travel funds to attend a Merck symposium where the awardees will present their research and tour the facilities.