Laura Dassama: From Liberia and Temple to a Stanford professorship

When Laura Dassama (BS ’07, Biochem) arrived at Temple as a sophomore in fall 2004, the Liberian native and daughter of a nurse wanted to become a medical doctor. This fall, however, she will become an assistant professor of chemistry and a faculty fellow of Stanford University’s ChEM-H (Chemistry, Engineering & Medicine for Human Health) institute.

Why the change in career direction?

Dassama credits two Temple chemistry professors: David Dalton, now professor emeritus, and Professor Robert Stanley. When Dalton, her organic chemistry professor, asked her what she wanted to do with her life, she said, “I’m interested in finding cures for different diseases, so I think I need to go to medical school.”

“No, you don’t, you need to do research in a laboratory,” he replied, and introduced her to Stanley, a biophysical chemist who immediately put her to work in his lab.

“After spending a summer working with a DNA repair enzyme, I realized that I did not want to do anything else,” says Dassama, who remained in Stanley’s lab until she graduated. “It completely changed my career trajectory.”

Subsequently, Dassama: earned a PhD in biochemistry, microbiology and molecular biology from Pennsylvania State University and served briefly as a postdoctoral fellow there; was a postdoctoral fellow for four years at Northwestern University; and served this past year as a research associate investigating sickle-cell disease at Harvard Medical School, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital.

At Northwestern, she used physical and structural approaches to understand how certain bacterial cells traffic natural products—chemical compounds manufactured by living organisms often used as antimicrobial or anticancer drugs. In March, she returned to the Chemistry Department to lecture on her research focus and techniques. 

At Stanford, her research will concentrate on multi-drug resistance by bacteria: “I want to understand how some bacteria acquire multi-drug resistance, and also work on designing new drugs that can be used to target these bacteria.

“For me, chemistry is the easiest way to explain the world. When I learned ChEM-H was looking for someone who has been trained as a chemist and structural biologist but is interested in human health problems, it seemed like the perfect place for me.”