Chemist’s childhood love of nature sparks her search for medicinal plants

Dr. Nadja Cech poses with her research group at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2019.
Dr. Nadja Cech (fifth from the left) poses with her research group at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2019. She says her biggest accomplishment as a scientist is, “having had the opportunity to work with, train and learn from the many students and postdocs that have joined my group.” (Derick Jones Jr./UNCG Chemistry and Biochemistry)

By Marisa Sloan
Medill Reports

Dr. Nadja Cech is used to getting her hands dirty.

“Gardening has always been really important to me, but especially during the pandemic,” she said. “I manage the community garden in my neighborhood, which is used by about 30 different families.”

When not in the garden, Cech can be found in her lab at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, researching medicinal plants — such as plume poppies, coneflowers and tea leaves — for use against drug-resistant diseases. These diseases are expected to cause more annual deaths than cancer within the next 30 years.

The Patricia A. Sullivan Distinguished Professor of Chemistry said her love of plants is nothing new.

Cech grew up in a 300-square-foot yurt on a farm in Southern Oregon, although most of her time was spent exploring the outdoors. Her parents home-schooled her, but a typical day also included sitting in a forest drawing plants, writing a song or following a stream to see where it led.

“It was sort of an unschooled education,” she said. “Every day was different, but there was always a lot of time outside.”

A young Nadja Cech sits in a garden with her brother.
Young Nadja Cech (left) spent her days exploring her family’s farm in Southern Oregon. (Nadja Cech)

Cech was 14 years old when she entered a traditional classroom for the first time, enrolling at a community college. She fell in love with chemistry after realizing she could use it to better understand the natural world she had always surrounded herself with.

Between classes, she tinkered with instrumentation and, over the summers, she trekked through wilderness to collect water samples for the U.S. Forest Service.

“I see being a scientist as being curious about the world around you, asking questions and wanting to dig into understanding how and why things work,” Cech said. “I was fortunate, because of the way that I grew up and the circumstances around my education, that I was never told that I couldn’t be curious.”

At UNCG, Cech began using mass spectrometry — a technique that reveals the chemical structure of an unknown molecule by measuring and identifying atoms by the mass of their particles — to find medicinally useful molecules produced by plants and bacteria. What began as a side project has become the topic of her work for the past two decades, with some surprising conclusions.

For instance, the bacteria living on our skin (yes, there’s a lot) speak with one another via chemical signals, and that communication helps to maintain a healthy microbiome for the body.

It was recently shown that acute dermatitis, a condition characterized by a painful, rapidly spreading rash, isn’t only the result of an immune system dysfunction as previously thought. The irritation actually occurs when healthy bacteria on the skin are disrupted, sometimes with soaps and cleansers, and pathogenic bacteria are allowed to move in instead. Cech’s research group has been involved in an effort to better understand these mechanisms.

“We went from thinking of bacteria as our enemies, things that we want to kill, to thinking of them in a more nuanced way and realizing that friendly bacteria are something that we want to enhance or even introduce [in some] situations,” Cech said.

A headshot of Dr. Nadja Cech
Cech was first introduced to mass spectrometry as an undergraduate at Southern Oregon University, using it to solve wildlife crimes like poaching and poisonings. By studying the hemoglobin proteins in animal blood, she could distinguish different animal species from one another. (Nadja Cech)

Derick Jones Jr. earned their Ph.D. earlier this month after working in Cech’s research group for about two years. During their time there, Jones used mass spectrometry to understand the language of one of the more longstanding infectious diseases, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. The skin-wasting bacterial infection often proves to be antibiotic resistant and kills more people than HIV/AIDS in the U.S. every year.

“I call my Ph.D.… my ‘personal human development’ because that’s what has happened with [Cech] being my mentor,” they said. “Yes, the science happened, but the human development was the key.”

Jones said when they first joined the lab, their mental health was at an all-time low. Now, thanks in part to the tangible sense of community built by Cech, they are loving life as a gay, Black, nonbinary chemist.

“She breaks the mold by pushing people like me into academia,” Jones said. “If I want to wear a pair of Jessica Simpson [high heels], like I did during my dissertation defense, I can do that and feel great about it.”

Cech strives to build a community in which anyone who has curiosity can be a scientist.

Last year, she helped to organize a pop-up exhibition in honor of a large, local Tulip tree that has served as a marker of the Underground Railroad for more than 200 years. The event, lasting four days, blurred traditional disciplinary boundaries of study. Some participants highlighted the historical significance of the tree. Others showcased its natural beauty through song or dance, and still others drew attention to the large fungal network that secretly connects the roots of trees with one another, much like the Underground Railroad itself.

“It included faculty, staff, students who were chemists, students who were art majors and students who were historians,” said Dr. Nicholas Oberlies, a professor of chemistry at UNCG and close friend of Cech for over a decade. “She created a great sense of community with a really disparate group of people.”

Although bigger collaborations such as these became difficult when the pandemic struck, everyone in the Cech lab has continued to work either remotely or in person — no small feat considering her students come from places as far and wide as Kenya, Switzerland and Bangladesh.

“I think there’s a tremendous satisfaction on behalf of the team that we’re able to still produce science under these really challenging circumstances,” Cech said. “It’s been really inspiring to watch the team come up with ways to get around the hurdles that have been thrown at us.”

Sometimes, that success requires Zoom calls that last for hours. Other times, it requires a day of mulching in Cech’s neighborhood garden, even if not everyone loves digging through dirt as much as her.

“In the garden, we’re able to set aside a lot of things and just talk about things that are on our mind,” Jones said. “One thing that [Cech] does really well is see the human first, and then the science follows.”

Cech even uses the herbs they grow for research; a recent project involved isolating some of the compounds responsible for the antimicrobial activity of rosemary. It’s just one more way she probes the inner workings of a natural world that has sparked her curiosity since she was a child, spending her days following streams and wondering how plants grow.

“It’s been a steep, steep, steep learning curve,” she said. “And I’m still learning.”

Marisa Sloan is a health, environment and science reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @sloan_marisa.