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Hruby Group Members

  Research Professors and Scientists

Minying Cai - Research Professor
Dr. Minying Cai is currently a research professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Arizona. She has been working with Prof. Hruby for 13 years in the area of novel drug discovery for obesity, diabetes, cancer and pain. She is working on projects at the interface of chemical biology, molecular pharmacology and molecular biology within the areas of 1. Structure based drug design and synthesis of GPCR ligands, including developing selective human melanocortin receptors (hMCRs) ligands; 2. Developing novel biophysics tools for molecular imaging; novel molecular biomarker; high-throughput screening system, etc. 3. Exploiting novel scaffold via computational chemistry for small molecule therapeutics for energy balance and cancer study; 4. Exploring the novel physiological functions of melanocortin system involved. In collaboration with other investigators worldwide, we aim to identify and develop molecule modulators of GPCRs for the therapeutic treatment of metabolic and CNS disorders.

YeonSun Lee - Research Scientist
Dr. YeonSun Lee is a Research Scientist in the Hruby Lab. She joined the Hruby group in 2000,  and since then has been conducting research in the Pain Program Project Group. During this period of time, she detoured for 2 years, working with the Dept. of Pharmacology and Toxicology and the Dept. of Material Sciences. Before joining the Hruby group, she worked for a Pharmaceutical Company in Korea for 5 years. At that time, as a team leader of a Peptide Lab, she developed new amino acid derivatives for peptide synthesis and new synthetic methodologies for biologically active peptide ligands. Originally her major was synthetic organic chemistry, in which she received her doctoral degree from Ewha Woman’s University in Korea in 1994. After receiving her Ph.D. degree, she worked for the Korea Institute of Science and Technology as a post-doc for 1 year. During that period of time, she was involved in  research to develop potent cephalosporin antibiotics.

Now Dr. Lee’s main focus is to discover novel non-opioid dynorphin analogs interacting with bradykinin receptors as an antagonist to treat hyperalgesia caused by chronic pain or nerve injury. This project is progressing successfully and so she hopes to reach her goals by seeing several of these analogs used clinically for therapeutic purposes. 

Ruben Vardanyan - Research Professor
Dr. Ruben Vardanyan is a research professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Arizona. He has been working with Prof. Hruby for 10 years in the area of novel drug discovery for pain. His research focuses on the design and synthesis of new bifunctional ligands, which combine the structures of a m-opioid and an adjuvant analgesic. Before joining the Hruby group, he worked in Armenia as the Chair of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the Chemical Faculty of Yerevan State University (1994–2002), the First Deputy Director and the Chairman of Pharmacopoeia Council of the Drug and Medical Technology Administration of Armenia (1984 – 1994), and as the Head of the Laboratory of  the Synthesis of Analgesics and their Antagonists at the Institute of  Fine Organic Chemistry of  the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia (1978 – 1984). His contemporary scientific focus is the chemistry of functionalized m-opioids for the synthesis new analgesics in bivalent ligand series.

Dr. Vardanyan’s achievements include the creation of Phenaridine, a new, powerful opioid analgesic, Dipifen, a new antiarrhytmic drug, and an antagonist of opioids Phenetam.  He has also elaborated a new field in heterocyclic chemistry - the chemistry of functionalized hexahydropyridazines - and discovered two new rearrangements of 2-amino-(hydroxy-, mercapto-)-4-methyl-5-ethoxycarbonyl- pyrimidines: 1. 2-amino-(hydroxy-, mercapto-)-5-acetyl-4-hydroxy pyrimidines (ANRORC rearrangement), 2.1,3-disubstituted-5-(a-alkylthio)benzylamino-pyrazoles into 1,3-disubstituted-4-(a-alkylthio)benzyl-5-aminopyrazoles.  Additionally, he has authored more than120 Sci. Papers, 5 Reviews, 18 Patents, and 2 books.

  Postdoctoral Research Associates and Visiting Scientists

Scott Cowell
Sandra Luz-Castañón Alonso - Visiting Scientist
In May 2011, Dr. Castanon earned her PhD in Chemistry as a Chemical Science graduate in the Department of Chemistry from Universidad NacionalAutonoma de Mexico (UNAM). Dr. Castanon is a Visiting Scientist from Hospital Infantil deMexico Federico Gomez. She joined the Hruby Group at the University of Arizona in May of 2012 and is currently completing her postdoctoral fellowship.

Her main area of research includes the synthesis and characterization of organic polymers for applications in nonolinear second and third order optics by the examination of their main chain benzoates and/or cinnamates, diacetylene side chains and polar chromophores (tolan, acetylenes, and diacetylene).

Dr. Castanon is also involved in the preparation and orientation of polymer films by spin coating methods and poling technique, the synthesis of calixpyrroles reactions from cyclic amines and aromatics and the synthesis of peptides of short chain proteinogenic as protease inhibitors against pathogens of clinical interest for cancer prevention.

Srinivas Deekonda - Postdoctoral Research Associate
After obtaining his Masters Degree in Organic Chemistry from Kakatiya University in Warangal, India, Dr. Deekonda was a Research Associate in Dr. Reddy’s Research Foundation in Hyderabad, India for 8 years. During this period, he was actively involved in the design and synthesis of novel small molecules for antidiabatic, antiulcer and antibacterial therapeutic areas.  Dr. Deekonda then progressed to obtain his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune, India. While earning his Ph.D. he worked on many projects including De Novo designed foldamers based on biotic and abiotic building blocks. Dr. Deekonda graduated in 2008 and joined Sai Adventium Pharma Ltd. as a Senior Research Scientist. After spending a year there, he moved to Jubilant Biosys in  Bangalore, India where he lead a project involving the design and synthesis of novel small molecules for Bradykinin I Receptor antagonists. He also mentored a group of Master students.

Dr. Deekonda joined the Hruby Group in August of 2009 as a Postdoctoral Research Associate and has been working on the design and synthesis of novel bifunctional ligands for treatment of chronic and neuropathic pain. During his time in the group, he has been involved in synthesizing novel bivalent ligands in mu/delta opioid agonists and bradykinin receptor antagonists.  His future plans include rejoining industry in Medicinal Chemistry and Drug Discovery. [Curriculum Vitae]

Aswini Giri - Postdoctoral Research Associate
Dr. Giri studied his B.Sc. (Hons. in Chemistry, from 1997-2000) at Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira, a college under the University of Calcutta, W.B., India. He did his M.Sc. in 2002 from the same university in chemistry (organic chemistry specialization) at University College of Science and Technology (Rajabazar Science College). He then worked as a Research Fellow in Chembiotek Research International, Kolkata for eight months and successfully completed multistep synthesis of a number of new complex organic molecules.

He moved to Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Kharagpur to pursue his Ph.D. degree. During his doctoral research work (Supervisors: Prof. Saumen Hajra and Prof. Dipakranjan Mal), he was involved in developing new asymmetric methodologies (organic) required for the important chemical transformations towards the synthesis of naturally occurring biologically active molecules. He completed the total synthesis of few natural products and their analogs (e.g., Paraconic acids, Lignans) during his doctoral thesis work utilizing his own developed methodologies.

As a curious chemist, Dr. Giri is always interested to find relationships between chemistry and other branches of science. After defending his doctoral thesis, he joined as a postdoctoral researcher in Prof. Norman G. Lewis’s Lab, at the Washington State University, Pullman, USA. He was involved on characterizing the biochemical pathway for the regio- and stereospecific formation of 8-5ʹ-lignans. He was also doing the structural analysis of lignins (purified from various plant materials) employing chemical as well as analytical techniques.

He joined Prof. Hruby’s Group in the June of 2011 with the aim of bridging his knowledge of chemistry to some other related fields of research and is continuing his research work on design, synthesis and SARs of novel bivalent/multivalent ligands with agonist activity at μ/δ opioid receptors (GPCRs) and antagonist activity at neurokinin-1 receptors (GPCRs) required for the treatment of pain. He is also conducting research on designing and synthesizing novel chiral amino acids and biologically important small molecules (chiral and achiral).

Dr. Giri always thinks himself as a learner of new things. He enjoys helping new students to understand basic research. Teaching the Undergraduate and Master degree students is exciting and enjoyable for him. His future goal is to be involved in multidisciplinary research with the specific aims of solving extremely challenging problems. [Curriculum Vitae]

Vinod Kulkarni - Postdoctoral Research Associate
Dr. Vinod V. Kulkarni did his undergraduate studies at the University of Mumbai (Bombay) majoring in Chemical Engineering. After his undergraduate studies, he worked as a research assistant at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at the Mumbai campus. He pursued his graduate studies in the United States at the University of Arizona and earned his Masters of Science and Doctor of Philosophy in Chemistry with Prof. Victor J. Hruby. During his doctoral studies he specialized in Organic synthesis, Peptide synthesis, Molecular Modeling and Pharmacological studies designing novel overlapping multifunctional ligands for Opioid and Melanocortin receptors.

Currently, Dr. Kulkarni holds Dual - Post Doctoral Research Associate positions at the Department of Radiology, and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He is involved in developing & synthesizing novel biomarkers at the Department of Radiology and is also developing and synthesizing novel linkers for bio-conjugation of proteins-peptides using organic synthesis at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. His future interests are to continue in an academic environment and collaborate with disciplines of Chemical and Medical Sciences.

Besides being an ardent Macintosh-Apple lover, he enjoys hiking, reading (Ayn Rand, Jeffrey Archer, et al.) and listening to music and songs (Western Classical, Hindustani, Carnatic and Indian Film).

Graduate Students

Sara Hall - Graduate Student 
Sara Hall received her B.S. in Biochemistry from Indiana University in 2009, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Biochemistry. Since joining the group in March 2011, she has been conducting research in the Pain Project Program Group. Her current project involves the design, synthesis, and evaluation of non-opioid dynorphin A peptide analogs targeting the bradykinin 2 receptor for the modulation of pain. 

Another area of interest is a structural and pharmacological study of the bradykinin 2 receptor. Her future plans include graduating with a PhD with the hopes of applying this knowledge to a research job at a pharmaceutical company.

Keith Olson - Graduate Student
Keith graduated Beloit college in '11 with a double major in psychology and biochemistry. He joined the Hruby group in the spring of '12. His research investigates biased signaling - when a ligand agonizes one pathway and antagonizes another - at the mu opioid receptor as a means to reduce tolerance and side effects for the treatment of chronic pain. Research involving the placebo effect, both general and pain specifc, interests him. Future goals include teaching at a small college.
Cyf Nadine Ramos-Colón - Graduate Student
Cyf is a Graduate student in the Drug Discovery and Development Program at the College of Pharmacy at the University of Arizona. She received her B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Arizona in May 2011.  She joined the Hruby Group in Spring of 2012 and is also part of the Pain Project Program Group. Since she joined the Hruby Group she has been working on the synthesis and discovery of new compounds for the treatment of pain targeting the bradykinin 1 receptor using non-opioid dynorphin A peptide analogs. 
She is also interested in organic synthesis, pharmacology and drug discovery and development processes. Her goal is to successfully finish her PhD and follow a career in drug discovery either in industry or academia.
Joel Nyberg

  Undergraduate Students

Christopher Apostol  - Undergraduate Researcher
Chris Apostol is currently a junior pursuing his Bachelors Degree in Chemistry. He joined the Hruby group in the summer of 2012 and will be synthesizing several novel chiral amino acids. His main interests include organic synthesis and drug development. He plans to attend graduate school to pursue his Masters Degree in organic chemistry.
Jennifer Bao - Undergraduate Researcher
Jennifer is a senior studying biochemistry and biology at the University of Arizona.  She joined the Hruby group during her freshman year, and works with Dr. Cai in the high-throughput screening of potential chemotherapeutic ligands targeting the melanocortin receptor system. Jennifer anticipates graduation in the spring of 2013, and plans to apply to medical school in the following summer.



Jacob Cole - Undergraduate Researcher
Jacob Cole is a junior undergraduate molecular and cellular biology and human biology major at U of A. He has been working under Dr. Deekonda since January 2012 in the synthesis of small molecules to interact with mu and delta opioid receptors in the treatment of acute and chronic pain. He plans on graduating in 2014 and hopes to one day get into medical school.
  Sharanda Francis  - Undergraduate Exchange Researcher
Sharanda is  an exchange undergraduate student from University of Nottingham in her third year of studying Chemistry. For this semester, she is working under the supervision of Dr. Vinod Kulkarni doing peptide synthesis.
Saul Geller - Undergraduate Researcher
Saul is a Biochemistry and Molecular and Cellular Biology major. He joined the Hruby Group in the Spring of 2012 as an undergraduate researcher and is currently working on the Exploration of Novel Physiological Function of the Melanocortin System. In the future, he plans to gain a medical degree as a pathologist.
Robert Kupp - Undergraduate Researcher
Robert Kupp is a Biochemistry senior; he has been with the group for about a year now working with Dr. Lee on the synthesis of dynorphin A analogues for the modulation of chronic neuropathic pain. He plans to finish his degrees and thesis in the Spring and matriculate into medical school in the Fall. In his free time he works on crystalizing the B3R.
Ryan Lacy - Undergraduate Researcher
Ryan Lacy is a Biochemistry senior who has been with  the Hruby Group under Dr. Nabila Brabez for about 8 months. He is currently working on the synthesis of multimeric ligands used as markers for those with melanoma and pancreatic cancer. He plans to finish his degree and thesis in the Spring of 2013 and attend dental school in the Fall.
Sam McGuffin - Undergraduate Researcher
Sam McGuffin is a junior undergraduate studying Physiology and Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. He joined the Hruby Group in the summer of 2012 and works with Dr. Ruben Vardanyan in the developmental process of designing novel methods to combat pain. After graduating in 2014, Sam plans to continue his education by heading to medical school.
Kaitlyn Mcleod - Undergraduate Researcher
Kaitlyn McLeod, a sophomore at the University of Arizona,  joined the Hruby lab during the  summer of 2012. She is currently working towards  a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. She plans to earn her Master's degree in Biochemistry at the University of Arizona before pursuing her ultimate goal, medical school.
Kevin Nugyen - Undergraduate Researcher
Kevin Nguyen is an undergraduate Junior working towards his B.S. in Chemical Engineering. Joining the Hruby group in Fall 2011, he has since worked with Dr. Nabila Brabez, his current project being synthesis and optimization of a tetravalent orthogonal scaffold. He plans on graduating in 2014, with plans of graduate school soon after.
Kara Saunders - Undergraduate Researcher
Kara Saunders is a senior undergraduate studying Chemistry & German Studies at the University of Arizona. She joined the Hruby lab in January 2011 and has since been working on synthesis of multimeric ligands for the early diagnosis and treatment of melanoma with Dr. Alexander Kuzmin (a former postdoctoral research associate) and Dr. Nabila Brabez. After she graduates in 2013, she plans to gain experience in industry and then pursue a Ph.D in Chemistry. 

Outside of the lab, Kara is president of the Student Members of the American Chemical Society-University of Arizona Chapter and principal violist of the UA Philharmonic.

Lauren Wugalter - Undergraduate Researcher
Lauren Wugalter is a senior undergraduate chemistry major at UA. She has been in the Hruby group for about a year working under Dr. Deekonda synthesizing small molecules for pain research having to do with the mu and delta opioid receptors. Her plan is to continue in organic chemistry research in graduate school working either with small molecules or to move on to natural product synthesis.

Administrative Staff


Christine Hiner-Kasten - Program Coordinator
Christine joined the Hruby Group as the Program Coordinator in October of 2010.  At that time, she was the Senior Office Administrator in the Admissions Office at the James E. Rogers College of Law where she had been since the fall of 2007. 

She grew up in Tucson, attended the University of Arizona and the University of Utah.  In Salt Lake City, she worked at Holy Cross Hospital for 7 years as a Surgical Technician, the Surgical Scheduling Coordinator, the Surgery Database Designer and a Surgical Assistant for an Ophthalmic Surgeon.   After her son Zachary was born, she moved to Santa Rosa, California and was a stay-at-home mom for two years.  In 1980, she moved to the Oakland, California area and began a 15 year career with a software development company.  During her employment there, she was a System Analyst, a Project Coordinator and the Database Designer and Administrator.  After leaving that company, she worked as a Technical Writer and Editor, an IRA Advisor and a Consultant to the U.S. Navy, where she developed a Help Desk, organized classes and wrote procedures and instructional manuals. 

Christine moved back to Tucson in 2002 to be with her mother.  She became a Realtor in 2003, working first with Long Realty and since 2007, has been with Tierra Antigua Realty brokerage. 


Christelle Feliciano - Professional Student Administrator