Visiting Fulbright Scholar Brings Opportunity to Oberlies Research Group  

Posted on February 26, 2024

Visiting Fulbright Scholar Vanida Choomenwai works in the lab at UNCG Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Professor Nick Oberlies and the UNC Greensboro Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry will soon say a bittersweet goodbye to visiting Fulbright Scholar Vanida Choomuenwai. The impact of her research grant extends well beyond the six months the Thai chemist has been at UNCG.   

“Being a Fulbright and working here has opened a thousand doors and opportunities for me in my life,” says Choomuenwai. 

Choomuenwai runs her own lab in northeastern Thailand and teaches at Nakhon Ratchasima Rajaphat University where she works with local plants and herbs. Her research focuses on organic chemistry, organic synthesis, and natural products.  

Fungi inspired application 

Choomuenwai applied for the Fulbright grant because she wanted to learn more about how the Oberlies Research Group investigates fungi. Housed in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the Oberlies Research Group studies bioactive compounds from nature, largely from the viewpoint of natural products chemistry that reveal the biological potential of natural compounds, one of Choumenwai’s research focuses. 

“There is a lot of equipment here that I don’t have at home, and after going back, I can modify equipment in my own lab to do research,” she says. Learning how to use the equipment in the Oberlies lab inspired her to embrace new research techniques. 

“I’ve got every tool she needs,” Oberlies says. “And of course she’s always down in the lab using them. I love that.” 

Choomuenwai in return shared her expertise and knowledge with UNCG students.  

“She’s got a little more experience in synthetic chemistry than I do,” Oberlies says. “She’s given students a perspective I can’t provide and a bit of science I don’t know as much about.”  

Beyond sharing her experience, she’s helped create a joyful culture in the lab. Organizing birthday card signings and showing her appreciation for students and researchers in the lab.  

“Everybody likes to be appreciated. Esprit de corps—she’s good at that,” Oberlies says.  “She’s led by example and helped some of the students get their feet under themselves in the lab.” 

Benefits Beyond the Lab 

Choomuenwai embraced being in the U.S. She traveled to other cities and states and built a community of friends. She met other chemists and Fulbright Scholars from around the world, including a Vietnamese biologist with whom she intends to collaborate in the future. 

Oberlies sees Choomuenwai’s Fulbright Fellowship as an investment. His department has had several doctoral students from abroad and continues to cultivate relationships outside of the U.S.  

“The great thing about natural products chemistry is you can do it anywhere. The more we can train people to study nature before it’s gone the better,” he says. “You give people a little bit of training in this and then they can go light the world on fire in their own backyard.” 

Oberlies has helped around a dozen candidates write Fulbright applications, and he credits Maria Anastasiou, associate provost for international programs, as essential to being able to successfully bring Choomuenwai to UNCG on a Fulbright fellowship. 

“Maria encouraged me not to give up,” he says. “She is the one who said, ‘let’s do this, we’ll help you.’” 

Following the successful fellowship with Choomuewai, Oberlies is hopeful for future collaborations. 

“What I would love to do is not just have Vanida visit for six months and never see her again; I would like to visit her, talk to her students, recruit a student from Thailand. I would love for her to return. Now that we’ve developed an initial relationship, I would love to expand it. I would expand it for my lab, and for the Department of Chemistry and by extension, UNCG,” Oberlies says. 

Story by Alexis L. Richardson

Photography by David Lee Row, University Communications

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