Five questions with the Florham Campus Pinnacle recipient: Melissa Orlando

By Kenna Caprio

Melissa OrlandoMay 5, 2017 — Melissa Orlando started college determined to become an orthopedic surgeon. She graduates magna cum laude with a chemistry degree, on her way to a master’s in pharmaceutical chemistry, and headed to a summer job at Pfizer as synthetic chemist. “I want to be in the lab, working in industry, discovering new drugs and pathways to drugs,” Orlando says. She found out about the internship offer on the day she found out she was named the Florham Campus Pinnacle award recipient for 2017 — after the dean of students called her house and startled her father (he recovered with pride!). It was a good day for the president of the student chapter of the American Chemical Society and Sigma Eta chapter of the national Gamma Sigma Epsilon Chemistry Honor Society.

FDU: What was a positive surprise about coming to FDU?

Melissa Orlando: Doing research with Dr. Salaski [assistant professor of chemistry]. It’s a very specific experience to get in the lab as an undergraduate. And it helped me thrive outside of FDU at internships — it’s an experience that most undergraduates are never exposed to. The research centers on a novel synthesis of 2H indazoles. It’s synthetic organic chemistry, focusing on design or method of creating new molecules. These new molecules and compounds are proven to be anti-HIV, anti-cancer and anti-viral drug targets.

The fact that I was able to make such strong connections with Dr. Salaski and all of the other chemistry professors helped me reach my potential. I’m not sure I would’ve had such a personal experience with my professors if I went to a much larger school. Doing research was a hidden gem experience at FDU.

I was able to have such a personalized experience. FDU allows that.

FDU: How has FDU made a lasting impression on you?

MO: FDU helped convince me that you can achieve everything that you want to do. I was able to accomplish all of these academic achievements, but at the same time I was able to play soccer, something I love, and mentor underclassmen [through the Becton College Student Leadership Network], giving them a connection and helping them find their fit at FDU. I also tutored and worked as a chemistry lab assistant.

FDU: What will you remember most from college?

MO: I’ll remember that I consistently put more on my plate than I thought I could handle. Every semester I kept adding something else, because as every semester and year went on, I felt I was prepared for more.

I'll remember knowing the Public Safety officers and the dining hall, Snax, and Leafs and Grains workers by name, and studying organic chemistry during a water break at soccer practice.

FDU: What were some of your academic goals? How did you achieve them?

MO: I was a biology major initially, and wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, but then I changed my mind. Organic chemistry is what I got excited about, so I had to change my goals my sophomore year and accept the fact that I was changing my goals. I’m not usually someone who would change my mind about something that big.

Coming in, academically, I just wanted to make sure that I did the best I could and not look back and wish that I had done more, done something differently or tried harder.

FDU: What are you most excited for after graduation?

MO: This summer I’ll be working at Pfizer as synthetic chemist. Synthetic chemists come up with new reaction techniques, optimizing reactions that can produce drug targets. Medicinal chemists find the drug targets and find which molecules will bind to the receptor. A synthetic chemist has to come up with a way to make a large quantity of that drug. It’s creative critical thinking: How can we make a lot more of that to actually make a drug out it?

I’m excited to be starting the next chapter of my life: industry-level research. And I’m excited to see what it’s like on the other side of having a degree.