Adam Friedman

Hometown: Chapel Hill, NC
UNC Chapel Hill

From bio-remediation to underwater archeology, Adam Friedman’s pathway to graduate school at UNC has been anything but linear.  He’s always been driven by a love of science, but it took him a while to decide how best to turn that into a career he is passionate about.  As an undergraduate at UNC Chapel Hill, Adam tried a few types of research – working on cerebroside in Pierre Morell’s neuroscience lab and working on Neisseria gonorrhoeae in Janne Cannon’s microbiology lab – before eventually settling in Barbara MacGregor’s lab in Marine Science.  “We were looking at sludge samples and trying to identify all the bacterial strains present in the samples.  The ultimate goal was to encourage growth of bacteria that would remove phosphorous from sewage water. ”  Adam loved the work in these labs but something always seemed to be missing.  He wanted to work on problems directly related to human health and decided to apply to medical school.  “I was actually rejected from every single medical school I applied to.  In retrospect I am grateful this happened, but at the time, of course, I was not happy.”

Adam decided to combine his love of history with love of science and applied to the Master’s program in Underwater Archeology at Eastern Carolina University.  There he focused on the mapping and preservation of submerged cultural resources, such as prehistoric sites and sunken ships.  “If it’s manmade and underwater then it’s underwater archeology.  I specialized in geophysical remote sensing and my Master’s thesis extensively involved a remote sensing survey of the lower Roanoke River”.  Adam discovered a shipwreck that was very well preserved, had no nameplate, and was previously unknown to the State of North Carolina.  “When we don’t know the name of the vessel, it’s named after the discoverer, so I now have a shipwreck named after me: the ‘Friedman Wreck’.”  Adam went on to work for a firm that sent him across the country to survey bodies of water to assess the potential impact of construction projects, such as building bridges or levies.  The work was interesting but physically demanding and somewhat dangerous.

Before long, Adam started to wonder what kind of an impact on society his work was having – making a discernable difference was vitally important to him.  Ultimately he decided that with a career in science he could see a clearer benefit for humankind and so he changed course once again.   Adam transitioned back into biomedical research, gaining an ORISE post-baccalaureate fellowship at the FDA for two years. During this time, he applied to graduate programs in the Pharmaceutical Sciences.  Adam chose to return to UNC for graduate school because he was attracted to the fluidity and flexibility of the BBSP model.  Although he was already dedicated to the idea of a Pharmaceutical Sciences PhD before applying, he wanted the exposure to students of various interests that BBSP provided.  “Because of my First Year Groups, I have contacts in other programs, including Pharmacology and Cell Biology.  I also simply learned a lot in my group by listening to the research talks.  It really did enhance what otherwise would have been a rather focused experience”.

At UNC, Adam joined Rihe Liu’s lab and performed the first proof-of-concept selection of serum stable RNA aptamers that bind Protein A and were able to target silver nanoparticles to Staphylococcus aureus with an antimicrobial effect (link to paper).  For this work, Adam was awarded an American Foundation for Pharmaceutical Education (AFPE) fellowship in 2012 and 2013. In the last two years of his graduate research, Adam focused on developing serum stable RNA aptamers that can potentially be used to treat melanoma.  “Melanoma tumors are very intractable and basically the only effective tool we have to fight them is surgery.  But when you look at them histologically, the melanomas are ramified with T-cells.  The T-cells are anergic, however, because melanoma cells often overexpress a protein called PD-L1 that synapses to PD-1 on T-cells and inactivates them.  This is actually a pretty common feature of cancer cells – many overexpress PD-L1 or a related protein PD-L2.”   Disrupting this interaction so that T-cells can clear the cancer has been a focus of pharmaceutical research for a long time and some PD-1 immune checkpoint disrupting antibodies are now on the market (e.g. Keytruda). The Liu lab has developed a mutant T7 RNA polymerase that produces RNAs with a modification that renders the RNA very serum stable.  Adam explains, “The goal is to use this system to develop a biologically serum stable RNA aptamer that binds with high specificity to PD-1 (the T-cell receptor that binds PD-L1) thereby having a similar overall effect as PD-L1 binding antibodies.  This approach would produce a biomolecule that is shelf stable, has high binding specificity, and would provide an alternative to antibody drugs.”

Adam successfully defended his dissertation and graduated in December 2015. He has joined the newly launched Eshelman Institute for Innovation as the first Institute Fellow – PhD. Working in this role, Adam will define and shape the fellowship for future fellows, assist in the construction of critical Institute components, gain experience in healthcare entrepreneurship, and establish a new high school internship program at the Institute – the Young Innovator Program.

When Adam started graduate school he was an older student and had a different experience from many of his classmates.  He admits that early on he was sometimes jealous of those who knew what they wanted to do straight from college because they had saved themselves much time by not following a long, winding path.  But now he appreciates that the diversity of his life experiences actually helped him come up with new ideas and unique approaches.  Adam no longer regrets his journey.  And while he was intensely focused on his professional goals of doing science that will improve human health, he led a balanced life as a graduate student.  “When I was in lab, I was in lab. And I worked hard.  And then when I went home, I was with my family fully.  You need balance to keep up the energy.  I reject the idea that success is about how much time you are in lab.”  His advice to new students is to find what motivates them and keep that in mind always. “I always felt lucky that UNC chose me to invest in.  I didn’t take that for granted.  It’s easy to lose sight of this when your advisor is giving you a hard time or when your experiments aren’t working.   But when you think about the patients you could potentially help and the investment that others have made in you – you can’t let anything get you down.”