TU grad student’s award-winning research is focused on preventing colon cancer

By Cody Boteler on July 12, 2021

Zeguela Kamagate ’20 recognized by American Society for Nutrition

Zeguela Kamagate stands in a white lab coat and wearing personal protective equipment for her eyes and ears. She is pictured holding a test tube under a tool called a sonicator.
Zeguela Kamagate '20, now a graduate student, working in the Diet & Cancer Lab, where she investigates how compounds in sorghum could influence the development or growth of colorectal cancer. (Photo by Lauren Castellana)

Lab research requires dedication and patience, because things rarely go right the first time.

That’s an experience Zeguela Kamagate ’20 knows first-hand. Now a graduate student studying biology, she got involved with undergraduate research the summer before her senior year.

Kamagate is getting national recognition for that research. She won first place during the American Society for Nutrition’s Young Minority Investigator Oral Competition in early June.  She had to record a presentation of her research and answer real-time questions from a panel of judges, as if she were defending a thesis.

Kamagate was also selected as a finalist in the same organization’s Emerging Leaders in Nutrition Science Recognition Award Program.

“Zeguela has always been good, but in the last year, she has earned so many awards that it isn’t even funny anymore,” Peko Tsuji, her research mentor, says. “She’s done phenomenal work, and I’m terribly proud of her.”

But lab work was not always so easy for Kamagate. She recalls struggling to find her footing when she began her research career. 

“I was so terrified, because I’m often really shy, and I had never been in a lab setting before,” she says. “I was just so rigid. I’m pretty sure I struggled to even use a pipette.”

She conducts research with Tsuji, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. Tsuji’s lab studies the molecular mechanisms of colon cancer inflammation, investigating dietary compounds that could help prevent cancer.

“Research in biology is challenging. It is often frustrating,” Tsuji says. “Things don’t work most of the time.”

Kamagate recalls struggling “for months” to understand what was going wrong in her research, why the numbers weren’t adding up. She read scholarly works to understand what was happening and reached out to other labs to talk about techniques.

“It showed me the importance of collaboration and communication among scientists,” she says now. 

After months of problem-solving, something clicked, and Kamagate’s numbers finally worked, she says. “I was just so, so happy. I threw myself a party.”

Kamagate’s research investigates specific components of sorghum, a type of grain, to see if it can help prevent colon cancer. Her “very preliminary” findings show that some components of sorghum do prevent human colorectal cancer cells from replicating.

Colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancers in the United States and the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

She’s also part of the Fisher College of Science & Mathematics’ Bridges to the Doctorate program, which provides financial support for underrepresented graduate students in the biomedical sciences who want to pursue a doctorate. The program is a collaboration with the University of Maryland School of Medicine and is funded by the National Institutes of Health. 

Part of why she enjoys research, Kamagate says, is the feeling of “being a part of something bigger.” 

“Everyone is investigating narrow aspects of science,” she says. “To really investigate a part of a puzzle that fits into a bigger picture is really exciting.”

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Research and Creative Inquiry at TU

Learn more about undergraduate research and creative inquiry, or about graduate research opportunities and awards.

Tsuji has been especially impressed by Kamagate’s tenacity. During the research process, there were several cell contaminations that required her to “start over from scratch.”

Yet, she persevered and was able to present her research on the national stage.

“She is just so incredibly dedicated. Zeguela has this internal drive,” Tsuji says. “She just wants to know. She is curious.”  

Over the next three fiscal years, Towson University is investing more than $16.3 million in Academic Affairs to expand the resources available for research and scholarly and creative work and to advance TU’s position as a top-100 national public institution. This investment is the first step to prepare TU, under the leadership of Provost Melanie Perreault and the deans of the colleges, to explore TU’s aspiration to achieve a Carnegie Classification as an R2–Doctoral University with High Research Activity. 

Members of the media looking to speak with faculty experts at Towson University should contact Matt Palmer, director of media relations and news, at mpalmer@towson.edu.