Budding Biochemist Nurtures Passion for Plants and Pharmacology

Joshua Cooksey’s green thumb put him on a path to scientific discovery

University of Maryland senior biochemistry major Joshua Cooksey found himself studying RNA at an unusual moment in time. It was 2021 and scientists were working around the clock to develop COVID-19 vaccines, some of which became the first messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines approved for human use.

As an undergraduate research assistant in the lab of Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Kwaku Dayie—whose work focuses on medically important RNAs—Cooksey watched in wonder as those three letters became a household name.

Joshua Cooksey headshot
Joshua Cooksey

“Everyone in the lab was really excited because RNA was getting some attention. Before, the focus was just proteins and more proteins,” he said. “COVID put RNA in the spotlight, and there’s a huge—basically untapped—space of possible therapeutic targets that need to be characterized so that it could possibly improve medicines in the future.”

Cooksey is currently synthesizing a molecule that could help visualize large 3D RNA structures—the vast majority of which are unknown and inaccessible—through the use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. While he doesn’t expect to limit his research to RNA, his experiences in the lab reaffirmed his interest in science that shapes the pharmaceutical field. After graduating in spring 2023, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry or biochemistry and ultimately a career in drug development.

Long before he ever set foot inside a chemistry lab, Cooksey discovered a love for science in his own yard. At the beginning of high school, he started a garden at his home in Ellicott City, Maryland, filling it with sunflowers, vegetables and herbs. That inspired him to learn more about the healing properties of nature.

“It started as more of a hobby, but that’s how I got interested in natural products,” Cooksey said. “I wanted to learn more about plants and how they could be used for human health and their applications in chemistry.”

Once at UMD, Cooksey found a garden away from home. In September 2020, he became a research assistant with Chemistry in Our Garden, an initiative that was run by Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Jeffery Davis and Associate Professor Paul Paukstelis, as well as Adjunct Assistant Professor of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture Andrea Ottesen. That project gave students the chance to analyze plants grown in the chemistry building’s courtyard garden and to research pharmacologically active natural products.

Throughout the course of this project, Davis said he was impressed by Cooksey’s enthusiasm, positive outlook and sensitivity to his fellow classmates.

“In my interactions with Joshua, both in and out of the classroom, Joshua stands out as a leader,” Davis said. “Joshua has the rare ability to ask great questions that cut to the core issue but he does it in a way that contributes greatly to the flow of the lecture or conversation and encourages further and deeper discussion from everyone involved.”

In winter 2021, Cooksey also joined Dayie’s lab, where he uses NMR spectroscopy to analyze the molecular structure of RNA. He has helped characterize RNA from plants like sorghum, a type of cereal grain that is an important crop in many parts of the world. This research has important implications for human health because it could lead to advancements in medicine.

Joshua Cooksey presents a research poster
Joshua Cooksey presenting his RNA research

“In the Dayie lab, we use stable isotopes in our nucleotides, which helps resolve more details about the spectra that we collect,” Cooksey said. “And if we can get more details about the RNA structure and how the structures change when we add things like drugs, that can be very instructive about drug design and new targets that we can use.”

Dayie described Cooksey as a “one-of-a-kind” undergraduate researcher. 

“He has an impressive intellectual capacity, admirable curiosity, keen attention to detail and sheer drive that will stand him in good stead as he moves on to graduate school,” Dayie said.

Cooksey’s research and academic achievements have earned him several accolades over the years, including the Nathan Drake Award and Bruce B. Jarvis Outstanding Junior Award, both granted by the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

He keeps busy in campus organizations, serving as a representative on the department’s Racial Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee and as a member of College Success Scholars, a professional development network for Black and Latino males. He is also a peer mentor with the Integrated Life Sciences program in the Honors College and volunteers with the Food Recovery Network on campus.

In his free time, he continues to nurture his love of plants by building terrariums and growing bonsai in his off-campus apartment.

“It’s really tricky,” he said of growing bonsai. “It requires a lot of patience, but it’s really rewarding. You have to spend time waiting for them to grow and cutting them in the designs that you want.”

Patience, dedication and the pursuit of gradual progress have served Cooksey well—not just as a gardener, but also as a budding biochemist.

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 9,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and six interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $200 million.