UAPB students study the genetic code during study abroad program in Mexico City

Will Hehemann School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences


From left: Dr. Joseph Onyliagha, Annette Craig and Makonnen Allen Acker-Moorehead.

Two students of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff recently returned from a two-month study abroad program in Mexico City. Annette Craig, a junior computer science major, and Makonnen Allen Acker-Moorehead, a May 2016 graduate of computer science, assisted scientists and researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in a study on the emergence of amino acids.

Under the guidance of their advisor, Dr. Joseph Onyliagha, associate professor of biology at UAPB, Craig and Moorehead collaborated on a study of the emergence of a standard alphabet of 20 genetically-encoded amino acids based on the distribution and analysis of the enzymes involved in amino acid biosynthesis. Their work involved recording the enzyme distribution in the three domains of life: eukarya, bacteria and archaea.

“Craig and Moorehead participated in important research that will help determine relationships between enzymes involved in ancient and recent pathways of amino acid biosynthesis,” Dr. Onyliagha said. “The data sheds light on how the genetic code evolved. It is important to note that evolution of the genetic code signaled the origin of life on earth.”20160730_133307-2

After collaborating with faculty and students at the university in Mexico City for two months, Craig said she was inspired by their thirst for knowledge and enthusiasm towards education. Moorehead said he also appreciated the educational atmosphere at UNAM, which encouraged education through active research.

“People at the university are so knowledgeable in the subjects they are majoring in,” he said. “Outside of class, students are engaging in research and hands-on training from the start of their education. They aren’t just learning subjects, but rather starting to know their subjects through active participation.”

Moorehead said his favorite parts of the program were the knowledge and new friends he gained at UNAM, as well as the chance to meet locals around Mexico City and try Mexican cuisine.

“My time in Mexico was the first time I had ever been abroad, but it definitely will not be my last,” Craig said. “My favorite part of the experience was getting to know the Mexican people, culture and food.”

In addition to the research they conducted, the students were able to visit historic and cultural sites throughout Mexico City, as well as the Xochimilco Archeological Museum and Botanical Garden.

“I would recommend studying abroad to students to see what life is like in other areas and to experience other cultures,” Craig said.

Moorehead said studying at another university abroad gives students a different perspective on education and how learning is given and received in other parts of the world.

The National Science Foundation Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program funded the program titled “The Genetic Code of Protein Molecules” through research award #1401293. Additional funding was provided through the program titled “From the Mississippi Delta to the Niger Delta: Strengthening Teaching and Extension Capacity at UAPB to Enhance International Programming,” USDA – National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Grant #2012-38821-20258.

For more information about study abroad opportunities at UAPB, contact Dr. Pamela D. Moore, associate dean for global engagement, at or 870-575-8195.


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