Up Close: Alan McKenzie-Coe

At the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, we’re training the next generation of changemakers. Our faculty and students are constantly making new discoveries which lead to new publications and solutions. We took a closer look at not only the research, but the people who make it all happen. This is one in a series we’ve titled, Up Close.

Faith. Human connection. A desire to have a positive impact on the world around him. These are the things that drive Dr. Alan McKenzie-Coe’s work.

Alan Mckenzie-Coe

A first-generation American whose family immigrated from Nicaragua during a political revolution, McKenzie-Coe’s path toward graduating with his PhD in chemistry was not without its hardships and challenges. As he describes, there were many moments when “…faith was required.”

Having initially set out to follow his father’s footsteps and become a medical doctor, McKenzie-Coe was forced to reconsider his career path when personal issues impacted his performance in school as an undergraduate chemistry student at FIU. This, however, didn’t stop him from persevering.

“Somewhere along the way, you realize that you have to take control of your life. My mom always says, ‘You’re going to face difficulties, but what are you going to do after that?’ Seeing how hard she worked drove me to want to get to a position where she doesn’t have to. Having that focus can get you through anything,” McKenzie-Coe said.

That focus propelled him forward. With some encouragement and guidance from FIU Professor James Quirke, McKenzie-Coe found his way to Dr. Francisco Fernandez-Lima’s research lab.

After volunteering at the Mass Spectrometry Facility during the spring and summer of 2013, McKenzie-Coe was accepted into the Master of Science in Chemistry Program with Dr. Fernandez-Lima as his advisor for the Fall 2013 semester. One year later, he was accepted into the PhD track.

Although his path diverged from what McKenzie-Coe had initially planned, he always had an interest in science and knew that it would somehow be a part of his career. His parents, who he considers the two most influential people in his life, created an environment for McKenzie-Coe and his siblings that set the stage for their success.

“Even though we didn’t grow up in a stellar area or belong to a stellar school system, I never felt like I couldn’t do anything. [My parents] always pushed me to do everything and demanded excellence. C’s weren’t okay. They gave us encyclopedia sets and all these different resources,” McKenzie-Coe said. “As a kid, I had a book called “How Come” with different passages like ‘Why is the sky blue?’ Things like that drove my curiosity, and I think that every child has that innate curiosity, it’s just a matter of whether or not it’s encouraged.”

Upon starting his career as a graduate student, McKenzie-Coe was met with a similar standard for excellence and a sense of encouragement from his advisor Dr. Fernandez-Lima. By the end of their first year, he and most of his lab mates had presented at international conferences and co-authored peer-reviewed publications.

McKenzie-Coe’s particular research focused on mass spectrometry methodology and instrumentation. Although mass spectrometers are typically used to measure how much of and what exactly is in a sample, as he explains, their use can span far beyond that.

“You can do different interesting experiments [using a mass spectrometer] like looking at molecules in the gas phase. By understanding what’s going on in the gas phase, you get a deeper understanding of what happens in solution and also in our bodies…by having these powerful instruments, we can answer different types of analytical questions.”

As all prospective graduate students do, McKenzie-Coe also had to plan how he would fund his research and coursework. Here, his connection with another essential mentor in his life shaped his path again.

Dr. Sonja Montas-Hunter, Assistant Vice Provost for Student Academic Success, guided McKenzie-Coe through the process of applying to the McKnight PhD Fellowship, which is geared toward promoting minority participation in STEM fields. Thanks to this fellowship, he was able to finish his graduate career without a single loan.

Dr. Montas-Hunter continues to support McKenzie-Coe throughout his PhD, most recently connecting him with a former McKnight Fellow in Baltimore, Maryland, where he has been selected for an NIH postdoctoral fellowship.

At the University of Baltimore’s School of Pharmacy, he will work with Dr. Lisa Jones studying cellular foot printing, with a focus on misfolding in proteins relative to different types of diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Through it all, McKenzie-Coe has had faith.

“Sometimes you’re at that borderline where you’re losing hope, and you feel like there’s no other way, but then you try to hold onto that faith in the face of adversity and somehow, someway, a door opens, and there’s a glimmer of hope.”

As he looks forward to his future, McKenzie-Coe hopes in 10 years he will be in a position where he can create a clearer path for others to follow in his footsteps.

“I would like to be at a point where I can impact the world with what I’m doing. Where I can research my own ideas, whether [or not] that means I go into academia, I would like to be in a position where I can help motivate, and improve the structure for people like me where I came from to know that school and college is a possibility.”