Dillard University summer interns learn about research

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Tasia Hurd, left, and Claudia McDonald talk about a research project.
Like many people who have never visited the Midwest or Nebraska, Patrick Jones of Memphis thought he'd see mostly cornfields. But when he and other Dillard University undergraduate students return to college this fall, they'll have learned there's more to Nebraska than fields of green. Academically, they'll also be way ahead of many of their classmates.

The partnership between Dillard University and UNMC has enabled undergraduates at the historically black college in Louisiana to prepare themselves for a future in the health sciences.

As part of the partnership, which was forged in 2001, Dillard students spend two summers at UNMC engaged in research activities under the guidance of UNMC faculty, staff and students.

"You never know what results you're going to get from research experiments," Jones said. "I've learned the thrill of research is finding out something new."

Dillard students at UNMC

Dillard students currently in the Summer Visiting Student Program are Jones, Omar Acres, Sadari Fisher, Tasia Hurd, Calvin Spellmon, Samuel Wilcinot and Stephen Wigley. From May 16 through Aug. 9, the students work in research laboratories while participating in weekly research seminars and other educational activities. Some of the internships are funded by National Institutes of Health minority research supplement grants.

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Patrick Jones sets up to run gels to check DNA in a laboratory of Keith Johnson, Ph.D., professor, UNMC College of Dentistry.
Common goals

Although each student has a unique background, they share a common goal: each has wanted to be a physician, dentist or another type of health professional since they can remember.

Wigley, who was offered a basketball scholarship to Dartmouth College, chose to attend Dillard and focus on medicine. "I have wanted to be a doctor forever," he said.

He earned the nickname, "Dr. Wigley," in high school because of his interest in helping treat basketball injuries.

"I love science," Wigley said. "I always had a knack for it."

The basketball standout earned A's in such high school classes as biology, calculus and chemistry and continues to be an A student in college.

In the lab with Stephen Wigley

His summer experience in the research lab has prompted him to consider earning an M.D. and Ph.D. degree, he said. "It's ironic that I'm studying pancreatic cancer," he said. "When I told my mom, she said my grandmother died of pancreatic cancer. I knew she died of cancer but hadn't known what kind."

Like the other freshmen, Wigley didn't speak the language of research when he arrived at UNMC, but has since learned many of its terms. At first he would just nod his head even though he didn't understand. Then he would go back and start reading books and stacks of papers.

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Stephen Wigley measures protein concentrations in S2-013 cell lines.
"It's been an experience, a real adjustment…rigorous," said Wigley who also was offered a summer research internship at Emory University in Atlanta but had heard about UNMC's program from another student who'd been here.

"Everyone at UNMC has been pretty nice," he said. "They're like, 'If you have questions, feel free to ask.' I'm grateful for the opportunity to be in Dr. (Tony) Hollingsworth's lab. They've already invited me back next year."

Post-doc praises Wigley

Post-doc Andrew Gawron, who coordinated Wigley's lab project and worked closely with him, said Wigley has gained valuable experience. "He's very motivated," Gawron said. "I only need to show him things once and he picks it up right away. He understands the theory and concepts behind what he's doing.

"Stephen has been great to work with. He's been very happy with the learning process and understands that research takes time. He learned a lot of techniques and got a feel for what research takes and how to communicate science—a real important aspect of a project."

Pursuing a dream
Tasia Hurd of Houston began pursuing her dream of being a pediatrician in high school, when she was accepted to a school tailored for future health professionals. She began doing hospital rotations in her junior year of high school.

"I want to help people but also want to make a difference -- maybe discover a cure someday for high blood pressure," Hurd said.

In her second summer internship at UNMC, Hurd said she's learned time management, determination and how to focus in order to get projects completed. "Research takes a lot of patience," she said. "I might want to go into it after my residency training."

Like the other interns, Hurd also has enjoyed her internship and the people she's worked with. "UNMC is a great place. The people are so helpful and nice and they don't get tired of me asking questions."

UNMC research technologist Claudia McDonald is among the researchers Hurd has worked with closely. "Tasia has learned a lot and is a hard worker," McDonald said. "I'm going to miss her."

But, Hurd may be back - possibly to pursue a medical technology or physician assistant degree.

Advisers serve as research mentors

The summer internship also has given students an opportunity to work with noted researchers who are experts in their fields.

Jones' UNMC faculty adviser, Keith Johnson, Ph.D., professor, UNMC College of Dentistry, said UNMC provides a teaching laboratory with a modern cell biology laboratory to provide a wide range of research experiences.

Dr. Johnson and his wife, Margaret Wheelock, Ph.D., study cadherins, which they believe play a role in causing cancer to spread to other parts of the body. The couple first discovered cadherins while studying cancer cell metastasis.

"I hope Patrick gains a general appreciation of how a research laboratory operates," Dr. Johnson said. "He's learned research techniques that I hope will increase his understanding of the material in the courses he has yet to take. There is no substitute for the experience of doing experiments where the outcome is unknown."

Researchers excited to learn

Jones said he is enjoying his experience working with faculty and students at UNMC.

"Even those with many years of experience are still excited to learn something new," he said. "It's cool to see. They seemed interested even with the work of the graduate and undergraduate researchers."

Dispelling preconceptions

The UNMC program has provided valuable hands-on experiences, he said. "When I first got here, I thought, 'what did I get myself into?' I hadn't had a chance to get hands-on experience in the biology labs (at Dillard). There's a lot to learn when you're working in a lab. There's a lot of caring and watching over the cells you're studying. If you don't, they will die."

Beyond studying cancer cells, Jones has spent his summer exploring Omaha and teaching his colleagues that Memphis is more than just the home of Elvis Presley. The 19-year-old also is dispelling his earlier preconceptions - his University of Nebraska at Omaha dormitory room overlooks a golf course, not the cornfields he thought he would see.