Beckman Scholars Jumpstart Research Careers
By Matt Windsor
Tim Fernandez has been fighting killers throughout his college career. As a UAB freshman, Fernandez began tracing the cell signaling pathways that allow the HIV virus to replicate. He eventually moved on to cancer, targeting the interactions of the cell death receptor known as Fas and the protein Calmodulin, which play a major role in cancer. By his senior year, Fernandez’s research journey produced more than a dozen conference presentations, four papers in professional journals, an acceptance letter from the UAB School of Medicine—and more than $19,000 in funding.
In 2012, Fernandez, Dhruv Patel, and Michael Longmire became UAB’s first ever Beckman Scholars. The prestigious award program is highly competitive, offering three-year grants to U.S. universities and four-year colleges that allow six high-achieving students to conduct research mentored by top investigators at the institutions. The awards are open to undergraduate majors in biology, biomedical engineering, and chemistry, and provide each student with $19,300 in support for two summers and one academic year of research work. In addition to UAB, only 10 other institutions received Beckman awards in 2012.
Two additional UAB Beckman scholars, Roxanne Lockhart and Bliss Chang, were chosen in spring 2013. Chang says it was Fernandez who first introduced him to the Beckman program—and to his research project. Like Fernandez before him, Chang is now studying Fas in the lab of UAB microbiologist Jamil Saad, Ph.D. “Tim has been an exceptional mentor for me in research and elsewhere,” Chang says.
UAB Magazine asked the university's five current Beckman scholars to talk about their work and their future plans.
First-year student, UAB School of Medicine
Graduated with a double major in biology and chemistry, Spring 2013
Mentor: Jamil Saad, Ph.D., Department of Microbiology
Research project: Investigating the structural basis for Fas-mediated apoptosis (programmed cell death) and the interactions between Fas and calmodulin, a protein thought to impede apoptosis
Real-world application: New types of cancer treatment
Career goal: “Researching, teaching, and practicing medicine—I cannot envision doing anything less than the combination of all three. Hopefully, 20 years from now, I will have my own research group and have the opportunity to train my own students. Besides simply teaching science in a lecture setting, I aspire to educate medical students to be more effective communicators with their patients and colleagues.”
Rising up: “My Beckman project honestly was the result of wanting to be challenged. By the time I started my junior year, I felt that I was already proficient in the techniques and skills that we performed in my lab, and I also felt that I had a good understanding of experimental design due to my HIV-1 work. I saw this Fas/calmodulin project as my chance to be an independent scientist and to perform the experiments on my own since I knew that I already had the experience and tools to get the job done. Thanks to the Beckman Foundation, I was able to finish this project knowing that I had the resources to produce solid science.”
Senior, chemistry and biology double major (concentrations in biochemistry and molecular biology)
Mentor: David Graves, Ph.D., Department of Chemistry
Research project: Developing a method of permanently attaching the drug ethidium bromide to DNA and identifying the structure of this complex
Real-world application: "Understanding how DNA is affected in the presence of drugs, or how a particular protein manages to break the double helix at one specific point out of millions, opens the doors to so many different fields, including medicine, drug discovery, and evolutionary biology."
Career goal: "I've always been interested in finding answers, and DNA and life in general have so many questions left to be answered. I plan to be a researcher, working at the interface between science and medicine as closely as possible. I feel that one of the most valuable traits a physician or a scientist in the field can have is the ability to approach a problem with the mindset of the other."
Meaningful conversations: "The Beckman program has given me the ability to not only perform research, but to present it as well. In my time as a Beckman scholar, I will have attended eight scientific meetings and presented at five of them. I have had some of the best opportunities to meet scientists from many different backgrounds, all while working on something unique and meaningful to the field. The Beckman program has given us a chance to showcase our work and develop as scientists, but, perhaps more important, it has reminded us that even though the world of science may be vast, the nature of science and research is able to bring together anyone asking the questions of what, how, and why."
Senior, biomedical engineering major
Mentor: Ho-Wook Jun, Ph.D., Department of Biomedical Engineering
Research project: Studying bone tissue regeneration using mesenchymal stem cells
Real-world application: “Tissue engineering methods will eventually be used to allow us to live longer and more productive lives—and I wanted to join a laboratory that was trying to accomplish just that.”
Career goal: “While I have enjoyed my research these past couple of years, I want to be involved in more clinical projects, and I believe an M.D. will help me with the proper training I will need. I would like to remain in a hospital system and conduct my own research.”
What the Beckman award means: “The stipends have allowed me to stay at UAB in the summers without worrying about my expenses. There also was a generous fund that I was able to use to purchase laboratory supplies. This fund allowed me to complete many of my expensive experiments.”
Junior, biology major (concentration in molecular biology)
Mentor: Farah Lubin, Ph.D., Department of Neurobiology
Research project: Studying the effect of the drug thiamet-G on NF-KB (nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells) after traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Real-world application: Thiamet-G could hold promise as a therapy to reduce damaging inflammation after TBI.
Career goal: "Once graduating UAB, I plan to receive an M.D./Ph.D. degree and continue clinically relevant research."
Research evolution: As a senior in the Math and Science Department at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, Lockhart needed to present a senior research project. Because spinal cord injury has affected her family, she was drawn to the research of UAB's Candace Floyd, Ph.D., who specializes in the field. "I was able to spend my senior year of high school working with Dr. Floyd and immediately loved conducting research," Lockhart says. "When Dr. Floyd found out that I was going to come to UAB she said I could keep working in her lab." In Lockhart's sophomore year, Dr. Floyd assigned her a project that involved thiamet-G. Now, "with the Beckman award, I'm pursuing that work in TBI in Dr. Lubin's lab."
Junior, chemistry and biology double major (concentrations in biochemistry and molecular biology)
Mentor: Jamil Saad, Ph.D.
Research project: Further elucidating the structural basis for Fas-mediated apoptosis and investigating the role of a point mutation in the Fas protein that may reveal the mechanism of inhibition for the Fas pathway.
Real-world application: Understanding how Fas controls apoptosis could lead to identification of new therapeutic targets that active or deactivate the mechanism in order to treat many different diseases, including cancer.
Career goal: “I am planning on pursuing an M.D./Ph.D. that will allow me to enter academic medicine and teach at a leading medical research university.”
Fantastic voyage: “Research is a voyage into uncharted waters. I have truly enjoyed the intellectual challenge posed by the various steps of a project. One of the key elements of a qualified researcher is the ability to troubleshoot a problem—and these problems do not always come with a straightforward troubleshooting guide. This requires one to think critically regarding an experiment and what minute detail may be causing a deviation from the desired result. Sometimes the problems keep piling on top of one another, but the desire to succeed and obtain tangible results always motivates me forward.”