It’s not every day a 16-year-old gets an opportunity to do research work on cancer.
Stephen Hicks, a just-graduated 18-year-old from Mountain Brook High School, is happy to point that out.

He was that 16-year-old.

“I’ve loved it,” says Hicks, who recently completed a two-year researching stint at UAB in the division of nephrology in the department of medicine. “It’s been nice to get out of the science room and do real work. I got to see the real-world results of the science and see it applied.”

Hicks was afforded that opportunity thanks to Tino Unlap, assistant professor of medicine in nephrology. A counselor at Mountain Brook High School contacted Unlap about mentoring Hicks, and the professor was happy to do so.

Unlap took Hicks under his wing, teaching him how to use the department’s research equipment and empowering him with responsibility.

“Every one of us got here because of somebody taking the time and showing an interest in us,” Unlap says. “There are a lot of kids that need direction, and sometimes they just need to be given a chance, given some responsibility. If we can give every student a chance, I think they’ll continue on with their education.”

Unlap was afforded that chance when he came to the United States from the Truk Islands of Micronesia after high school. 

While in graduate school at Kansas State, Unlap was taken in by one of his professors, Dr. Charles Hedgcoth.

Hedgcoth did the same thing Unlap has been working to do over the past 10 years — take an interest in students and their lives. Mentoring has become a passion for Unlap.

“It’s very fulfilling, especially when they begin to work independently,” he says. “I just think it’s very critical that we train students. After all, they are the future.”

Unlap thinks mentoring is especially important for junior faculty because it helps them with their own training. “They will be teaching one-on-one, and that is so vital to success in the classroom,” he says.

And Unlap believes researchers are especially fortunate to be mentors because he says it’s the field of research that provides the best training for “real” life.

“First, you have to manage and motivate people and learn to get along with them because they are going to be the driving force behind every successful research project,” he says. “Second, you learn to address problems and come up with solutions that would take the least amount of time and money. Third, you learn to be patient through failures. Finally you learn to package and sell your ‘stuff’ through writing and public speaking. If you can’t sell your stuff and your ideas, who’s going to buy? You can’t get a grant, and you can’t publish.”

And students can learn each of those concepts all in one summer under the guidance of a mentor at UAB, he says.

Hicks opted to learn for two years.

Hicks, an honors student who aspires to be a doctor, admits he was bored with the standard learning that goes on in a high-school science class.

He wanted to get his hands dirty and learn real-world principles.

Unlap threw him straight into the fire of cancer research.

Hicks worked through his first summer and enjoyed it so much he kept coming back. Unlap kept throwing more and more at the youngster and took on another student from Mountain Brook High School, Emily Capilouto, this past year.

The two students worked on a potential anticancer drug, slightly modifying an organic compound previously used to treat uterine cancer. They tested it on resistant lung-cancer cells, B-cell lymphoma, brain tumors and solid-tumor cells from muscle. The results of their research stunned them.

“They have shown, through great diligence and hard work, that this drug induces programmed cell death in a number of cancer cells while not affecting normal cells,” Unlap says. “That was very exciting to them.”

“It’s amazing,” Hicks adds. “The solid-tumor cells — I had results where they were completely wiped out.”

Their findings were presented at the Intel Regional Science fair in Birmingham in March, and they received second place honors. They then presented their findings at the Science and Engineering State fair in Huntsville and placed third.

In addition, they also won the Mu Alpha Theta, Stateline Sporting Goods Division, Boeing Company, U.S. Army Science and Engineering and the U.S. Metric Association awards in the Senior Division.

“Emily and Stephen are excellent examples of how young minds can accomplish great things when given the opportunity through mentoring,” Unlap says.

The research, part of a five-year, $550,000 NIH grant, now enters the next phase of testing and — if successful — could lead to clinical trials.

There are endless opportunities for students to learn from mentors at UAB.

The schools of Dentistry, Health Professions, Medicine, Nursing, Optometry and Public Health are just a few of the other areas where faculty members serve as mentors on campus.

Hicks says his experience learning under Unlap at UAB has been exciting to him and not just for the research he was doing.

“It’s been wonderful working with Tino,” Hicks says. “I like learning from him and just being able to talk to him.”

Unlap says he’s going to miss Stephen and Emily, but he is grateful for the privilege of working with them and says he expects great things from them in the future.

As for Unlap, he’s welcoming a new group of students this summer with two students from the UAB Early Medical School Acceptance Program (EMSAP), a student from the Community OutReach Development (CORD) Program, and one from the Summer in Biomedical Science (SIBS) Research Program all coming aboard.

“This is what being a faculty member is about,” he says.