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Leaders in Labs: Network Exposes Students to Biomedical Research

Anil Sood stands in a lab
A respected cancer researcher at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Anil Sood, M.D. ’86 has mentored DRN fellows for the past five years.

Bionic limbs, targeted cancer therapies, stem cells, laparoscopic surgeries, gene sequencing–medical research advances save or improve countless lives every day. Through a program in partnership with Davidson alumni and research centers across the country, students participate in some of today's most promising efforts to understand, treat and eradicate diseases.

The Davidson Research Network (DRN) provides eight-week-long summer opportunities in medical research for Davidson students interested in the health sciences. Students learn from mentors who have assumed leadership roles in health science education across the United States, most of them Davidson alumni.

"Undergraduate research conducted with a committed and professional mentor is one of the most transformative experiences a student can obtain," said Elizabeth L. Ambos, executive officer at the Council on Undergraduate Research. "In my opinion, the Davidson Research Network is one of the best examples I have seen of a strong partnership between a prestigious, predominantly undergraduate institution and faculty at multiple medical centers across the United States, many linked to prominent Davidson alumni. Students who participate in the Davidson Research Network are afforded an intensive, high-quality research experience unparalleled as an entrée to health science graduate programs, or industry positions, as well as access to a network of biomedical research leaders."

Alvarez Scholar Bruno Mourao '17 discovered his passion for the lab during a summer 2015 DRN fellow.

His work on the toxic effects of alcohol consumption could apply to how criminal cases are prosecuted, and for how recovery goals are set for substance abuse patients.

"My experience as a DRN fellow at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio's biological psychiatry analytical laboratory inspired me to continue pursuing venues of research that cater to my passions," Mourao said, "and my long-term aspirations are to attend medical school and eventually specialize in global health policy and infectious diseases."

The Gift of Experience

As students prepare to transition from Davidson to lives of leadership and service, fellowships, internships and related experiences enhance their skills. DRN fellows study oncology, infectious disease, immunology, neonatology, neuroscience, substance abuse, biomedical engineering and healthcare policy at sites in North Carolina, Washington D.C., New York City, Texas, Colorado and California.

As a bonus, students not only learn from a research scientist leading their field of inquiry, but they also have a chance to evaluate an institution that may become their choice for graduate work.

Now in its sixth summer, the program is one alumnus' way of serving alma mater. Spencer Redding, DDS, M.Ed., '72 lives 1,350 miles from campus, near San Antonio, Texas, where he recently retired from the University of Texas Health Science Center after a 34-year career conducting clinical research in the diagnosis of infectious diseases and oral cancer.

Redding first welcomed students into his lab nearly two decades ago; that experience served as the catalyst for the DRN.

Aerial view of the UT health center
Spencer Redding, DDS, M.Ed., ’72 created the DRN to provide students with biomedical research opportunities at some of the country’s leading-edge research centers, all under the guidance of Davidson alumni mentors.

Despite his physical distance from Davidson, Redding wanted to do something meaningful for students and graduates alike.

"I hope this program accomplishes three key things," he said. "First, it's about creating research opportunities for Davidson students off campus at nationally renowned academic health centers and institutes."

While there are currently excellent research opportunities on campus at Davidson, Redding said, the DRN offers a more specialized, advanced experience in biomedical research.

"Second, it gives our graduates a chance to provide service to the college by mentoring Davidson students," he said. "And third, it provides an opportunity for Davidson students to be more competitive at an expanded group of graduate schools."

DRN students train in an academic health setting where they may be interested in training in the future and can establish relationships critical to the application process. Redding also hopes that Davidson alumni who serve as research mentors will become advocates for new Davidson graduates at their institutions.

As an undergraduate, Redding did not have access to bioscience research opportunities. Redding left campus pleasantly surprised after a 2001 visit, where he met Professor of Biology David Wessner while touring the college's new biology building.

"I asked him why he came to Davidson, and he said the position allowed him to pursue his research. He showed me his lab, which was very impressive, and it was clear that research had assumed a new role at Davidson," Redding said. "At the end of our visit, I asked him to let me know if there were any Davidson students from Texas that would like to work in a research lab over the summer."

Two weeks later, he had a taker–Erin Brockway Henderson '03. By the end of that first summer, Redding was imagining ways to develop a network of research experiences for Davidson students at academic health centers throughout the country.

Alumni Engagement

Anil Sood, M.D. '86 has served as a DRN program mentor for the past five years at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

"I gave a talk several years ago about the predictors for who stays in academia and research, and a key predictor is the age of first exposure," he said. "It's important to offer opportunities for students to gain exposure early on, and my hope is that these summer experiences help individuals figure out what path they want to take."

Usually, one summer is not enough time to finish a project, said Sood, but the experience does give students opportunities to learn about research careers or lab work, as well as how they might incorporate those skills in their careers.

"Davidson students are typically very motivated, and they are interested in learning," Sood said. "At first, I wasn't really sure whether students without lab experience would get in the way or goof around. But this has been a two-way thing–students value the experience, and the programs have the opportunity to work with some of the brightest students in the country."

The Davidson Research Network program relies on involvement and investment from the Davidson family to offer outstanding summer opportunities to students. If you are interested in becoming a mentor contact Spencer Redding at redding@uthscsa.edu. Currently, students receive stipends during their program covered by grants which unfortunately are ending. To continue this as the program grows, it is critical that funds are identified for future stipends.

If you are interested in supporting Davidson Research Network students financially, please contact Dan Drayer in the college's Development Office at dadrayer@davidson.edu or 704-894-2831.

Danielle Strickland
dastrickland@davidson.edu
704-894-3101