Biology Major Headed to St. Jude Hospital for Prestigious Research Program
Fairfield University sophomore Elizabeth Szabo was accepted into the very competitive Pediatric Oncology Education Program (POE) at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, one of the premier hospitals in the country treating children with cancer.
This summer, the biology major will be spending 11 weeks in Memphis in the research lab of St. Jude’s Richard J. Webby, Ph.D., a world leader studying the ecology of Influenza in animals and birds. He directs the World Health Organization’s (WHO) research on these issues. The 19-year-old from Bridgeport, Connecticut will receive a full stipend for the position, which will bring her another step closer to her dream of becoming a pediatric oncologist.
“I have always been interested in the sciences,” said Szabo, known on campus as Liz. “I always felt like everything I've ever learned in my science classes were applicable to every day life, and that's what I love most about it.”
Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH)/ National Cancer Institute, the POE program at St. Jude’s offers a unique opportunity for students preparing for careers in the biomedical sciences, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, psychology, or public health to gain biomedical and oncology research experience.
“As Liz is interested in a health-related profession, this is a very exciting opportunity for a sophomore biology major,” said Brian G. Walker, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology and Associate Dean, College of Arts & Sciences who is an advisor to Szabo. “She will be focusing her research on how avian influenza is transferred from avian hosts to mammalian recipients.”
POE provides a short-term training experience in either laboratory research or clinical research. A primary goal of the program is to encourage students to pursue a career in cancer research, either as a laboratory-based scientist or a physician scientist. Fifty-four students from 42 schools in 23 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia are participating in POE 2015. Their average undergraduate GPA is 3.85 on a 4.0 scale. They include 17 medical students, 33 undergraduates (including May 2015 graduates), two PharmD, and two graduate students.
At the end of appointment at St. Jude’s, all participants are required to make a PowerPoint presentation on their research project.
“What my project will be about isn't completely sure yet, but it may have something to do with the genes of the virus that may mutate and cause it to be transmitted from avian species to mammal species,” said Szabo.
For Szabo, Fairfield’s General Biology courses and labs have prepared her well for the upcoming experience. “We learned such a variety of lab techniques that I know for sure will help me at St. Jude.”
Szabo cut her teeth in a science laboratory in the Bannow Science Center while still just a student at Harding High School in Bridgeport (She graduated as the school’s valedictorian). At the time, she was taking part in Fairfield University’s BASE (Broadening Access to Science Education) Camp, a free two-week, residential summer camp for high school women interested in scientific research that is shepherded by Fairfield female faculty members in STEM disciplines.
As a BASE Camper, Szabo worked on a project with Anita Fernandez, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology, focusing on mutations in nematodes. “Dr. Anita was great at helping us understand different lab techniques,” she recalled. “My favorite part about BASE Camp was that I got to interact with college students and professors in a way that I normally wouldn't be able to.”
In a great full circle moment, Szabo returned to BASE Camp last summer to be a student mentor. “It was a very different experience because I was the one who was setting an example for the high school students that had never been in a lab before,” said Szabo.
Photo: Elizabeth Szabo ’17, left, with classmate and fellow former BASE Camper Shennell Tyndell ’17.