By Carole Weaver, PhD
Photography by Seth Dixon
In the fall of 2017, a hand-picked group of students will walk into St. Jude and change it forever. Their lives will never be the same, either.
Those people will be the inaugural class of the St. Jude Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the first degree-granting program ever established on the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“It’s going to be unique,” says Stephen White, DPhil, the school’s dean. “We’ve had a chance to design it from scratch. And we want the most ambitious and adventurous students.”
An educational mission
Scientific research has always been central to the St. Jude mission of developing cures. But why establish a graduate school?
“People don’t always realize that it’s the trainees who do the hands-on experiments that give us those groundbreaking results,” says faculty member Suzanne Baker, PhD, who leads the school’s curriculum committee.
“Science is about asking questions, and we want people with open minds,” she continues. “New, excited graduate students can bring a lot of energy and insight to a research program. They ask questions that a more experienced scientist might think they already know the answers to.”
White agrees. “The school is designed to bring in fresh blood and new ideas—fearless people without preconceptions about how things should work,” he says. “That’s one of the great things students bring to a place.”
In fact, St. Jude is no stranger to graduate students. Hundreds of outstanding students from affiliated institutions have received training at the hospital during their dissertation work.
However, the new PhD-granting program will be special. Crafted by St. Jude from the ground up, the school will reflect the hospital’s mission and will provide a distinct educational experience. The class size will be roughly 10 students per year, so all interactions with faculty will occur in a small-group setting.
In the spring of 2017, the inaugural class will be hand-selected from a pool of top applicants from around the U.S. The students will begin their studies in early August. First-year courses will be taught by members of the St. Jude Graduate School faculty, internationally renowned scientific and clinical investigators who will also serve as one-on-one research mentors during the years of training ahead.
Creating nimble scientific leaders
To spark scientific creativity, simple textbook lessons will not be on the class menu. Students will immediately dive into high-level scientific literature that extends far beyond the usual topics found in first-year PhD training.
“The answer to curing disease is not just studying biology,” White says. “That’s an old idea. Modern scientists must be nimble—if a discovery is made, they need to be able to quickly adapt their research. So we have designed an innovative, challenging curriculum.”
In addition to rigorous laboratory training, first-year students will work with clinical faculty in St. Jude clinics, where they will learn how treatment decisions are made. This integrated approach is designed to develop future scientific leaders who understand how lab discoveries become new therapies.
“We’ll be attracting students who want to make an impact in pediatric cancer and other diseases,” says Justin Baker, MD, of St. Jude Oncology. “By working with clinicians and patients, they can see the potential impact of their research findings, and that’s meaningful.
“If you discover something in the lab, it might lead to a publication,” he adds. “But if you discover something in the lab that’s immediately translated into a clinical protocol, patients’ lives are changed quickly. There can’t be anything more motivating than that.”
I never had the chance to meet Danny Thomas, but I think the idea of having young people contribute and try to save the lives of kids would be something he would absolutely love.
An extraordinary environment
Sustained motivation is critical to success in science. But so is having the right research environment. To help students launch stellar careers, the graduate school will provide extraordinary resources, in keeping with the strong St. Jude tradition of supporting scientific discovery.
“I think they’re going to be amazed by this—by St. Jude, the facilities, the atmosphere, how it’s run,” White says.
A major advantage will be the hospital’s “core” research facilities, which offer state-of-the-art technologies and hands-on research support from trained experts. These resources give researchers freedom to rapidly explore promising scientific directions.
“With the St. Jude core facilities, we can do just about anything in biological and medical research that we need to do,” White says. “There’s nothing else on the planet to match them outside of a pharmaceutical company, and the students will have free access.”
Another key success factor will be the close-knit research culture, which fosters the free exchange of ideas among scientists and clinicians across the institution.
“St. Jude has incredible facilities, unbelievable faculty, amazing opportunities,” notes Suzanne Baker. “And the other thing we have is a collaborative culture. This is what really sets St. Jude apart.”
A dedicated support team
As with any graduate program, faculty mentors will have an enormous impact on students’ lives and work. But they are not the only critical support team. While construction crews were busy last year building new seminar and study spaces in the Marlo Thomas Center for Global Education and Collaboration, White was hard at work building a creative and energetic management team, which includes Senior Administrator Dayna Baker; Assistant Dean Racquel Collins, PhD; and Associate Dean Brian Walton.
“We have an opportunity to create a school in a research-driven institution on the leading edge of technology and innovation in delivering patient care,” Walton says. “I am not sure there could be a more noble goal.”
White says he believes the hospital’s famous founder would have approved of such a goal. “I never had the chance to meet Danny Thomas,” he says. “But I think the idea of having young people contribute and try to save the lives of kids would be something he would absolutely love.”
From Promise, Summer 2016