Accelerated training: Racquel Collins, PhD, assistant dean of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, works with student Brennan Bergeron.

From Student to Scientist

The inaugural class of The St. Jude Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences celebrates their transformation from scholars to scientists.

By Gary Bridgman; Photos by Seth Dixon and Peter Barta

When they arrived at The St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences last year, many of the students already had connections to the hospital through internships or fundraising activities.

“We’ve all been affected in some way by St. Jude since long before we even knew about the graduate program,” says Brennan Bergeron, who is also a former St. Jude patient.

Bergeron was preparing to attend medical school when he heard about the new graduate school, whose faculty included some of his former doctors.

“Why would I skip a chance to be taught by them?” he says.

The first year has transformed the lives of Bergeron and his classmates—and their presence has injected new energy and excitement into the hospital’s clinics and labs.

 “The students have matured rapidly as independent thinkers,” says Stephen White, DPhil, Graduate School dean. “They’ve each completed three six-week rotations, and are now well known among the research community at St. Jude.”

Maturing young scientists: “The students have grown in confidence, ask many questions and are unafraid to challenge their lecturers,” says Stephen White, DPhil, Graduate School dean. “These are all qualities that are paramount in academia and research, and providing this training is a hallmark of any premier graduate school.”

 

From student to scientist

University of Kansas graduate Mackenzie Bloom says the year of study and research has helped focus her interests.

“I already have an idea of what type of affiliation I want to have with a primary investigator, and what type of lab dynamic will be my best fit,” she says.

One of Bloom’s classmates is pursuing a PhD from St. Jude and an MD from the University of Tennessee. Rahul Kumar says St. Jude is the best place to prepare for that role.

“The scope and impact of the science here is tremendous,” Kumar says.

The scope and impact of the science here is tremendous.

Rahul Kumar

Progress report

The school’s dean says he has enjoyed watching the students flourish at St. Jude.

“The students were quite nervous and reserved last summer, and lectures and classes were relatively quiet affairs,” White says. “Fast-forward 10 months, and the transformation has been astonishing. They’ve grown in confidence, ask many questions and are unafraid to challenge their lecturers. These are all qualities that are paramount in academia and research, and providing this training is a hallmark of any premier graduate school.”

Bloom remembers her own turning point. “I was sitting in class where they were talking me through a process, and I thought, ‘What happens if you knock out that protein?’ or ‘What would happen if I did this with a different model?’

“You start to think about how to design experiments and how everything you learn applies to whatever you’re interested in researching.”

As they learn to bridge the gap between the lab and clinic, students benefit from dedicated advising and mentorship by world-class biomedical researchers. The faculty includes leading scientific and clinical investigators from many fields. The model tends to erase barriers between scientific disciplines.

“This diversity creates a program in which everyone brings a different strong suit, and that’s really the essence of St. Jude,” Bergeron says.

Graduate student Madeline Bush (at left) joins oncologist Beth Stewart, MD, in examining patient Holden Giroir.

Bedside learning

Graduate student Madeline Bush (at left) joins oncologist Beth Stewart, MD, in examining patient Holden Giroir.

Crawfish and camaraderie

The student body has already developed into a close-knit community. Near the end of the school year, Bergeron’s family planned to bring crawfish from Louisiana and host a dinner for the school’s students and faculty. For Bergeron, it was a hectic week that included a major exam. To make the situation more complicated, he had already planned to propose to his girlfriend the day before the crawfish boil.

As Bergeron’s stress levels increased, his classmates went to work on his behalf.

“They got my parents’ phone number,” he says, “and they told me, ‘You just ask her. That’s it. Don’t worry about anything else.’”

Bergeron passed the exam. His proposal was accepted, and the crawfish boil was a success.

“We are definitely a family now,” Bergeron says, “a large, extended, random family.”

Thanks to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the scientists of tomorrow have a new training ground at St. Jude, a new academic family and a bright future in biomedical research.

For information about applying to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, visit stjude.org/graduate-school.

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