Trailblazing research: Utah Tech students study at Stanford and Johns Hopkins University

ST. GEORGE — Utah Tech University’s “active learning, active life” tagline was in full force last summer when select students conducted “groundbreaking” cancer research at Stanford University and Johns Hopkins University.

L-R: Syrus Miner, Evelyn Fuentes, Baylee Christensen, Ginevra Molino, Candice Johnson and David Jackson, St. George, Utah, March 26, 2024 | Photo by Bridger Palmer, St. George News

The students’ presentations were part of the Trailblazing Speaker Series, held every Tuesday in the Dunford Auditorium of the Browning Research Center.

Most recently, the series featured research interns Evelyn Fuentes, Candice Johnson and David Jackson giving presentations. Fellow student Jarom Bush was not present. Fuentes and Johnson studied at Stanford, while Jackson and Bush studied at Johns Hopkins.

Doug Sainsbury, a biology faculty member and coordinator of the biotech program at Utah Tech University, closed the presentation by announcing the hand-picked roster for this summer.

In just a few weeks, Baylee Christensen, Katie Bello, Syrus Miner, Reno Blackmor and Ginevra Molino will depart for their research internships, traveling to either Northern California or Maryland.

Utah Tech’s partnership with the universities spans a combined 16 years, and Sainsbury said he hopes it will continue.

Sainsbury told St. George News that most former research interns’ careers benefited from this 10-week process, eventually going to medical school or getting a Ph.D. in a program such as biochemical sciences. One student even obtained full-time employment in the lab where she originally interned.

David Jackson presents his cancer research findings in the Dunford Auditorium at the Browning Research Center at Utah Tech, St. George, Utah, March 26, 2024 | Photo by Bridger Palmer, St. George News

Science aside, this is also an opportunity for students to explore new cities and make new friends.

“I am really excited about spending time with the people I’m going to be there with,” junior Ginevra Molino said. “I think it’s going to be a fun, stimulating environment.”

Johns Hopkins and Stanford University are renowned for their research, Sainsbury said, adding that he’s excited to see the students’ excitement about their research upon returning to Utah Tech.

“It’s great to see the growth in our students,” he said.

He added that the selection committee receives around 25 applicants from junior and senior students at Utah Tech each semester.

Molino said she applied despite knowing the odds of being selected were against her. The selection process was so competitive that it left even successful applicants like Molino feeling surprised at their acceptance.

“I didn’t even want to apply,” she said. “I didn’t think that I would make it.”

Evelyn Fuentes presents her cancer research findings, St. George, Utah, March 26, 2024 | Photo by Bridger Palmer, St. George News

At Stanford, in Jim Ford’s lab, Fuentes looked at two Uracil DNA Glycosylases enzymes, SMUG1 and UNG, in breast cancer cells that are responsible for DNA repair. Future work will explore the broader impacts of Uracil DNA Glycosylase loss in these cells. 

Meanwhile, Johnson developed a bioinformatics pipeline in Hanlee Ji’s lab with Dr. GiWon Shin to analyze colorectal cancer, which is the end of the digestive tract, through genome sequencing data. She created the pipeline that focused on genetic mutations in cancer cells.

At Johns Hopkins in Michael Koldobskiy’s lab, Jackson researched two different types of cancer cells, DIPG and ATRT, in children. By methylating or packing up DNA portions so they could not be accessed, which, in theory, should reduce the dose of chemotherapy needed for effective treatment.

Bush was in Doug Robinson’s lab researching pancreatic cancer. By adjusting the protein production level of ACTN 4 and non-muscle myosin IIC, he was hoping to slow down the cancer’s growth.

The Trailblazing speaker series concludes on April 16. See the full schedule on Utah Tech’s website.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2024, all rights reserved.

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