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The Brain Gain

The nation’s brightest graduate students are the superstars of Arizona universities research departments

BY JIMMY MAGAHERN

Published by: TechConnect, Fall 2007

They’re wined and dined, wooed and pursued by the nation’s universities while their graduation certificates are still hot off the press. Sought after for their brilliant minds and fresh ideas in emerging technologies, top graduates in fields as geeky as bioinstrumentation and translational genomics are recruited like all-star quarterbacks – then often come to feel like hapless waterboys among the senior professors, researchers and department chairs in the university brain trusts they’re assigned to.

They’re the superstars of the university labs. Young geniuses fresh out of college who are immediately lured back into academia – only this time, to play game with all the best minds and tools the university has to offer.

Most are not entirely certain of where they want their careers to go. A few question the prudence of heading right back to the books, concerned about becoming career students instead of directly conquering the corporate world. But all are happy to be playing college their way this time around, building that resume while bettering the world.

Here, then, is a look at some of the most promising grad students now toiling away in the state’s university research labs.

Maureen Peterson, University of Arizona’s BIO5 Institute

• Graduated from: University of California, Davis with undergraduate degree in genetics

• Current research: Studying the epigenetics of human disease in U of A’s BIO5 Institute

Surrounded by leading-edge Ph.D’s in agriculture, medicine, pharmacology, basic science and engineering in the University of Arizona’s collaborative bioresearch institute, BIO5, sometimes Maureen Peterson admits she feels like a kid in a genius store.

“It’s a little bit intimidating at first, being a first-year graduate student and being around all these faculty members who do really cool things,” says Peterson, who was singled out for the school’s Director’s Award for her first year of graduate studies and is now beginning her second year in the program. “But they’re all really good here about trying to make us feel like colleagues, and encouraging us to call them by their first names. So it’s neat to feel we’re ‘up there’ with them.”

Peterson, who attended a couple of other recruitment “poster sessions” before settling on the Tucson school, says the university did a bang-up job of making the dozen graduate students it recruited feel like superstars at first, but she adds that special feeling quickly faded as the hard work began.

“Now that I’m in my dissertation lab and I’m one of the newer people in there, it doesn’t feel so much like that any more. Now the feeling is more like, ‘Aah!’” she says, letting out a mock horror-movie shriek.

Still, it beats being an undergrad student, Peterson says. “ It’s a small group, so we’re able to get the individualized attention we need. But at the same time, we have all the access to the university’s equipment and faculty. It’s really the best of both worlds.”

Corey Huck, Arizona State University, Polytechnic

• Graduated from: University of Minnesota, with Master’s degree in exercise physiology

• Current research: supervising the Physiological Foundations of Movement Lab at ASU Polytechnic

As an avid outdoorsman who enjoys a variety of sports, including mountain biking, hiking, golf and – at least before relocating from Minnesota two and a half years ago – ice hockey, Corey Huck can appreciate the analogy of research grads being recruited like sports stars.

But the 26-year-old supervisor of ASU Polytechnic’s Physiological Foundations of Movement Lab, whose principal job is to train others in gathering scientific data as subjects exercise, says the closest he’s come to feeling like a Pac-10 player was when he got to oversee the body composition testing on the Arizona Cardinals.

“I wouldn’t say I get treated like a superstar,” says Huck, with a laugh – although he has become the go-to grad when people around town need an expert in gathering physiological data. Marathon runners have come to his lab, as has the Chandler-Gilbert Community College when it needed help setting up fitness testing. “More like a top-notch researcher who’s earned the respect of his peers and colleagues. Which is nice.”

Huck allows there is a certain team mentality in research facilities that parallels that found in sports franchises.

“In this stage of the game, you have to look at who you’re gonna be working with and what you’re gonna be doing, and not so much the specific location where you’re going to be working,” he says.

Huck has another academic calendar year to finish out at ASU, but after that, he’s a free agent.

“I’m basically doing this for the experience,” says Huck, who’s unsure at this point whether he’ll pursue a post-doctoral fellowship or a job in the corporate sector. “The beauty of the beast is, the longer you’re in the field, the bigger name you build for yourself, and the more money there is to be made.”

Rebecca Halperin, Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute

• Graduated from: Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, with B.A. in Biological Sciences

• Current research: working on project for the Center for Innovations in Medicine to measure personal health biosignatures

Upon graduating from the respected Carnegie Mellon research university in 2004, Rebecca Halperin found fast employment in the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in downtown Phoenix, a leading player in the state’s burgeoning biotechnology industry.

Initially, the 25-year-old planned on staying at TGen while attaining her Ph.D. in biological sciences from ASU. But then the university’s Biodesign Institute made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.

“They offered me a fellowship opportunity, where you’re basically paid for doing your research – which you’d have to do for your Ph.D. dissertation anyway,” Halperin says. The $30,000 stipend was generous, Halperin says, but what really sealed the deal for her was the opportunity to try out different labs before settling on her life’s work.

“You get to do lab rotations for the first year, where you try out three or four different labs for ten weeks each before choosing which one you want to do your dissertation project in. So before you spend however many years you end up dedicating to a certain area of research, you get to see if it’s a good fit for you.”

Currently, Halperin’s working on a project called “Doc-in-a-box,” which – contrary to it’s title’s unfortunate similarity to a certain Saturday Night Live sketch – is a high-minded initiative to create a household device to measure personal health data on a regular basis.

“It’s an opportunity to work on cool projects,” she says. “And I’m sure something like this will look good on my resume.”

Stefanie Raymond-Whish, Northern Arizona University, Department of Biological Sciences

• Graduated from: NAU, with Master’s degree in Biology

• Current research: investigating the estrogen-like activity of uranium for ovarian and breast cancer research

For Stefanie Raymond-Whish, who upon completing her stint at NAU this May will hold the distinction of being the first Navajo to earn a Ph.D. from the university’s biology department, taking a post in the school’s research lab represented an opportunity to tackle a health concern specific to her community.

“Out on the reservation, people go to wells to get their water,” says Raymond-Whish, who grew up on the so-called “Big Rez” in Northern Arizona and graduated from NAU before living for a short while in San Diego. “And those wells typically don’t have any type of filtering system to remove the particulates and chemicals, including uranium, that might be present.”

Raymond-Whish became interested in the research her former mentor at NAU, Dr. Cheryl Dyer, was doing on uranium as it affected women’s health, and eventually was lured back to the university from the San Diego research lab she’d been working at. Currently, she’s investigating the carcinogenic effects uranium may have on the reproductive system, as well as mammary gland development.

Coming back to the same school she received her undergraduate and masters degrees in, Raymond-Whish says her treatment at the university hasn’t changed much, although she does have a bit more access to the professors and lab equipment.

“On some levels, it feels different,” she says. “The work is different. But I was always treated very well at NAU. Overall, it’s a very friendly and accepting environment here. Everybody’s always willing to help each other.”

In the end, that’s the atmosphere most graduates seek when coming back to school as a research star. Even so, eventually even the most content academic feels a need to bust out of the books.

“Once I finish my Ph.D., I need to go somewhere,” Raymond-Whish says, with a chuckle. “There comes a time when every researcher wants to start up their own lab.”

”–

Photos by Deborah Daun, Christine Lambrakis

Maureen Peterson, University of Arizona's BIO5 Institute.

Corey Huck, Arizona State University, Polytechnic.

Rebecca Halperin, Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute

Stefanie Raymond-Whish, Northern Arizona University, Department of Biological Sciences, talks to Gov. Janet Napolitano (left)