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UW Student Conducts Research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

August 22, 2017
woman standing outside in front of the covered entrance to a building
Reba Brenner, a UW incoming physiology junior from Harrisburg, Neb., completed an internship this summer at the famed St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. Brenner’s laboratory experience will lead her into the medical field. (Casey Cai Photo)

Reba Brenner was more than elated to know that she was the first University of Wyoming student selected for a prestigious internship program to conduct meaningful research this summer at the famed St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

The UW physiology junior-to-be from tiny Harrisburg, Neb. -- located in western Nebraska, with a population of about 100 -- recently completed an 11-week internship as a pediatric oncology education (POE) student. As a POE student, Brenner attended educational seminars each day on the current state of pediatric oncology and general oncology; conducted active laboratory and computer research; and then concluded her summer program with a presentation of research, which included a publishable, comprehensive research paper.

The educational lectures comprised the latest clinical methods regarding pediatric oncology, relevant drug discovery/research and adult oncology. The seminars were either taught by St. Jude doctors or world leaders in their respective medical research fields.

During her time at St. Jude, Brenner served as a full-time research assistant in the Departments of Structural Biology and Chemical Biology and Therapeutics. Her work revolved around the study of apoptosis -- programmed cell death -- relevant proteins and their mechanisms, and improving the therapeutic opportunities for killing lymphoma tumors.

“This internship has been an amazing opportunity to enhance my research skills, professional experience and expand my knowledge of pediatric oncology and oncology itself,” Brenner says. “I was absolutely exuberant and proud to be chosen as a POE student. I was told on my first day at St. Jude that I am the first person affiliated with the University of Wyoming, or just Wyoming in general, to be awarded this appointment.”

Brenner first became interested in research after her freshman year at UW, when she received a Wyoming Research Scholars Program mini-grant and began working for Professor Zhaojie Zhang, director of UW’s Robert Jenkins Microscopy Center.

“I loved research so much that I continued to work in the lab for seven months,” she says. “That fall, I worked two jobs: one as a researcher and one as an EMT in Cheyenne.”

An active student at UW, Brenner was an officer on Freshman Senate; is in the Honors Program; served as treasurer for one year on McIntyre Hall’s senate; is an active participant and officer in the Delta Delta Delta women’s sorority and participant in Rho Lambda and Cardinal Key honoraries; and is an Associated Students of UW senator representing the College of Arts and Sciences.

During her sophomore year, Brenner’s penchant for laboratory research led her to study abroad at the University of Glasgow. While there, she obtained cadaveric experience in an anatomy class alongside the university’s medical school students.

“We technically were a separate class, but for most laboratory sessions we were taught about gross and clinical anatomy alongside their medical students,” she says.

The experience gave her the opportunity to become a co-author on an upcoming publication from the University of Glasgow Cardiovascular Research Centre targeting the correlations between happiness and cardiovascular health. While at the University of Glasgow, she also took part in cardiovascular research at the University of Glasgow Cardiovascular Research Institute.

“This was clinical research experience that I never would have had the chance to take part in, in the United States,” Brenner adds.

Through her UW Delta Delta Delta contacts, Brenner learned about St. Jude’s internship and was intrigued with the chance of gaining even more laboratory/clinical training. The application process was extensive, but Brenner credits her UW education in helping land the prestigious internship.

“The University of Wyoming has given me a broad spectrum of scientific knowledge which has greatly aided my success at St. Jude,” Brenner says. “Through the Honors Program and its partnership with the University of Glasgow, UW provided me every opportunity with which to be not only a stellar applicant for the POE program, but also a very flexible learner who is capable of adapting to a variety of educational, working and living environments. Plus, working in Dr. Zhang’s microscopy laboratory at UW has been invaluable for my success at St. Jude.”

Brenner says her work at St. Jude has had a direct influence on her future goals. At the beginning of the internship, she strongly considered a career in orthopedic surgery but, after the completion of the POE program, Brenner has refined her career aspirations to include pediatrics.

“I would love to specialize further into pediatric emergency medicine, pediatric surgery, pediatric cardiology or pediatric oncology,” she says. “I will decide between those options later in my career. I also have discovered that it is a possibility to implement my passion for international travel and research into my career as a pediatrician.”

Brenner adds that she has learned an enormous amount about biochemistry, pediatric oncology and therapeutic drug discovery methods this summer -- all of which will aid her as she continues to pursue a medical career.

And that has strengthened her long-term goals.

“St. Jude allows its pediatric oncology students numerous opportunities to acquire many hours shadowing pediatricians, surgeons, oncologists and almost every other specialty of medical practice both at St. Jude and at the West Cancer Center in Memphis,” she says.

With one and a half years of research to her credit, Brenner returns for her junior year of classes at UW and again will conduct research -- this time for School of Pharmacy Associate Professor Baskaran Thyagarajan.

“I absolutely loved working for St. Jude. The optimistic atmosphere of this institution is unparalleled, and I truly enjoyed knowing that my research has a positive impact on the lives of others,” she says. “My time at St. Jude has opened my eyes to many opportunities, and I am ever so thankful.”

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