Paths to a Ph.D.

JCU prepared Alyson Wolk ’15 and Noah Daniels ’16 well to conduct scientific research in one of the most competitive molecular medicine programs in the nation

By Laura Bednar ’17

When they were seniors, Alyson Wolk ’15 and Noah Daniels ’16 weren’t quite sure what professional paths they were going to take. But after studying cell and molecular biology and learning from internships in research labs, they were accepted into the Molecular Medicine Ph.D. Program at Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute.

Daniels’ John Carroll education prepared him well for the clinic’s Ph.D. program. The two courses he valued the most were molecular cell biology and molecular genetics.

“The courses were rigorous, and the professors expected a lot out of you, but it definitely prepared me for working in the lab,” he says.

Daniels

Daniels

Daniels came to Carroll after earning his associate’s degree from Lakeland Community College. Initially, he planned to major in accounting but changed his mind after taking a principles of biology course at LCC. Daniels hadn’t scheduled his courses for his last year when he found out the principles of biology course had one seat available. After taking the class, he knew he wanted to pursue science.

“It hit me right there – my major was going to be in the sciences,” he says.

During his first semester at Carroll, Daniels took courses in genetics, organic chemistry, and biotechnology. He received two senior awards from the biology department – the Excellence in Biology Award, which requires a GPA in the major of at least 3.8, and the Outstanding Biology Scholar Award for outstanding research activity. Biology professor Jim Lissemore, Ph.D., guided Daniels after having him in class.

“Noah was focused and intense in a good way; he was locked in like a laser beam and wanted to know more,” Lissemore says.

Wolk and Daniels are the second and third Carroll alumni to be accepted into the molecular medicine program at the clinic. The first was Matt Hiznay ’10, who’s now a fourth-year graduate student in the program. Daniels worked in the same lab with Hiznay during his internship this past summer, which is how he heard about the program. Daniels’ internship was in the lab of Rick Padgett, Ph.D., where he worked with the head project scientist on investigating the characteristics of splicing in human lung introns. Diseases and certain types of cancer in humans can be caused by mistakes that happen in the splicing process. Daniels conducted basic research to understand how exons are recognized and spliced when they are located within long introns.

During the internship, Lissemore spoke with the supervisor at the clinic, who said Daniels had exceeded his expectations for an undergraduate. Daniels subsequently created a poster about his research for JCU’s A Celebration of Scholarship during the 2015-16 academic year.

Daniels could again work in Padgett’s lab during his first year in the program if he chooses while continuing to research RNA splicing.

“That’s the cool thing about research – there are a lot of ways it could go,” Daniels says. “The most exciting thing about research is that no one else knows what you know until you compile your data.”

After completing the Ph.D. program, Daniels plans to do a post-doc, which consists of two years doing whatever research interests him and working on projects without a mentor. His goal is to become a biology professor.

“If I can help people who don’t understand a certain aspect, it’s a good feeling,” he says.

Program goals
The Molecular Medicine Ph.D. Program at the Lerner Research Institute takes between five and six years to complete. Graduate students receive free tuition and a stipend. While the majority of the work is done at the Cleveland Clinic, graduate students receive their Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University.

The application process includes GRE scores, essays about research the graduate has done, transcripts, and letters of recommendation. Lissemore wrote letters for Wolk and Daniels, saying they were good choices for the program because of their excellent coursework and research experience. After the applications are reviewed, 22 are chosen for an interview, seven of whom are chosen to join the program. The interview process takes two days.

Wolk

Wolk

“They want to know you as a person, not just as a scientist,” says Wolk, who also earned the Outstanding Biology Scholar Award for outstanding research activity. “You’re interviewing for a program, but also for a job.”

Wolk was offered an interview with The Ohio State University and was accepted into the CWRU Biomedical Student Training Program, but chose the Cleveland Clinic.

“The program wants to develop young professionals who can speak, communicate, and be personable, not just a data-producing robot,” she says.

The goal of the program is to create medical scientists.

“We’re trained in the same medicine as a physician, but we focus on how we can use that physiology in a cutting-edge way,” Wolk says, adding graduates’ research can be translated into medical treatment for patients.

During their first year, students take various introductory courses, all six weeks long. Students beyond their first year who’ve completed the common core curriculum are able to choose their electives. They’ll also participate in journal clubs, in which a researcher’s paper is chosen to be reviewed and presented so students can see different techniques and results of research similar to the type they would be doing.

Students are able to select a lab where they’ll conduct research for their three rotations. Labs can be at any school or hospital in the area if they have the proper funding, meaning they have a grant to support graduate students. After trying out different focuses in various labs, the graduates select a lab as their home lab for the remainder of the program.

Well prepared
While at Carroll, Wolk spent a year doing research in Lissemore’s lab cloning genes that were important for germline development. (Germ cells are future reproductive cells.) Lissemore recalls her being at the top of her genetics class as a freshman, when the majority of the class consisted of sophomores and juniors.

In addition to working in Lissemore’s lab, Wolk has had two internships with the Cleveland Clinic. The first was during her freshman year at Carroll when she worked in the bioengineering department in the spine lab. She studied how helmets can either hurt or help players who get concussions in the NFL. She also prepared cadaver specimens for robotic use.

Her second internship, completed during her junior year, was in a biology lab where she conducted research in molecular cardiology. It was then she realized she loved medicine, but didn’t want to be a physician. She came to Carroll as a pre-med student, but decided she would rather be involved in research.

“I’ve always been a maker and a builder,” says Wolk, who was vice president and director of scholarship for the Chi Omega sorority. “It was great to have a problem that no one has fixed yet.”

Wolk was well prepared for the molecular medicine program.

“The curriculum at Carroll is set up in such a way that you’re frequently reading current material so you’re not behind,” she says.

The way the program molds minds is similar to the way in which Carroll molds minds.

“Everything had a social justice aspect to it,” she says. “There was a uniquely Jesuit spin on science that sets you up for research in a much more profound way.”

After Wolk graduated from Carroll, she wasn’t sure what her next step would be. During her honors project about the Ebola virus her senior year, she realized she wanted to continue with research. Wolk took a gap year after graduating to research RNA metabolism at CWRU’s School of Medicine for 10 months. She made green fluorescent proteins and examined them under a microscope.

Wolk plans to work in industry or academia on some type of research that will improve people’s health and the U.S. health-care system. She sees herself returning to a university to teach in the way she was taught.

“It’s easy to get bogged down in the details of cells and molecules, but it doesn’t matter if we can’t help someone with it,” she says. “I want to do something that matters.” JCU


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