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Becoming the Researcher

Research training program offers undergraduate student intense research experience

Nisan Hubbard has big, bold plans for the cancer cells he examines in the lab. By better understanding the root cause of cancer on the molecular level, Hubbard hopes to one day help take those findings and translate them into a potential new therapy – possibly even find a cure – that could ultimately help millions affected by the devastating disease.

It’s the challenge of searching for answers to such a complicated disease that drives Hubbard, 21, a senior studying biology at Virginia Commonwealth University, who for the past two years has gained hands-on experience working in an intense research environment. The experience has given him some “peace of mind” as he has found his professional path.

“The experience of it all has been huge,” said Hubbard.

“This is more important than just reading about it and making a decision. I think you get a better impression and vision if you have first-hand experience. You have to know the field and live the life in order to know if this is what you want to do,” he said.

And he can see himself doing it all -- perpetually reading and studying, striving to keep updated on discoveries and breakthroughs, working in a team environment, honing laboratory techniques, striking a balance between planning and adapting study design and method, traveling to present research and networking with colleagues.

Pipeline research programs

Hubbard has been participating in the VCU Minority Access to Research Careers program, or MARC, one of six research training programs offered through the VCU Center on Health Disparities. These programs at VCU are designed to bring more underrepresented minorities into the biomedical sciences. Hubbard had started in another of its programs, called STEP-UP, and later transferred to MARC.

“Undergraduate research programs such as this one show that VCU is a forward-thinking institution,” said Paul Dent, Ph.D., distinguished professor in cancer cell signaling at the VCU Massey Cancer Center, who serves as Hubbard’s mentor.

“Undergraduates are trying to figure out what they want to do long term. Early exposure to research brings the idea of becoming a researcher into the mind of an undergrad and can also open up possibilities that would not otherwise be thought of by the undergrad,” he said.

Inside the lab

Dent’s laboratory team, including Hubbard, examine liver cancer cells, the cell signaling pathways it manipulates, and anticancer drugs to learn more about the deadly disease on a molecular level. They’ve been using combinations of drugs on certain pathways at lower than usual doses to kill more cancer cells. Hubbard tests to see how well a cancer cell is able to survive when exposed to a particular drug using cell viability assays.

Hubbard describes his mentor as being “fast-paced” and “no-nonsense” and said that Dent has provided the right type of guidance to help him progress as a researcher in the lab. Hubbard gained a lot of independence and learned initiative through the program and working alongside Dent.

More importantly, Hubbard has learned to grow above and beyond challenges that arise in the course of his study

“It takes a substantial amount of drive to work through issues, and Dr. Dent always assured me that all the work would pay off in the end,” said Hubbard.

“Dr. Dent provides enough help that I am able to understand, but then he leaves it to me to figure some aspects of projects,” he said.

Hubbard has had the opportunity to share his research with colleagues and the scientific community throughout the country by presenting his work at national conferences, including the 2011 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. Later this year, he plans to travel to the American Association for Cancer Research Conference in Chicago to present his work.

Research passion

Hubbard doesn’t leave his love for research in the lab - he’s the president and co-founder of the Student Research Organization at VCU. Hubbard, together with Tenchee Lama Tamang, a co-founder and classmate of Hubbard’s, along with four other fellow undergraduate researchers, launched the organization to promote undergraduate research at VCU, generate excitement in research among undergraduate students and provide resources to help get many of these dedicated young investigators to research-related conferences.

According to Hubbard, the team hopes to spark initiative in undergraduates so that they become involved in these research-related opportunities within the university and beyond. The organization has plans to one day expand through education programs, seminars, workshops and research showcases.

“This experience has been life-changing,” said Hubbard. “I thought I knew what I wanted in life, and for a moment I was discouraged because I did not think I was going to achieve it,” he said.

“Being in this program gives me a new passion and has revitalized me to go after what I want. It has helped me to see the person I want to be in 10 years, and now has given me to reason to go achieve it.”

Nisan Hubbard, senior biology major, with Paul Dent, distinguished professor in cancer cell signaling at the VCU Massey Cancer Center
Nisan Hubbard, senior biology major, with Paul Dent, distinguished professor in cancer cell signaling at the VCU Massey Cancer Center