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SURF Helped Transform My Childhood Curiosity Into a Career Path

Feb. 6, 2020

This post is by Manuj Shah, a former participant in the LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes’ Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship.

Late into my freshman year at Rice University, I was fortunate to be accepted into the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship hosted by the LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes. There, I joined a cohort of 20 undergraduate students to engage in laboratory and clinical research while gaining an end-to-end knowledge of ongoing cancer studies.

For the 11-week internship, I worked with Gregory Thiabaud, Ph.D., and Jonathan Sessler, Ph.D., in a chemistry research lab at The University of Texas at Austin, learning about the history of platinum-based compounds as primary agents in chemotherapy for cancer patients. I was given an invaluable opportunity to direct my own project on designing and synthesizing a manganese-platinum-based chemotherapeutic and diagnostic agent.

Manuj Shah headshot.

Manuj Shah

Reviewing the scientific literature and the group’s prior studies, I worked with my research adviser to synthesize an expanded-porphyrin-based drug with improved biodistribution, cellular uptake and activation upon entering cancerous tissues. Fascinated by applying the concepts from my coursework to real life, I went on to design and present a research poster at the fellowship’s culminating symposium and earn the program’s top award for best science.

I left the fellowship with a passion for chemistry and research in the health sciences. Now, I’m in my third year at Rice pursuing a dual major in chemistry and neuroscience. With a comprehensive learning plan of enrichment, SURF was an incredibly impactful experience that launched me into my undergraduate career and served as a foundation to a lot of my successes.

After the fellowship, I got in contact with Damian Young, Ph.D., at Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology. I’ve been fortunate to be able to join his research lab specializing in synthetic organic chemistry to develop candidates for biological targeting. SURF set me up perfectly, as my research has proven to be very similar to the kind of work I was able to do with Sessler at UT Austin. I’ve been in the lab for almost two years now, and it’s been absolutely thrilling to take my SURF research experience to the next level. Research takes time, persistence and constant re-evaluations: That is what SURF taught me, and I apply it each day.

During my winter break, I came back to Austin to visit Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas and Dell Medical School for several weeks. I shadowed the pediatric and congenital cardiothoracic surgery team led by Charles Fraser, M.D. The observership with renowned cardiothoracic surgeons invigorated my ambition to pursue the health sciences even further. As an added bonus, I also got to talk to students at Dell Med and came to learn more about the program.

I am sincerely thankful to the SURF program in helping me define my career path. What began as a childhood curiosity about the medical profession has transformed into an unwavering commitment to pursue a career in health sciences. Thank you to everyone at LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes, Dell Med and UT Austin for all of the opportunity, guidance and help throughout that summer to develop my skills and ambitions as a student researcher and presenter.