South Carolina State University students tour Hollings

May 02, 2023
a loose circle of young women stands in a lab listening to one talk
Hollings trainees, including doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, medical residents and medical fellows, took the lead in teaching a course at SCSU and leading tours at Hollings. Photo by Kristin Lee

Lori McMahon, Ph.D., the vice president for Research at MUSC, had no clue what scientific research entailed when she was an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University.

Thanks to professors who encouraged and mentored her, she discovered a career path that was entirely new to her. She went on to earn a doctorate in neuropharmacology and now researches neurodegenerative disease and neuropsychiatric illness, but she also finds joy in mentoring and guiding undergraduates in the same way that she was mentored.

Last month, she encouraged a group of students from South Carolina State University to consider careers in research. SCSU is a historically Black college/university (HBCU) that was established in 1896.

“That sense of discovery is irreplaceable because you work on things that no one else knows, and you're solving problems, big problems, that will help people. That's what we do as biomedical science researchers,” she said.

group photo 
Students from South Carolina State University spent a day on the MUSC campus, hearing faculty members' stories of their own academic journeys, touring labs and taking a class on colorectal cancer. Photo by Clif Rhodes

The students were on the MUSC campus as the culmination of a special course on cancer research, “Current scientific and clinical advancements in cancer,” developed by MUSC Hollings Cancer Center through its National Cancer Institute-funded South Carolina Cancer Disparities Research Center (SC CADRE) partnership with SCSU. SC CADRE is co-led by SCSU’s Judith D. Salley, Ph.D., and MUSC’s Marvella Ford, Ph.D.

Hollings trainees – including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, medical residents and medical fellows – traveled to SCSU in Orangeburg every month to teach a course on the biology of different cancer types.

Victoria Jordan, an SCSU student, plans to enroll in a D.M.D./Ph.D. program with a focus on head and neck cancer research, with the goal of becoming an orthodontist.

"I absolutely enjoyed this collaborative course between SC State and MUSC,” she said, citing MUSC’s commitment to helping SCSU students get experience in conducting research. “What has stood out to me the most is how open and truly understanding each researcher was when they came to SC State to present to us. They remembered what it was like to sit in a lecture hall as an undergraduate and completely helped us understand that any career that we want in any health professional field is completely reachable from our HBCU of SC State."

James Stukes, Ph.D., chairman of SCSU's biology program facilitated the program at SCSU while Hollings faculty members Denis Guttridge, Ph.D., associate director of Translational Science; Benjamin Toll, Ph.D.; associate director of Education and Training; and Ford, associate director of Population Science and Community Outreach and Engagement organized the curriculum.

Guttridge, in addition to running a busy lab focused on muscle-related pathologies, oversees the transdisciplinary cancer teams at Hollings. These teams seek to combine the expertise of researchers and clinicians in a type of cancer and then translate that into clinical trials. Guttridge wanted to get the teams more involved in outreach activities and thought that a course at SCSU, building upon the existing SC CADRE partnership, could expose the undergraduates to cutting-edge research while also educating the Hollings trainees about historically Black colleges and universities.

a young woman looks through a microscope 
Students had the opportunity to see things firsthand in the labs – some of the students will be returning for a summer semester conducting research in Hollings labs. Photo by Kristin Lee

The course, for which the students will get credits on their transcripts, included two lectures on pancreatic cancer, one on gynecologic cancers and another on colorectal cancer, with each lecture including both basic science and clinical components.

The SCSU students have a variety of career goals, including neurosurgery, dentistry, pediatrics and anesthesiology.

During the tour, they got to see several labs and hear from the people doing the work, like Spencer Miller, Ph.D., a fellow in the Integrative Training in Oncogenic Signaling (ITOS) Program, who explained his work on cachexia, a type of muscle wasting that can happen during cancer, while also answering questions about his hours and how he structures his workday.

Hollings leaders hope that this program and others like it will plant a seed of interest in students who might not otherwise have considered a career in cancer research.

“We know there will be cures for cancer, and some of them will come from this group,” Ford told the students.