See page 32.

Fernanda Mora (pictured right) worked under the guidance of Carlos Garcia and received her Ph.D. in chemistry in May 2009.

Success of alumnus sparked by curiosity and motivation

Former UTSA doctoral student Allan Gulledge now inspires others at Dartmouth

Allan Gulledge

By Amanda Beck
Senior Communications Specialist

Allan Gulledge is in the business of answering previously unanswered questions.

An assistant professor of physiology and neurobiology at Dartmouth Medical School, Gulledge has been interested in science, especially the intersection of biology and psychology, for as long as he can remember. That interest led him to receive his Ph.D. in Biology from UTSA in 2000.

When Gulledge looks at the brain, he sees a network of neurons communicating with each other processing information and coordinating complex functions. “Most people are curious about how the brain works,” said Gulledge. His focus is to identify the physiological mechanisms that allow neurons to generate the full spectrum of human behavior.

His lab studies both the physical structure of neurons and the biochemical interactions that make them work. Most recently his lab has been testing how a neuron’s shape influences its computational capabilities. The impact of shape may explain why neurons with similar functions have similar shapes. The area of the brain that most interests him is the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain most directly responsible for higher cognitive functions.

Scientists already know that diseases like Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia involve disruption of the chemical signals occurring between neurons. However, much less is known about how these chemicals regulate the physiology of individual neurons. Gulledge and his lab are attempting to identify those mechanisms to add to our foundational knowledge about how neurons work—knowledge critical for tackling diseases and prolonging and enhancing our lives.

Gulledge didn’t always have a career in higher education; he began his career in academia in a middle school. While working as a science teacher for Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Gulledge decided to continue his education with a graduate degree. He enrolled in the master’s in education program at UTSA, but after several education classes realized a degree in his content area of biology would be more useful teaching at a secondary level.

At that time, UTSA was initiating its first doctoral program— in biology with an emphasis in neurobiology. “One thing led to another,” Gulledge said, “and before I knew it I was a doctoral student in biology at UTSA.”

Graduate students follow faculty expertise. Luckily for him, Gulledge entered the Ph.D. program just after the university hired David Jaffe as assistant professor. His interests and Jaffe’s lab were a perfect match. Because of the experience UTSA granted him, Gulledge learned how to become a scientist and now trains students of his own.

“UTSA was willing to take a risk in accepting me into their new doctoral program even though I had no prior research experience,” he said. He currently has one postdoctoral fellow, one medical student, and one Ph.D. student working in his lab. He anticipates another Ph.D. student later in the year, and periodically has undergraduates help in the lab.

Gulledge admits that he would do things a little differently if he could go back in time. Undergraduate research experience greatly enhances opportunities for advanced studies in graduate school.

He used to think only those with “Einstein-like” genius could go to graduate school. “That turns out not to be the case,” he said. “To be a successful scientist requires only a curiosity to understand the workings of the world and the motivation to do the experiment that lets you find the answers.”

Tags: alumni

Biology alumna named role model of the week

Maureen McConnell, who earned her master’s in biology from UTSA, is being honored by the website Great Minds in STEM as Role Model of the Week for March 7-11, 2011.

McConnell advocates women in science, and even founded a chapter of Women in Science at her undergraduate institution, St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.

Read more about McConnell here: http://www.greatmindsinstem.org/rmw/current.php

UTSA alumna receives two major honors

By Rosanne Fohn, UTHSCSA

Shirlyn B. McKenzie, Ph.D., MLSCM, who earned her M.S. degree in biology from UTSA, has received two prestigious awards: the TIAA-CREF Distinguished Medical Educator Award and the Member of the Year Award from the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS).

After building a nationally ranked program in clinical laboratory sciences in the UT Health Science Center San Antonio’s School of Health Professions, Dr. McKenzie retired in January 2009, but has since returned as a chair emeritus and distinguished teaching professor emeritus.

TIAA-CREF award

Dr. McKenzie is the first woman and second non-physician winner of the TIAA-CREF award, which will be presented at a banquet Dec. 7 in San Antonio. The statewide award honors outstanding medical education professionals in Texas whose work and educational contributions have set a standard of excellence in the medical community and contributed on a national and international scale to the field.

“Dr. McKenzie’s influence is profound and pervasive, as her teaching and national leadership have influenced medical laboratory science professionals around the world. Her work embodies TIAA-CREF’s mission of serving those who serve others,” said Mario E. Ramirez, national director of the Wealth Management Group in Executive Planning at TIAA-CREF.

“We are very proud of Dr. McKenzie and her efforts to build a nationally recognized Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio,” said Health Science Center President William L. Henrich, M.D., MACP. “She is one of those rare individuals who has excelled in many areas, including education, research and leadership on a national basis.”

Dr. McKenzie said, “It is my greatest honor as an educator to be selected as the TIAA-CREF Distinguished Medical Educator Award. Being the first woman and second non-M.D. winner is especially meaningful to me as it provides recognition that women as well as non-M.D. health educators are important members of the health care educators’ team. Interprofessional education requires recognition and respect for all health care disciplines and educators.  I believe that my selection is evidence that interprofessional education is a priority in Texas.”

American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science award 

Dr. McKenzie also was named the ASCLS Member of the Year recently at the organization’s annual meeting. She has been a longtime, active member of ASCLS, serving as chair of the scientific assembly, a member of the board of directors and president.

Recipients are selected based on lifetime contributions to the ASCLS throughout their membership and to the profession, including participation in clinical laboratory science honor organizations, professional honors achieved and work that promotes clinical laboratory science in the community.

After earning her undergraduate degree in medical technology and biology from the University of Wisconsin–Superior, Dr. McKenzie completed her medical technology education at St. Luke’s Hospital School of Medical Technology in Duluth, Minnesota. She earned her Master of Science in biology from the University of Texas at San Antonio and her Doctor of Philosophy in Administration of Higher Education from Texas A&M University.

Dr. McKenzie’s work at the UT Health Science Center

In 1980, Dr. McKenzie became an instructor and later program director of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio. She was named chair of the department in 1985 and was promoted to full professor in 1995. Under her guidance, the department grew from a small, single-focus baccalaureate program to one that offers multiple undergraduate and graduate options and flexible degree plans for students with a variety of backgrounds who wish to enter the medical laboratory disciplines. Today, the department is recognized as one of the leading clinical laboratory science departments in the United States and has been named as one of the top 10 CLS programs in research activity. 

Dr. McKenzie has published 27 abstracts, 19 chapters and four books (two in Spanish translation) in addition to numerous editorials, journal articles and article reviews. She developed the first Web-based course offered by the University of Texas Telecampus. Having written a leading textbook on clinical laboratory hematology that is used nationally as well as internationally, she has literally taught thousands of medical laboratory scientists throughout the world. She is an accomplished speaker, having given over 150 presentations at state, national and international meetings.

Dr. McKenzie has received numerous honors, including the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching, the most prestigious UT Health Science Center teaching award. She was inducted into the university’s Academy of Master Teachers. In 2006, she was selected as a member of The University of Texas Academy of Health Science Education in recognition of outstanding contributions to health science education.  The Texas Association for Clinical Laboratory Science (TACLS) named her as the Texas CLS Educator of the Year and the ASCLS awarded her the Sherwood Award for professional achievement in education.

 

Tags: alumni awards

Sciences alumna Mitra Miri awarded $182,500 from NSF and Ford Foundation

Mitra Miri

Mitra Miri

UTSA alumna Mitra Miri ‘08 was admitted in 2009 to the Yale University interdepartmental neuroscience program, a highly competitive graduate program that accepts only a handful of new students each year. Over the last several months, Miri has received two grants totaling $182,500 to support her graduate studies.

Over the next three years, she will receive $122,500 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship program, which offers competitive funding to graduate students in the United States and abroad. The program has supported numerous Nobel Prize winners including past fellows U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin and “Freakonomics” co-author Steven Levitt. The award includes a $30,000 annual stipend, $10,500 annually for tuition and books, and $1,000 for international travel.

Additionally, Miri won a three-year, $60,000 Ford Foundation Diversity Fellowship, one of 40 awarded annually. The Ford Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship program encourages diversity in higher education by supporting promising American students from diverse backgrounds with $20,000 annual stipends for their graduate studies. Fellows are chosen based on academic achievement and commitment to a scholarly career incorporating diversity in the classroom.

Miri, an Honors College student, transferred to UTSA in 2005 after taking classes at the University of Texas at Austin and Amherst College. From 2005 to 2008, she worked as a research assistant in UTSA’s neurobiology of aging laboratory under the mentorship of Edwin Barea-Rodriguez, UTSA associate professor and chair of the Department of Biology.

During that time, she also gained research experience through the UTSA Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, Harvard University’s Summer Honors Undergraduate Research Program, the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico Minority Health International Research Training Program and the National Institutes of Health summer internship program.

In 2008, Miri graduated with honors, earning a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in political science. Ultimately, she hopes to build an academic career in science policy and translational research.

"When I was looking to transfer out of Austin, I knew San Antonio was really building up its research, and I was interested in getting in on the ground floor," said Miri. "The Honors College and Dr. Ann Eisenberg were instrumental in making sure that I pursued different summer opportunities in research. Those experiences have helped me tremendously in my graduate studies.”

Releasing the magic of chemistry

Alumna Marilyn Wooten’s lifelong commitment to understanding the unseen

By Amanda Beck
Communications Specialist 

Marilyn Wooten is not your average recent Ph.D. graduate.  She is not a twenty-something who enrolled in college right after high school.  This mountain biking mother of three worked her way up through military service, undergraduate and graduate school, an industry job, and a rigorous Ph.D. program.  And she has done all this while maintaining family life with her husband and sons.

The Magic of Chemistry

Wooten’s journey was driven by a fascination with chemistry and how it’s connected with all things in the world.  By exploring her own interest in the subject, she discovered a desire to teach others and unlock the magic of chemistry.

Wooten completed one tour of duty in the United States Army during which she met her husband and began her family.  But, a daughter of two college-educated parents, Wooten felt vulnerable without a degree.  After she and her husband moved to San Antonio, she enrolled at UTSA.

Although she didn’t do well in chemistry in high school, great instruction from Bernard Powell and Judith Walmsley in general chemistry courses opened her eyes to the broad reach of chemistry. With an invitation from Walmsley and funding from the Minority Biomedical Research Support program, Wooten began doing research in Walmsley’s laboratory.

At first Wooten found the laboratory research to be tedious, but she soon became fascinated with trying to understand how things worked without being able to see them.  “Marilyn was an excellent research student and worked very hard on what turned out to be a difficult project,” Walmsley said.  “She was very self-motivated.”

The Real World and Back

During the years after graduating from UTSA, Wooten’s journey continued.  She attended graduate school at UT Austin, worked in the chemical industry in Corpus Christi, and enjoyed a stint as a stay-at-home mom.  She taught at a community college for three years, and loved it, but wondered whether she needed a Ph.D. to pursue a career as a university professor.

Just as she was facing the decision, UTSA launched a chemistry Ph.D. program, the first of its kind in San Antonio.  Because it allowed her to stay with her family while pursuing a degree, Wooten enrolled in 2005 and was reunited with her old mentor.  “I was delighted when she entered the program.  I knew that she had the intelligence and self-motivation to earn a Ph.D. and I am always grateful to see students achieve their full potential,” said Walmsley.

With her eyes ultimately on teaching, Wooten began research with now department chair Waldemar Gorski.  She even co-authored a couple papers on biosensors which involves working with electrochemistry.  “It’s good to have your hands in research,” she said.  “It keeps you in touch with the latest trends.”

Teachable Moments

After a five-year finale to a lifelong commitment to her own education, Wooten has now received her Ph.D. and is doing what she loves.  She begins a full-time position as a chemistry lecturer at Trinity University in the fall.

Wooten’s favorite part about teaching is getting to show students that chemistry does relate to real life.  Learning chemistry can be more than discovering how pharmaceuticals and plastics are made; it teaches students to think in a new way.  In fact, chemists approach problems much like doctors who diagnose patients—by using measurements to hypothesize and draw conclusions about the unseen.

Teaching chemistry is not without its challenges, though. “I cannot use everyday analogies because students first must come to imagine things based on the information they have,” she said.

Even mathematics doesn’t work the same way in chemistry. For example, when measuring the boiling point of various chemicals in a summer laboratory class at UTSA, Wooten asked her students to make a prediction.  If Chemical A melts at 100 degrees and Chemical B melts at 120 degrees, at what temperature does an equal mixture of A and B melt?  One hundred ten degrees was the consensus of the students.  It makes sense mathematically; however, they didn’t take into account the chemical and physical interaction between A and B that creates mixture C, which can begin to melt at 80 degrees.

Family Matters

For the past 20 years, Wooten has been honing her career through education and experience.  But she has also continued to raise a family.  “In everything I do, I keep my family in mind.  I want to achieve great things, but not at the risk of sacrificing my family,” she said.  This dedication to her family has helped Wooten maintain the delicate balance in her life.  She admits the timing was not perfect for every decision she made, but through it all she has remained enthusiastic and optimistic about things to come.