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Meet Drew Dixson

My personal growth as a student in the Chancellor’s Honors Program has been guided by the Socrates quotation that “education is the kindling of a flame” rather than the “filling of a vessel,” a message that is displayed proudly within the Honors and Scholars office.  Throughout my undergraduate career, the CHP has provided an outlet for this “flame” of intellectual curiosity and resulted in some of my most rewarding academic experiences. In fulfilling the requirements of the CHP, I have learned the importance of volunteering in my community and broadened my cultural, historical, and scientific perspectives through my Spanish minor and Becker Seminars. By taking honors coursework and completing an honors thesis, I have grown intellectually, improved my critical thinking skills, and prepared myself for my career goal of conducting biochemical research.

The CHP originally helped me kindle my “flame” of intellectual growth through honors coursework in the sciences. Honors courses have been among my favorite classes as an undergraduate because they have deepened my understanding of the course material beyond that of the traditional class. The small size of my honors classes enabled me to have close interactions with my professors and other honors students, building an ideal learning environment. By exposing me to the range of experimental techniques used in research today, honors classes have also prepared me well for my thesis project and a career in research.

In the laboratory of Dr. Francisco Barrera in the Department of Biochemistry & Cellular and Molecular Biology, my thesis project “catalyzed” my interest in areas related to biophysics and drug discovery. Specifically, my honors thesis project examined the cytolytic properties of a variety of transmembrane peptides, including the peptide toxin known as candidalysin. Candidalysin is secreted by a yeast which is normally harmless to humans but which can become pathogenic.  Infections by this yeast are difficult to treat and can sometimes be life-threatening. By figuring out how the toxin works, we could then design a drug molecule that can interact with the toxin to prevent it from harming our cells. This research introduced me to new experimental techniques, including circular dichroism spectroscopy and fluorescence dequenching techniques. Learning about these techniques gave me a solid foundation in the area of molecular biophysics beyond what is normally taught in a class. Over time, I found myself becoming better at understanding other people’s research projects in addition to my own.  Finally, this experience served as valuable practice for graduate school, since I found myself becoming more comfortable in the lab and growing in my ability to work independently.

Throughout the project, I found myself becoming intensely interested in finding out more about the structure of candidalysin, as previous information on the subject is limited.  To glean additional information about candidalysin’s structure from existing data, I used computer programs and online databases that I had previously learned about in a bioinformatics class.  Given the increasing importance of bioinformatics and computational biology today, experience in these areas will be helpful during graduate school and my career.  Being able to use knowledge from a class to answer a real-world question was especially rewarding, since we were then able to use this information to guide our experiments. Curiosity about the intricate structures of biological molecules will help me to find success in the world of molecular medicine, since knowledge of structure can be extremely useful in drug design.

My honors thesis project also gave me the opportunity to present my work to scientific audiences.  For instance, my research has resulted in authorship on a scientific paper soon to be published in an academic journal.  I also presented my data at two poster symposiums held at UT, which helped me to become more familiar with the proper format for presenting scientific information.  My poster at Eureca, which won the Award for Excellence in the natural sciences category, was an essential learning experience because it gave me the opportunity to interact with judges and defend my conclusions to a scientific audience.  By opening these doors, my honors thesis work has bolstered my intellectual growth by providing me with ample opportunity to present and reflect critically upon the data I have collected.

In the future, I plan to attend a biochemistry graduate program as the next step along a career in research.  My thesis project, honors coursework, and other honors pursuits have all strengthened my intellectual curiosity as an undergraduate.  This curiosity is essential for scientific research because it acts as a motivation to make new discoveries that improve our health and well being. As I enter graduate school and begin my career, I will continue to bear the flame” of intellectual curiosity which the CHP has kindled.