“I was four years old when my grandmother had breast cancer. I stood beside her bed as my eyes drifted along the IV tubes that fed into her arm. Wanting to help, but not knowing how, I suggested that she get some medicine. She said there was no good medicine to help her. That day, eyes wide and naïve, I promised her I’d find a way for to get better. She passed away soon after.”
Senior, Biology major with a minor in Chemistry, Damian Di Florio told us of his experiences growing up and all the adventures he has taken to get him to where he is today.
Damian spoke of his beginning interest in the field of biology and genetics and how during high school he asked a clinician friend a question about mutations in non-coding regions of the genome and how they affected phenotypic outcomes, he later found out that he was asking questions not even medical students were asking.
When asked about his lab experiences, Damian recalled his first lab position at the age of sixteen at the Penn State College of Medicine.
“I had just turned sixteen…the lab I worked in was no bigger than a dorm room. My boss didn’t even have enough desk space for both her keyboard and papers. That summer I worked on a project funded by the San Antonio Family Heart Study that investigated a variance in a non-coding region of the genome and its relation to blood pressure. I learned how to pipette and run a few simple experiments that allowed us to compare our samples. It was eventually found that this variable region was a biomarker for high blood pressure in this population and a conclusive study was done and will be published in the near future.
I sought out more lab experiences and was able to land a position in another lab just down the hall from the first one. The lab investigated the roles of proteins involved in DNA damage repair and the inherent pathways that lead to development and progression of cancers. The first summer in Dr. Kristin Eckert’s lab, I learned, from many failures, that science is difficult and embracing failure presents opportunities to learn.”
A recipient of the Honors Enrichment Award during the spring of his freshman year at RMU, he used the award to purchase some supplies that allowed him to pursue his first independent project in Dr. Eckert’s lab. although the research presented little usable data, he had gained the skills of experimental design and assay optimization which then allowed him to return to the Eckert lab a third summer. This time he was given another independent project that investigated the role of a DNA repair protein in correcting a mistake induced by chemotherapy. The project was a huge success and provided substantial support of the original hypothesis, the School of Engineering, Math, and Science in part with the RMU Honors program supported his travel expenses to present these results at a national conference.
The following fall, Dr. Harold also encouraged Damian to look into applying for prestigious summer fellowship programs that would allow him to perform research at a different institution. After spending countless hours editing applications and essays, he decided to apply to the Mayo Clinic’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, and despite having the least hope for Mayo Clinic’s program, as it is highly competitive, he was accepted and preparing for my trip down to Jacksonville, Florida.
“My summer at Mayo proved to be incredible. When I arrived, I learned that I was one of thirty students selected (from a pool of over 1,000) to participate in Mayo’s “nuSURF” program, a fellowship funded by the NIH NIDDK that supported undergraduates’ summer experiences to study inflammatory, digestive, and nephrology diseases. In addition to studying sex difference in vitamin D and urinary stones, Dr. DeLisa Fairweather’s lab also studies sex difference in vitamin and myocarditis. I learned several techniques, including how to work with mice in the lab, which is something that very few undergraduates have the opportunity to do. While in Jacksonville, I also learned about Mayo’s Graduate program in Clinical and Translational Science (CTS). Not only did Mayo Graduate School offered a guarantee of funding for the completion of a PhD, the CTS program is one of the few in the country that is supported by an NIH Training Grant. Not to mention, Mayo is one of the best research institutions in the world. As my time in Jacksonville came to a close, I added the Mayo Clinic Graduate School to my list and hoped to return as a PhD candidate the following fall semester.”
Following his summer at the Mayo Clinic, Damian decided that his area of focus for graduate school would be in Translational Biology – which is essentially research with an end goal in mind, whether it is a potential treatment or a new way to model diseases for study. He applied to several programs and was selected to interview at eight of them: University of Pittsburgh, Penn State Hershey, Mayo Clinic, Case Western, Baylor, UTSW, University of Washington Seattle, and Johns Hopkins.
He briefly told of his interviewing experiences, “Since the second week of this semester, I’ve been away every weekend interviewing at these incredible research institutions and am happy to announce that I will be attending The Mayo Clinic Graduate School as a student in their Clinical and Translational Science program! I was also very fortunate to be selected as a Dean’s Fellow at Mayo, which is given to the top applicants and will include a stipend increase as I pursue my PhD!”
Damian credits the Honors Enrichment Award and additional support provided by the Honors program for his past experiences and successes. “Honors did make my college experience better, but better is a word that doesn’t capture it best. The Honors program and RMU have provided me with the ability to pursue my dreams of becoming a scientist and pursuing cancer research – like I promised my grandmother I would do nearly twenty years ago.”