Alexander Mann could be spending his summer tossing the Frisbee with friends or grabbing a bite at Othello’s. But that would be…boring.
Instead, the 18-year-old Norman High School graduate is spending the summer exploring the mysteries of genetics at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
Mann is one of 11 Oklahoma students chosen from a statewide competition to participate in OMRF’s Fleming Scholar Program, an eight-week lab experience at OMRF. Working with researcher Darise Farris, Ph.D., Mann is studying a newly discovered gene that scientists suspect may be associated with the disease lupus.
Little is known about the gene, so he will perform experiments to learn how it works in the immune system. According to Mann, working in a lab with senior biomedical researchers is a far cry from his science classes at NHS.
“All through school, students are fed information that someone else found,” said Mann, who will attend the University of Oklahoma this fall. “What attracted me to scientific research is the possibility to discover something new, something of my own.”
The experience has been eye-opening. “I have a cousin with lupus, so I knew a little about it coming in, but I know so much more about the actual mechanisms of the disease now,” he said. “Research is definitely something I would like to make into a career.”
Joining Mann for the Fleming program at OMRF is another Norman student, Peter Clark. He attended NHS and is now a junior majoring in neurobiology at the University of Texas.
“I’ve always been looking for answers, first from my dad, then from books and now at OMRF. It’s exciting to be asking questions that haven’t ever been answered,” said Clark. “I came into this program sure that I would go to medical school and become a surgeon, but this experience has made me consider working in research, at least part time.”
At OMRF, he is studying a protein that could play an important part in pairing chromosomes when sperm and egg meet.
“One thing I will take away from this program is the thrill of the discovery,” Clark said. “Sometimes in school, you can get beaten down with all the facts and the memorization and tests. Those things are necessary for training, but you don’t want to lose that awe of nature or creativity that makes truly great scientists and doctors.”
In addition to lab experience, Mann and Clark also receive a $3,000 stipend as Fleming Scholars. Since the program began in 1956, nearly 500 Oklahoma students have experienced scientific research first-hand under the guidance of OMRF scientists. More than 150 have gone to careers in medicine and research.
“This program is intense by any standards, and it takes a lot of determination for 18- or 20-year-olds to give up an entire summer to be a part of it,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “But the payback is incredible.”
For Mann, the cost of missing a lazy summer with friends is well worth the experience that being a Fleming Scholar provides.
“I honestly love being in a lab, working to find the pieces of some larger puzzle,” he said. “If I wasn’t here, I’d probably be working at a lab on OU’s research campus in Norman.”