Norman native Peter Clark had always been a curious kid. His never-ending list of questions often left his parents scratching their heads. It seemed the more he learned, the more he asked.
Clark channeled some of that energy into creating things with his hands, building endless variations of Lego structures. “I’ll be an architect,” he told himself. Then he took up the violin, and he thought music might be his calling. But what about literature? Science? Math? He loved them all, for each fed a part of his insatiable need to know more.
But on a high school field trip to OMRF’s labs, Clark found a potential answer. “I felt like I was in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory,” he said. “This strange and wondrous place with all the bizarre tools and equipment was the perfect environment where I could let my curiosity run wild. In the lab, the only limit is your imagination.”
He enrolled at the University of Texas, but OMRF stayed on his mind. So last year, Clark applied for OMRF’s Sir Alexander Fleming Scholar Program. The Fleming Program offered the opportunity for Clark to spend eight weeks working in OMRF’s labs on sophisticated biomedical research projects—all while getting paid.
“Most people don’t get an opportunity like that until they have several years of college under their belts,” said Clark. “The thought of working every day in that magical place I’d visited in high school was almost too perfect to believe.”
Clark was eventually selected from a pool of 100 applicants as 1 of 12 Fleming Scholars for the summer of 2010.
At OMRF, Clark’s project centered on chromosome behavior and errors in cell division that can lead to Down syndrome, Klinefelter’s syndrome, birth defects or miscarriage. In the laboratory with OMRF scientist Dean Dawson, Ph.D., Clark studied a protein involved in chromosome alignment, looking to identify its role in genetic mutations that give rise to these disorders.
Before his Fleming summer, Clark had mostly thought of science in terms of textbooks full of facts, memorization and taking tests. But immersed in research and “surrounded by brilliant minds,” he found himself in awe of the process. “There are no road signs to guide you. It’s just you and your imagination—and creativity, which is the very thing I crave in life.”
After eight weeks in the lab, Clark wrote a scientific paper and presented his laboratory findings to an auditorium full of OMRF scientists and his fellow Fleming scholars. “At OMRF, I was introduced to the thrill of discovery,” he said. “It ignited my passion for science and really invigorated me.”
Now Clark is back in Austin, working through his junior year. He plans to major in neurobiology, apply to an M.D./Ph.D. program and subsequently become a physician-scientist who studies the human brain. He still loves music, literature and other nonscientific pursuits. But he’s harnessed his creativity and set his sights on a career in medicine and research.
Clark also has advice for budding science students who might want to follow in his footsteps. “Science is one of the most challenging undertakings and can feel overwhelming. But learn to embrace your sense of wonder, of awe for the world around you. All those facts and equations are just tools. Master those tools, use your imagination, and you can unlock the secrets of the universe.”
For additional information on OMRF’s Fleming Scholar Program, please visit www.omrf.org/fleming. The application deadline for the 2011 program is February 1.