Fares Alrefai’s interest in science was born out of adversity. During his junior year at Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School, Alrefai’s mother was diagnosed with colon cancer.
“I felt powerless, because there was nothing I could do to help cure her,” he said. “I decided soon after that I wanted to pursue a career where I could directly help those whose lives have been plagued with disease.”
Now a junior chemical engineering major at the University of Tulsa, Alrefai applied for OMRF’s Sir Alexander Fleming Scholar Program to further his ultimate goal of becoming an oncologist to help people struggling with cancer.
At OMRF, Alrefai spent the summer working with scientist Umesh Deshmukh, Ph.D., compiling a comprehensive list of pathogens that are potential environmental factors that could trigger autoimmune responses where the body’s immune system attacks itself.
“Entering the program, I knew I wanted a career that involved medicine and helping people,” he said. “This experience has shed light on new avenues I can pursue in the form of biomedical research that would enable me to simultaneously help people, while also remaining involved in groundbreaking research. I hope this program will serve as a catalyst and help enable me to pursue my goal of earning a medical degree.”
Since 1956, the program has provided in-state high school and college students a one-of-a-kind opportunity to get hands-on experience in a real research environment. Scholar projects cover a wide range of areas from autoimmune disease to cancer, osteoarthritis, cell biology, heart disease and addiction.
OMRF Fleming Scholars work side by side for eight weeks with senior medical researchers on an in-depth, individual research project. At the end of the summer, the students write scientific papers and present their research results in formal seminars for OMRF’s scientific staff.
The program has served as a launching pad for hundreds of Oklahoma students seeking science-based careers. Scores of Fleming Scholars have gone on to establish successful medical and research careers, including two OMRF program chairs, Rodger McEver, M.D., and Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., who got their start in the summer program.
“I wanted to do more than donate to cancer foundations or provide moral support,” said Alrefai. “I wanted to be involved in finding the cure for cancer so that people like my mother don’t have to suffer the hardships that accompany this disease.”