US: Butler University professor inspires diverse students

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INDIANAPOLIS – Powered by a $1.39 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, a Butler University pharmacy professor is carrying out research that could uncover methods to detect an aggressive form of lymphoma at an earlier stage.

Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Dr. Chioniso Patience Masamha’s unique heritage is likely opening doors for her students—many also from culturally diverse backgrounds—by representing that people of many colors wear lab coats and earn prestigious positions in Indiana’s life sciences sector.

“I think it’s very important for all students from different cultures to be represented by their faculty on campus,” says Masamha, an associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences. “When I came to Butler, one of the very first students that I ended up mentoring is someone who came into the lab when I was working there; she looked at me and said I looked like her and asked if she could work with me.”

And the caliber of work taking place at Butler is “very shocking” to some people, says Masamha, because the school attracts outside research funding that “other small universities like ours” do not. Masamha’s NIH award focuses on mantle cell lymphoma (MCL), an uncommon type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and one of the most aggressive. The cancer is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage and spreads throughout the body because the cancer-causing cells travel in the blood.

In MCL, blood cells in the immune system that would typically fight infection undergo genetic changes that cause them to, instead, become cancer-causing cells. Masamha’s research is trying to identify those genetic changes in the cells, also known as biomarkers, which could open the door to detecting MCL at an earlier stage.

“For example, if we can take blood from someone and say, ‘Well, we know this particular [biomarker] might end up resulting in this cancer maybe four or five years down the road,’” says Masamha. “Our goal would be to try to monitor that patient…so if cancer develops, we can identify it early when it’s a lot easier to treat.”

Masamha is also leading research for ovarian cancer, supported by smaller grants. She notes Butler faculty who were educated at elite universities such as Yale and Harvard help the small college punch above its weight in attracting research funding. She believes a unique aspect of a Butler science education is that professors are paid to take time outside of teaching to train students—many of them undergrads—in lab research.

“The lab setting…is a place where you have people from different backgrounds working together for an extended period of time. You spend much, much more time with them, so you’re able to mentor them—and it can be on aspects of life beyond academics,” says Masamha. “You can say, ‘You have a strength in this field, why don’t you try this?’ So they get into very good fields and hired into very good careers.”

Masamha’s most recent lab mentees are already building impressive resumes; one is continuing her studies at Harvard, another has a leadership position at France-based Sanofi, and multiple others have taken on roles, including senior scientist, at Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Company. Faculty help students who want to remain in central Indiana find positions with local employers; Masamha says presenting the research they conducted at Butler to their potential employers gives them a competitive advantage.

“They can talk about, ‘In the lab, I did this research project, this is the question I was looking at, this is how we tried to solve the problems, and this is how we analyzed our data,’” says Masamha. “Employers are really impressed by that type of skillset because students are able to troubleshoot, give presentations, and articulate and answer questions on their project. It shows higher order thinking, rather than just being asked a question on material you covered in class.”

Home to a melting pot of faculty and students, Butler plays a unique role in training future workers for  the local life sciences industry and beyond, says Masamha.

“Some [students] might not have role models in their own background from where they come from, so if they come to school and see someone from a similar culture, it might inspire them,” says Masamha. “Sometimes when they come into the lab, they might not even know their own potential.”