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A journey of scientific and self discovery
TAMPA, Fla. – There was no grand “aha” moment. No sudden snap of a light bulb. No stereotypic, “Eureka! I found it!”

USF senior Amber Schmidt spends hours every week doing immunology research on the progression of myelodysplastic syndrome to acute myeloid leukemia in the lab of Dr. Epling-Burnette at Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute on the USF campus. Her greatest discovery to date, however, did not occur as she peered into a test tube.

Rather, it was a personal revelation that was the result of an inner journey – a gradual understanding of where her true passion lay.

When Schmidt started at the University of South Florida as a freshman, she was undecided about her major, but was leaning toward political science. Pursuing a degree in science wasn’t even on her radar.
“I always avoided science in high school,” she said. “If you had asked any of my teachers back then, they would have told you science just wasn’t for me.”

That started to change after Schmidt took her first introductory-level college biology class. A required course, the class ignited a spark. “Biology began to intrigue me,” she says. “It wasn’t love at first sight. But it was something that developed over time.”
Now majoring in microbiology, Schmidt has achieved a level of success she would never have dreamed of, in a field she never would have imagined herself in.

Earlier this year, Schmidt was named one of USF’s first two recipients ever of the prestigious national Barry M. Goldwater Scholarships.

Presented annually, Goldwater Scholarships are the premier undergraduate award of its kind. Only 278 Goldwater Scholars were named for the 2010-2011 academic year. Schmidt and USF chemistry major Juan Baso were selected for the highly competitive scholarship from a field of 1,111 mathematics, science and engineering students nominated nationwide. In addition to an annual $7,500 scholarship, Goldwater Scholars garner the attention of prestigious graduate schools and post-graduate fellowship programs.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Schmidt hopes to be accepted to an MD-PhD program to train in both medicine and research so she can continue to conduct translational research in immunology. The road to becoming a physician-investigator started when she was a sophomore. She was looking for her first undergraduate research experience, and since she was already volunteering at Moffitt, decided it would be a logical place to begin.

Schmidt’s first project with Dr. Epling-Burnette was a retrospective chart analysis on myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) – a group of diseases in which the bone marrow does not make enough healthy blood cells – and its progression to acute myeloid leukemia (AML). After determining that high-risk patients with clonal T cell survived twice as long as those without clonal T cell expansion, Schmidt authored a paper titled, “Positive Impact of T-cell Clonal Expansion on Overall Survival in Patients with High-Risk Myelodysplastic Syndrome.”

Not only was the paper published in the American Society of Hemotology’s publication, Blood, but Schmidt also presented her findings at the society’s 2009 annual meeting – the only undergraduate amidst a sea of medical students and physicians at the conference to do so. “I very well may have been the only undergrad there,” she says.

A second paper to which she contributed, “Pathogenetic of Impaired Teleomere Repair in Myelodysplatic Syndrome” was also published in Blood. Her current research focuses on telomerase activity, the enzyme located on the ends of chromosomes that provide protection.

According to Schmidt, the overarching goal of all the research in which she is involved is “better understanding that can lead to better patient treatments and therapies.”

Schmidt’s natural desire to create positive change and help improve lives goes beyond the research lab. In addition to Moffitt Cancer Center, she has volunteered at Shriners All Children’s Hospital, the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge, and is currently a Big Sister to a middle school student. Her heart is closest, however, to an organization that she founded – Women in Need Foundation, a USF service organization that provides bags of toiletries to women in domestic violence shelters.

“I have a close family member who lives out of state who went to a shelter. When she told me about the conditions and how women arrive there with nothing, I decided to do something about it here in Tampa.” While her foundation has been in existence for only about a year, the group has raised funds to assemble and distribute 300 bags, each worth approximately $40, to a local domestic violence shelter.

For Schmidt, whether it’s women in need looking for help and compassion, or a leukemia patient seeking new treatment, her goal is the same: to help make a difference and touch lives.
A goal earning a Goldwater Award brings her ever closer to achieving.

Mary Beth Erskine can be reached at 813-974-6993.

Filed under:Arts and Sciences Cell Biology, Microbiology and Molecular Biology School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Student Success  
Author: Mary Beth Erskine