By LAUREN NEWKIRK MAYNARD
As a freshman, Jasmine May didn’t know that she would major in medicinal chemistry. Or that she’d eventually win the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, or that in her first year at UB, she would get to work with award-winning scientists and use cutting-edge technology. All she knew was that her father was dying.
“I felt that my dad would have wanted me to stay focused on
school and do my best.”
— Jasmine May
Douglas May died of brain cancer in September 2008, just weeks into Jasmine’s first semester at UB. A talented mechanical engineer, he graduated first in his college class. He and his wife, Verneice, a poet, actor and mechanical draftsman, raised their only daughter on a 100-acre farm in Sanborn, N.Y., passing on their love of nature and knowledge.
Douglas was both serious and fun-loving; he drove a metallic brown Corvette, hounded Jasmine about her homework and shared her sense of humor and self-confidence that have carried her through the ups and downs of her undergraduate years.
“It was extremely painful,” Jasmine says, recalling his two years of surgery and radiation, and how he gradually lost the ability to beat her at chess, their favorite game. “Especially because it was brain cancer, and I feel like that was one of his most treasured aspects of himself—his intelligence and his thought process.”
Rather than drop out or lighten her load, Jasmine threw herself into life at UB. She joined the UB Dazzlers dance troupe and made some great friends around campus.
She also loaded up on freshman classes like evolutionary biology, chemistry, statistics and a Shakespeare honors seminar, and joined The University Honors College—one of the nation’s first honors programs for talented young scholars. It helped shrink UB’s large campus and gave Jasmine a chance to grow intellectually, she says.
She chose her major after learning that medicinal chemists were the ones developing cancer drugs. Now a senior, she continues to “compete” with her father by capitalizing on UB’s many opportunities for research and learning.
“I felt that my dad would have wanted me to stay focused on school and do my best,” she says modestly.
A student researcher on the hunt for tumors deep within the brain, Jasmine talks about her work, her favorite freshman mentor, and why joining the University Honors College was one of the best choices she made at UB.
In the summer after her freshman year, Jasmine participated in the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP), a statewide program that helps talented underrepresented students follow careers in scientific, technical and health-related professions. She worked with Richard Rabin, a UB professor of pharmacology and toxicology, to explore the effects of the pesticide chlorpyrifos and ethanol on healthy brain cells in individuals who consume alcohol.
That fall, Jasmine began working with UB’s Kenneth Takeuchi, a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, after taking his chemistry classes.
A student favorite who was named New York Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Takeuchi helped Jasmine hone her basic research skills. She quickly learned what she liked about bench science (the lab environment, the undergraduate and graduate students on her team). “I also learned that you need to be organized if you want to carry out good work. You need to encourage cooperation within the lab,” she says.
Working with mentors like Takeuchi was pivotal for Jasmine. He was the first of several accomplished UB faculty willing to open their labs and minds to the budding scientist, even if it was to talk about non-research-related topics. She still checks in with him on occasion. “I really appreciate and treasure his opinion.”
“Jasmine is special because she makes special choices,” Takeuchi says, adding that he was impressed by her dedication to her academics. Among her motivations, he says, is “the altruistic goal of helping solve currently intractable problems in science, which may ultimately result in improving the health and quality of life for others.”
Jasmine went on to work with several other prominent UB scientists. Folarin Erogbogbo, a postdoctoral researcher in the Cancer Nanotechnology Division of UB’s top-ranked Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, met Jasmine during the CSTEP program and recommended her to Mark T. Swihart, director of the UB 2020 strategic strength in Integrated Nanostructured Systems, who has a laboratory in UB’s Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics (ILPB).
Erogbogbo immediately noticed Jasmine’s energy and encouraged her interest in cancer research. “She is an exceptional UB student because she is highly motivated to challenge herself by going above and beyond the call of duty in her classwork, laboratory duties and extracurricular activities,” he says.
“I like seeing my name among the other student winners from Harvard and Yale. It tells me I can compete with them and still win.”
In Swihart’s lab, Jasmine worked with silicon quantum dots—a type of nanotechnology that can be used to study cancerous tumors—and learned about etching procedures used to make the quantum dots luminescent. She was drawn to nanomedicine because of its potential to target brain cancer at sub-microscopic levels. “Since the ‘blood-brain barrier’ is one of the biggest difficulties when dealing with the brain, the best method is to work on the smallest scale possible,” she says.
Jasmine continues to work with quantum dots using new techniques in a UB lab overseen by SUNY Distinguished Professor Paras Prasad, executive director of the ILPB and a leading scientist in nanomedicine. With her labmates—some fellow undergraduates, others graduate researchers and postdocs—Jasmine creates images of tumors that can be used to better identify and treat them at various stages of the disease.
Jasmine’s determination has paid off. As a sophomore, she was chosen to present a research poster on her nanotechnology techniques at a SUNY undergraduate research conference in Albany, and at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Charlotte, N.C. As part of an undergraduate seminar called Community Linked Interdisciplinary Research, taught by award-winning UB chemistry professor Joseph Gardella, she visited Buffalo high schools to help teach students how to design science experiments.
In 2010, Jasmine won the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education award, a federally funded competitive scholarship for students studying science, math and engineering. She did a silent dance of joy in a hushed library when she found out, thrilled to have been chosen from more than 1,100 of the country’s top mathematics, science and engineering students for the honor.
“I like seeing my name among the other student winners from Harvard and Yale,” she said at the time. “It tells me I can compete with them and still win.”
Jasmine hopes that her academic achievements at UB will help her reach her goal to become an oncologist or radiologist at a top research university affiliated with a cancer research institute, an ambition that fits well with UB because of the university’s close association with Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the country’s first cancer center.
She wants to combine bench science and drug development with clinical practice and patient care. “I want to be the kind of oncologist who takes people’s personal experiences back to the lab,” she says.
For undergraduates interested in research, but unsure of where to begin, Jasmine advises: Sample everything. Try things you’re not familiar with. “Even if it’s outside your major, or doesn’t seem possible or obvious, don’t be afraid to walk up to people and ask.
“I feel it is very important that undergraduates have these chances, because they can affect the choices that students make with their career,” she continues. “It seems that many students focus too much on the coursework and don’t really think about application of their knowledge. By being introduced into the research world early, students can make better career decisions.”
Life has changed drastically for Jasmine in only three years, but her goals have not. She still lives with her mother in Sanborn and commutes to UB. But now she is armed with an education that could one day help beat brain cancer.
Her father would be proud.