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$7,500 scholarship will help LO's Kendra Jackson pursue medical research after college

COURTESY PHOTO - Kendra Jackson with her advisor Kari van Zee (left) and mentor Michael Freitag (right).Kendra Jackson has been interested in science since she was a kid, but one particular experience cemented her desire to pursue medical research. When Jackson was five years old, her sister Taylor was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and the family spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals.

"I remember all the physicians and nurses that helped my sister. It was really inspiring to me," Jackson said. "I was already really interested in science, but I was focused on dinosaurs at that time. Talking with the doctors, and asking them all of the questions I had, I became really interested in biology and disease."

Jackson graduated from Lake Oswego High School in 2016 will be a senior at Oregon State University this fall, studying honors biochemistry and molecular biology. She just received a $7,500 Goldwater Scholarship, the nation's highest honor for college sophomores and juniors in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation was established by Congress in 1986 to serve as a living memorial to honor the lifetime work of Sen. Barry Goldwater, who served his country for 56 years as a soldier and statesman, including 30 years in the U.S. Senate.

By providing scholarships to college sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering, the Goldwater Foundation helps ensure that the U.S. is producing highly-qualified professionals in these critical fields.

Jackson applied for the scholarship last year with the help of teachers, advisors and mentors, including Michael Freitag, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. She said the application process was long, but enlightening.

"You have to really break down your research in layman's terms and describe your individual role in the project," she said. "Everyone reviewing the application is a scientist, but an astrophysicist may not understand biology notes, as I wouldn't understand their notes."

The process also helped Jackson realize her goals. "They ask you a lot about career goals, and that was a really good exercise in solidifying to myself what I wanted to do," she said.

What really drives Jackson is her love for science and medicine, matched with her desire to help people. "I want to find a way to combine those passions," she said. "I want to have a career where I can use the best current knowledge and be a part of creating and researching the best new knowledge."

When Jackson's sister was going through treatment for leukemia, she saw how quickly science and medicine can advance. "When Taylor was first diagnosed I made a lot of close friends in the hospital (who were also in treatment for leukemia). In the first one or two years that she was going through treatment, a lot of friends I had made had passed away," Jackson said. "I later saw children that had been newly diagnosed and they were able to be treated."

That was because of a new targeted therapy drug called "Gleevec," discovered by Brian Druker at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), which transformed chronic myeloid leukemia treatment and inspired Jackson.

"Looking back, it's pretty incredible that in three years the prognosis for those children changed so dramatically," she said.

As a student at OSU and a future medical school student, Jackson hopes to be a part of that type of transformative research, and said the Goldwater Scholarship provided her a needed boost.

At OSU Jackson has focused on researching the epigenetic silencing phenomenon. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence.

"It's a really interesting field because we don't fully understand the epigenetic code," Jackson said. "What I'm doing now is basically figuring out the basics of how a certain epigenetic pathway works, how that protein complex works and what affects it. Cancers have different coding from normal cells. We don't know if that's a result of cancer or if that causes cancer, or if that's even something we can determine."

As far as what comes after college, Jackson is not sure yet. "The future is up in the air," she said. "I've only been doing research for three years for my undergraduate, so in the grand scheme of things, I know very little. In the future I'm sure I'll find new and different fields that I'll have an interest in."

Jackson plans to take a gap year before entering into a M.D. or Ph.D. program, but hasn't decided which schools to apply to. "I do know that OHSU was such an impactful place for me, so that's definitely on the list," she said. "I'd always pictured myself going there. Those were the first doctors I ever saw and they made a big impact on me."


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