Former STAR Student and Amgen Scholar to Attend Harvard PhD Program

By Erica Levi Zelinger, Communication Specialist, Pennoni Honors College

Matthew McBride has always been excited about the power of scientific inquiry. As a homeschooled kindergartener, the senior chemistry major with minors in biological sciences and business administration recalls his first science fair. His project involved changing the vertical height of his toy cars along the top of a board and measuring the change in the horizontal distance they traveled.

Over time, the inquiries have gotten more complex: cell cycle progression, uncovering new chemical mechanisms useful for performing organic synthesis using NMR spectroscopy, and measuring the solubility of certain compounds in organic solvents. But the Honors student’s excitement for science has only heightened.

Which is why when he was readying himself for a journey to Los Angeles in June 2013 to begin research as part of UCLA’s Amgen Scholars Program, he put all the packing, paperwork, and errands on a back (Bunsen) burner to an invitation to visit the White House.

McBride was invited as the guest of Dr. Jean-Claude Bradley, an associate professor of chemistry, who coined the term “Open Notebook Science” to describe a way of making scientific findings easily accessible and freely available online. The Medford, N.J. student joined his mentor at the White House to present a poster on Open Science at a “Champions of Change” event.

“I had the chance to listen to leaders in the field of science, such as Dr. David Altshuler of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and Dr. John Quackenbush of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute discuss how the scientific community is excellent at collecting data and information, but how we need to improve our ability at understanding and drawing significant conclusions from these data sets.”

McBride adds, “It caused me to strive to develop not only my ability to use scientific instrumentation to perform tedious laboratory techniques, but also to strengthen my scientific reasoning in order to appreciate the significance of my findings.”

Always the conscientious and energetic student, McBride applied to 15 PhD programs; he received interview requests from 14 of them. It was scientific reasoning that helped him make a decision: McBride will enter the PhD program at Harvard in chemical biology this fall.

One data point or a single experiment, McBride says, does not create a new disease treatment. A series of logical experiments with a focus on understanding the causes of a disease allows for the tedious design of an effective treatment.

The 21-year-old took this lesson with him to UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine in the Department of Biological Chemistry, where he worked with Dr. James Wohlschlegel to explore the roles of E3 ubiquitin ligase adaptor KCTD7 in Fe-S cluster biogenesis and cell cycle progression for maintaining genome stability – or, as he explained it at Discovery 2013, Drexel University’s College of Medicine’s annual research day, “It all comes down to regulating appropriate cellular protein levels to prevent the development of disease such as cancer.”
“Fe-S cluster biogenesis is required for the activation of proteins needed for DNA replication and repair. Cell cycle progression needs to be monitored to prevent cells from proliferating in an uncontrolled manner (i.e. cancer) and this monitoring occurs from controlling certain protein levels.”

His poster earned him a 2nd place in the undergraduate poster category.

McBride, the oldest of eight children, grew up being homeschooled, which gave him the flexibility to complete high school projects at Villanova University – even working in their biology department on breast cancer projects. Starting in 10th grade, McBride took math and science classes at Burlington County Community College, which allowed him to transfer credits toward his Drexel degree.

In the fall term of his first year, McBride approached Dr. Bradley, then his University 101 instructor, about getting involved with research.

“I was interested in gaining lab experience and training on the use of instrumentation, particularly in the area of organic chemistry,” he says.  “A day or two later I came by his office to talk more about research with him and I was conducting my first experiment 15 minutes later!”

Dr. Bradley describes McBride as a trustworthy and hard-working student – and one who grasps concepts quickly and shows creativity in designing experiments. But what most impressed Dr. Bradley about McBride was his request to present his work as an oral presentation at the Fall 2012 American Chemic Society (ACS) Meeting.

“I have had over 100 undergraduates work in my lab in the last 15 years and I have never had a student – let alone a freshman – request to present a seminar at a national meeting,” Bradley said. “[Matt’s] delivery was very polished and reflected that his thinking about research is close to graduate level.”

In the summer after his freshman year, McBride participated in the STAR (Students Tackling Advanced Research) Scholars Program, giving him the chance to conduct research everyday and the realization that he loved coming into the lab each morning to learn new methodologies and how to systematically approach scientific problems. 

The STAR Scholars Program provided him with the funding to present his research at the National Collegiate Research Conference (NCRC) 2013 held at Harvard as well as the opportunity to give his 25-minute oral presentation at the ACS national meeting.

“I found it so exciting to learn about the power of the scientific inquiry that I was undertaking and I was further motivated to keep pursuing my passion for research,” McBride says.

McBride says he is extremely grateful for the opportunities provided to him through Drexel’s Fellowships Office and the Office of Undergraduate Research. He attended numerous Fellowships workshops that offered him instruction and guidance for leveraging his background to help craft strong applications for the UCLA Amgen Scholars Program in which he participated, as well as the DAAD Rise and the University of Washington Amgen Scholars Program, both of which he was also offered.

“Matt is a remarkable student who has sought out research experiences here at Drexel and through the Amgen Scholars Program at UCLA,” says Cindy Schaarschmidt, assistant director of the Fellowships Office. “He has truly made the most out of his undergraduate education.”

He’s a member of the Christian student organization Drexel Students for Christ, but given the chance to get out of the lab, McBride loves the beach and a chance to play a game of Ultimate Frisbee.

McBride says he can see himself staying in academia and running a research lab focused on investing the role of proteins and protein misfolding in the developing of disease. Or perhaps being a part of a biotechnology start-up that discovers and develops tools for the rapid diagnosis and treatment of specific diseases. Regardless of his path, McBride keeps going back to the words of U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, who spoke at the White House event McBride attended. Park emphasized the need for scientists to communicate their research to citizens in order for our society to continue to have an appreciation for the importance of dedicating resources to pursuing advancement through research.

“It was a great reminder to me that it is essential that I continue to hone my communication skills for both a scientific and non-scientific audience in order to maximize my ability to share my findings and promote scientific research,” McBride says.