The Making of a Researcher

Emile Gordon, assistant research fellow at NIH, analyzes ex vivo and in vivo MRI brain images of mice with cerebral malaria. The research focuses on the pathogenesis of severe malaria, which affects the brain. Caused by Plasmodium falciparum in humans, this form of malaria kills more than one million children in Africa every year. Photo credit: Mirna Pena
December 19, 2012

Emile Brink Gordon’s zeal for research at the University of Arizona led him to publish his first peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Virology – a rare achievement for an undergraduate student. His article was one of five spotlighted by the editor as “especially meritorious” and “of significant interest.” His second article has just been accepted. Last fall, Gordon presented his research at the 22nd Biennial Phage and Virus Assembly Conference – also while an undergraduate.

Born in South Africa, Emile moved to Phoenix when he was 12. The opportunity to work in a nationally funded science lab as a freshman laser-focused his intellect, curiosity and considerable energy.

“I believe that the University of Arizona is unique – because while the UA recruits world-class scientists, it still provides substantial resources, infrastructure and opportunities for undergraduate research. While it is rare for undergraduates to publish as a first author, the opportunities the UA affords makes it very possible,” Gordon said.

His mentor is BIO5 Institute scientist Bentley Fane, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Plant Sciences in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Fane is a leading expert on microviruses, with a focus on scaffolding proteins. He has received continuous funding from the National Science Foundation since 1993.

“My freshman year at very beginning of college – he let me work in his lab for free,” Gordon said. “Bentley has played an integral role in my development as a scientist. His invaluable insight, advice and encouragement have given me the inspiration to pursue research as a career.”

He wryly added, “My mentor is a perfectionist – definitely a perfectionist. Each manuscript leaves some trauma in my life.”

Gordon's broad exploratory research in Fane's UA lab involved a small well-studied microvirus that has just 11 proteins. Because microviruses can be so easily altered genetically and biochemically analyzed, they serve as a model for other dangerous pathogenic viruses that cannot be so readily investigated in a laboratory setting.

Fane also noted, “Emile had to master some rather sophisticated genetic and biochemical concepts and techniques. His project required patience, a high level of technical competence and lastly – maturity. Many students struggle when experimental results do not agree with the initial hypotheses and model.” Gordon persevered.

Triple-Major Scholar and Active Leader

Gordon came to the UA on scholarship to study political science. It took just one microbiology course to change his major to microbiology. Then he added two more science majors and the Honors College.

“It’s not hard when you know what you want to do,” he said.

The Phi Beta Kappa student triple majored in microbiology, molecular and cellular biology, and human anatomy and physiology. He also led a campaign to start a flu vaccination clinic for the homeless, which today inoculates more than 300 persons each year. He spearheaded the initiative to create a tobacco-free campus, collaborating with Campus Health Service and the Arizona Cancer Center. And he created the Honors Biomedical Journal Club to engage freshman in the wonders of scientific discovery. Off campus, he was a hospice volunteer and emergency department volunteer.

“I am particularly adamant about the mantra ‘practice what you preach,’” he said. That led him to engage UA students in these and other projects. “You do not need a Ph.D. or M.D. to make a difference. You can make a difference without any letters on your name.”

Support from Undergraduate Biology Research Program

Gordon was able to remain so engaged in his research in Fane’s lab thanks to a program partly funded by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“I would not have been able to delve so deeply into my project if it were not for theUndergraduate Biology Research Program,” he said. “Without UBRP funding, I would not have been able to conduct research over the summers, and may have spent significantly less time there during the semesters in order to find a job to pay for college.”

He noted that principal investigators like Fane cannot invest hard-won research dollars on inexperienced students as they learn – yet are committed to providing that opportunity. That’s where UBRP helps. UBRP also assists student scientists in other ways, such as paying Gordon’s transportation to present his research at an international conference.

After graduating in 2012, Gordon became an assistant research fellow at the National Institutes of Health where he is working on two projects related to cerebral malaria.

No Other Institution Presents These Opportunities

“I never wanted to do research,” Gordon said. “I was looking to become a doctor, doing public health. My mind changed. I learned the value of basic science. Now I want to become a medical scientist.

“I don’t know of any other undergraduate institution where I could have written a manuscript (now two) and practiced my speaking ability” before national and international colleagues. “I don’t know of any other place with those types of opportunities. This is going to make me a better scientist.”