First Person: A Miraculous Summer

First Person: A Miraculous Summer

Jonathan Ladner is a senior biology major with plans to go on to medical school. In this First Person essay, he describes how the guidance of a caring Baylor mentor and assistance from an unexpected source helped him to take advantage of a learning opportunity that has transformed his outlook on life.

I consider myself to be a relatively nontraditional premedical student. I graduated in 2015 from Midway High School in Waco with plans to pursue a football scholarship at Tarleton University to prepare for a career in coaching. However, shortly after I moved away from home, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer that quickly progressed to Stage 4 terminal breast cancer, following metastasis to her lymph nodes, ovaries and spine. 

My self-identity was dramatically transformed in the following months as I gave up my athletic aspirations, returned home and began my academic journey. I often brought my mother to her oncologist checkups, MRI scans and chemotherapy treatments. As we sat together in the many medical offices, it became clear to me that I would spend the rest of my life delving into the world of science so that I might help others in their times of need. 

I attended McLennan Community College in Waco for my first two years of undergraduate education before transferring to Baylor University in pursuit of a Bachelor of Science degree in biology. In my time at Baylor, I have had the privilege of gaining many valuable skills that will carry me forward in my aspirations of becoming a physician, and I am honored to share one experience that held great significance to me.

In the fall of 2017, I began my first semester at Baylor University as a junior. I had a burning desire to discover more about what scientific research entailed. I scoured the internet for summer research positions and stumbled upon an incredible opportunity at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Fox Chase’s nontraditional application process caught my attention, because while there was no generalized form to complete, they did require that a prospective student initiate contact with a staff member to be considered for the program. I reached out to the primary investigator of the Blood Cell Development and Function Lab, Dietmar J. Kappes. 

Dr. Kappes and I communicated over the next few months via email and phone, and he nominated me as his research associate for the 2018 summer program. We anxiously awaited news from the stipend committee at Fox Chase about the approval for the funding of my summer living expenses for the following months. We received word in late March 2018 that I was not selected for funding by the stipend committee. I was extremely disappointed by this news and frantically began seeking alternate routes for funding. I knew that this research opportunity was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I would not give up on easily. So, I put on a nice shirt and walked into the Baylor College of Arts & Sciences Dean’s Office the following morning hoping for a miracle. What happened next cannot be explained except as an act of divine intervention. 

Having no appointment, I asked the secretary if there were any available deans that I could speak with. After a short wait, I was invited to see Elizabeth Vardaman, the College’s associate dean for engaged learning. I shared my life story with her and talked about the opportunity that I had for the summer. As we visited, I could see she was listening to me with her heart. She believed in me. With my tumultuous path to Baylor I had often doubted myself, and I cannot emphasize how much this interaction meant to me. 

As our meeting concluded, Dean Vardaman told me that there were no guarantees, but she would be meeting with the College of Arts & Sciences Board of Advocates later that week and would try her best to get funding for me. Three days later, she called me and said that the Board of Advocates had selected me to be fully funded to conduct research at Fox Chase Cancer Center. I had been selected as the first recipient of the College of Arts & Sciences Board of Advocates Scholarship in Engaged Learning. The summer arrived quickly afterward, and I set off for my adventure in Philadelphia.

My 10-week internship at Fox Chase Cancer Center was not only a rigorous academic endeavor, but also an opportunity to discover what life would be like as a scientist. On my first day I walked into the Blood Cell Development and Function Lab, where I was introduced to six postdoctoral research associates. I was the lone intern and felt that I was in well over my head, surrounded by so many brilliant professionals. After discussing the current projects, they gave me my first assignment –– to read through an 850-page immunology textbook “as quickly as possible.” I realized immediately that my romanticized ideals of research were far from reality. 

As I settled in, one of the postdoctoral associates, Jayati Mookerjee-Basu, took me under her wing and pushed me to absorb as much as possible in my time there. By the fourth week, I was working closely with her on a research project concerning the transcription factor EGR4. I worked 16-hour days –– totaling at times more than 80 hours a week while in the thick of our experiment. I learned what lab work encompassed from experimentation with transgenic mice, analyzing various tissue samples utilizing flow cytometry analysis and composing figures with our resultant data. I had never been pushed harder in my life. 

I kept my head down, worked extremely hard day in and day out  and had the privilege of complete immersion into scientific research. I loved every second I spent working in the lab and could not be more grateful for the individuals who supported me in my time there. By the conclusion of the fellowship, I had earned a co-authorship for my efforts. Our paper has been submitted as a manuscript for publication to The Journal of Experimental Medicine

My experiences at Fox Chase Cancer Center have dramatically transformed my outlook on life. More than anything, I feel that my time in Philadelphia gave me confidence –– confidence that I can step into any situation, as intimidating as it may look, and with my work ethic and resiliency I can accomplish anything I set out to do. 

I am now in my senior year at Baylor with only the Spring 2019 semester remaining. My mother continues to serve as my inspiration as she wages her relentless battle against cancer. I plan to take the MCAT in late March and begin my application for medical school in May. I feel very optimistic about the future.

Upon graduating from Baylor, I will continue working as a food server at 135 Prime and shadowing physicians during my gap year to attempt to gain some financial stability before I begin medical school. I cherish and await the opportunity to dedicate my life to the pursuit of knowledge so that I can help those in their time of need, whatever that might be.