During the summers of 1991 and 1992, then-Project SEED student Trent A. Watkins worked closely with his mentor, Rafael Alvarez-Gonzalez, at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. They forged a student/mentor bond that would become a lasting relationship. Here is Watkins' story:
"I became interested in biomedical research at a young age, when my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Having attended some talks by clinical researchers, I was impressed by their dedication and their careful approach to new treatment options. For several years, I had a vague notion about pursuing a career in the medical sciences, but I had very little sense of what such a career actually entailed or how to begin pursuing it.
"In the summer after my sophomore year in high school, Project SEED provided me with a remarkable introduction to scientific research. For eight weeks, I spent time in the laboratory of Dr. Alvarez. There I worked with graduate students and with Dr. Alvarez on elucidating the enzymology of poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase, a protein important for DNA repair and, therefore, cancer development. In the process, I learned a number of essential biochemical techniques, a skill set that I use even to this day.
"Perhaps the most extraordinary part of Project SEED was the mentorship provided by Dr. Alvarez, and I can appreciate his efforts even more now as I begin to mentor others. My curiosity about the experiments we were performing was boundless, especially considering how little background I had at the time. I frequently asked Dr. Alvarez questions, both big and small, ranging from the hypothesis driving our project to very basic questions about the function of a particular reagent in a specific protocol. Despite, no doubt, his incredibly busy schedule, Dr. Alvarez always took the time to help me understand each step, encouraging me to ask questions and providing me with the skills to seek my own answers. As I find myself juggling the many aspects of a research career, I value even more the time and dedication that this mentorship required of him.
"Importantly, Dr. Alvarez's mentorship did not end with lab-related issues. At the time I began, I had never heard of such a thing as a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Dr. Alvarez answered many questions about the process of pursuing a career in science: where to attend college, where to find funding, and the common career paths in research. He invited me to join him in presenting a poster of our work at a national scientific meeting, thereby giving me my first real glimpse of how researchers interact with the entire scientific community. The experience helped to solidify my interest in pursuing a research career and also gave me important connections with other scientists."
Watkins went on to receive a University of California Regents Scholarship. He attended UC Berkeley, where he received an A.B. in molecular and cell biology in 1997.
Now a graduate student and Leiberman Fellow in Stanford University's neuroscience program, Watkins is studying the regulation of myelination during brain development, which may have important implications for diseases like multiple sclerosis.