Voelcker Scholars have earned the right to be called scientists

Graduation ceremony set for 3 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20, at Greehey Institute

SAN ANTONIO (Sept. 15, 2011) — The flame of scientific discovery is burning brightly in the hearts of 22 young scientists known as the Voelcker Scholars. These fired-up teenagers will officially complete a life-changing three-year program at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20, at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio. The graduation ceremony is in the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute, 8403 Floyd Curl Drive.

These are the first graduates of the Voelcker Biomedical Research Academy, a program that immerses teenagers in the warp and woof of science — from understanding the scientific method, to performing laboratory techniques, to learning critical-thinking skills. This rigorous program is funded by a gift from the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund, which honors the memory of the Voelckers, who were successful dairy farmers for many years in San Antonio and who believed in transforming lives through education.

During the ceremony, the young people will hear words of wisdom from Leroy Hood, M.D., Ph.D., winner of the BioMed SA 2011 Julio Palmaz Award for Innovation in Healthcare and the Biosciences. Dr. Hood, of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, is a passionate advocate for science education at the K-12 level. He is a world-renowned biotechnology inventor and visionary whose discoveries have permanently changed the course of biology and revolutionized the understanding of genetics, life and human health.

Not a typical summer at the pool
Voelcker Scholar Elizabeth Arriaga of Burbank High School worked in the laboratory of Dr. Benjamin Eaton this summer, verifying a potential drug target for ALS, a neurodegenerative disease. Darren Sanchez of Clark High School worked in Dr. Renee Yew’s lab on a cancer-related project, studying a protein that puts the brakes on cell division in frogs. Alexandra “Allie” Sharp of Boerne Champion High School studied chemical changes in the brain that occur with chronic stress and can be correlated to illnesses such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She worked in Dr. David Morilak’s lab.

In summer 2009 the first class of Voelcker Scholars came to the Health Science Center for eight weeks of scientific overview. In summer 2010 they were assigned to laboratories of faculty mentors and began learning techniques. This summer each contributed to a specific project as part of a laboratory team. Younger Voelcker Scholars, enrolled in 2010 and 2011, are following in their footsteps.

Sharp said she likes the “nuts and bolts, figuring out the logic of why things work,” so research was a revelation for her. She started out only considering a career as a medical doctor but now realizes that research provides the basis for the treatments that physicians use.

“She collaborated with Julianne Jett, a graduate student in our laboratory,” Dr. Morilak, professor of pharmacology, said. “Allie became part of our team and contributed in a substantial way. She learned from people in the lab in a careful, mentoring, nurturing kind of process.”

Treating ALS in fruit flies
In Dr. Eaton’s lab, Arriaga helped test an interesting new class of drugs that for genetic reasons would be expected to be beneficial for treatment of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in fruit flies. “Elizabeth had to master genetics, fine dissection of fruit fly larvae, and immunofluorescent microscopy,” Dr. Eaton, assistant professor of physiology, said. “She mastered these and is proficient in them.”

Sanchez studied negative regulators of cell division — CDK inhibitors — that either are not expressed in cancer cells or are severely reduced. This lack of brakes leads to rampant cell growth. “Darren is very bright; he was also extremely dedicated and committed,” Dr. Yew, associate professor of molecular medicine, said. “He was a contributor creatively to the project, which is unusual at that level.”

Finding the best across districts, schools
The Voelcker Academy extends across school districts and public and private schools in San Antonio, said Irene Chapa, Ph.D., director of recruitment and science outreach for the Health Science Center. “What the Voelcker Academy is allowing us to do is reach the entire community and find the best students in any and all schools,” she said. Dr. Chapa, a pharmacologist by training, has worked on this and many other student pipeline programs for a decade. She is co-director of the Voelcker Academy with Sophie Pina, Ph.D., assistant dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the Health Science Center.

BioMed SA’s Palmaz Award is named for Julio C. Palmaz, M.D., longtime radiology professor in the School of Medicine at the Health Science Center. His revolutionary Palmaz® Stent has been called one of the “10 Patents that Changed the World.” Stents are used in millions of patients annually to repair clogged arteries near the heart and elsewhere in the body.

One of Dr. Hood’s inventions was an automated DNA sequencer he developed in 1986 that facilitated high-speed sequencing of human genomes and was the key technology enabling the Human Genome Project. In the early 1990s, he and his colleagues developed the ink-jet DNA synthesis technology for creating DNA arrays with tens of thousands of gene fragments, one of the first of the so-called DNA chips.

Rundown of Voelcker Academy graduation:

  • The ceremony begins at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20, at the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute, 8403 Floyd Curl Drive.
  • Photos of Voelcker Scholars and mentors in labs may be taken from 1 to 2 p.m. at the Long Campus of the Health Science Center, 7703 Floyd Curl Drive. Meet External Affairs personnel in the lobby of the Academic and Administration Building.
  • Dr. Leroy Hood, winner of the 2011 Palmaz Award conferred by BioMed SA, will give the keynote address to the Voelcker Scholars at 3:30 p.m.
  • Trustees of the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Fund will be available for interviews at the ceremony.



The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, one of the country’s leading health sciences universities, ranks in the top 3 percent of all institutions worldwide receiving federal funding. Research and other sponsored program activity totaled $228 million in fiscal year 2010. The university’s schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have produced approximately 26,000 graduates. The $744 million operating budget supports eight campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. For more information on the many ways “We make lives better®,” visit www.uthscsa.edu.

Share This Article!