Internship leads Rowan senior to study liver disease at Baylor


Senior Benjamin Nixon is researching liver disease this summer at Baylor University, one of nation's top medical research universities.

Benjamin Nixon isn't going to get much of a tan this summer working in a laboratory at Baylor University's College of Medicine in Houston. Still, he says, his two-month summer internship is red hot.

"This adds to the fire I already had for the sciences," says Nixon, a senior biochemistry major at Rowan University. "This is a very fortifying experience. Each day, I'm eager to go into the lab and get things done. We have setbacks, but we're learning from them."

A 2005 graduate of Palmyra High School, Nixon's two-month, paid summer internship involves performing biomedical research in the Texas Children's Liver Center at the Texas Children's Hospital at Baylor.

Working under senior research scientist Dr. Leonard Golfman in a program spearheaded by Dr. Saul Karpen, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Baylor, Nixon is examining some of the molecular characteristics of cholestasis, a condition of reduced bile flow from the liver to the intestines.

Cholestasis is associated with many liver diseases, including liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, and hepatitis-induced cirrhosis of the liver. In the lab, Nixon is examining the regulation of RXR protein, a hormone receptor, in viable cancerous liver cells. His work is aimed at getting a better understanding of how the cells respond to inflammatory hormones and how that response may lead to cholestasis.

"It's Dr. Karpen's enthusiastic willingness to allow a student to work in his lab that brought me to the lab at Baylor," says Nixon. "I'm very grateful for his guidance and support."

According to its web site, Texas Children's Liver Center is the largest pediatric liver disease program in the south and among the largest in the United States. Baylor is ranked 13th overall among the nation's top medical schools for research by U.S. News & World Report.

Nixon is working in the lab through Baylor's SMART program, which seeks undergraduate interns who are interested in scientific research. The program, which includes a highly competitive application process akin to applying for graduate school, provides interns with a $4,000 stipend and housing at Rice University, also in Houston.

Though he entered Rowan as an accounting major, Nixon now intends to pursue his Ph.D. in either molecular physiology or molecular medicine. His goal is to be a medical researcher, particularly in the area of cardiovascular research.

"There is a history of heart problems in my family," says Nixon, who is considering the University of Maryland, Ohio State and Wake Forest for graduate school.

While he's interested in medicine, being a physician isn't for him, he says.

"I look at it as I'd rather come up with the treatments than give them out," says Nixon, who was encouraged to attend graduate school by Greg Caputo, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Rowan. "Professor Caputo encouraged me to consider the Ph.D. process. He gave me a nudge."

In January, says Nixon, Assistant Professor Darius Kuciauskas urged all students in his classes to consider summer internships and even provided them with a list of 25 opportunities, including Baylor's, which receives approximately 600 applications each year for 100 internship spots.

"He was very encouraging to our class to get an undergraduate research position over the summer," says Nixon. "I saw an opportunity get some real experience. My internship has helped me gain more of an appreciation for my class work. Here at Baylor, there are students from all over. We even have students from Puerto Rico and Slovenia."

Nixon's go-get-'em attitude in landing the Baylor internship wasn't surprising to Caputo, who praises his student's intense intellectual curiosity. Nixon will work in Caputo's lab this fall.

"To my knowledge, Ben is the first Rowan student we have sent to the Baylor program," says Caputo.

"He has a true, deep interest in the subject of biochemistry, which is evidenced by his classroom and lab performance and his outside-of-class research. As a young faculty member, it is truly rewarding to work with a student as enthusiastic as he is."