dssi“You can’t get these answers from a text book,” says Stephen Silva ’14, referring to the laboratory research he is doing at the Drew Summer Science Institute (DSSI) – research that could lay the groundwork for new anti-fungal medications. Current anti-fungal treatments are often ineffective and produce adverse side effects, and that’s a problem for chemotherapy, HIV and leukemia patients with weakened immune systems. Silva is part of a molecular biology team working with Professor Stephen Dunaway this summer to understand the genetic sequences of a specific yeast protein in order to find some answers.

Silva has been able to dedicate himself to this project, rather than take a summer job to help pay for school, thanks to the Carrie Hendrickson McMahon Summer Research Fellowship established by the ’94 alumna to support biology and biochemistry students. “I needed a lot of help paying for college,” says McMahon, now a regulatory scientist at the Food and Drug Administration.  “I was lucky enough to get the Elsie Fischer Scholarship (among other Drew awards) and always considered it an interest-free loan. I made it a priority to give back.”

Since 1998, DSSI has brought together advanced anthropology, biology, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, physics and psychology Drew students with faculty for eight weeks of full-time research each summer. DSSI provides students with a measure of direct, practical experience not often seen at the undergraduate level.  Research, like Silva’s, can be tedious and full of set-backs. But each unsuccessful attempt teaches valuable lessons about technique and perseverance. “This is how you learn science,” observes Dunaway noting that most DSSI students go on to competitive graduate programs. Silva, for example, is applying to medical school.

The number of students participating in DSSI has almost doubled in recent years, with upwards of 60 students enrolling each summer. Drew provides each student with a stipend, as well as on-campus housing and expendable supplies for experiments. These costs have been subsidized recently by a major grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The grant expires this year and so fellowships like McMahon’s are crucial to the continued success of DSSI in the years ahead.

“Now that the fellowship is real, I wonder why I didn’t do this sooner,” muses Carrie. “I thought it took a fortune to create something like this. But it’s actually very manageable when you break it down,” she says, to the molecular level. –Barbara Perkins P’09