For former football player-turned-researcher, both competition and teamwork “strike a nerve”
Ten years from now, Colin Smith hopes to make a breakthrough in traumatic brain injury research. Traumatic brain injury is the leading cause of disability and death in the United States among children and young adults.
Smith said most non-scientists would be surprised to find out that the damage caused by chemical warfare nerve agent exposure has much in common with diseases like Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS.
Dr. Erik Johnson found Smith while searching the “M Club” database, a listing of current and former National Collegiate Athletic Association athletes at Macalester College where Dr. Johnson played basketball and Smith played football.
Soon after, Dr. Johnson encouraged Smith to apply to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense program, which is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science Education, Maryland Office. The Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.-based program focuses on medical chemical countermeasures research and development.
Smith described the research setting at USAMRICD as being very different than at Macalester College. Having worked in the two different environments, Smith said he is more prepared to continue his education and is “able to draw on a breadth of past experiences in order to choose the right course for a given problem.”
While at Macalester, Smith worked with his football team to achieve certain goals. However, that spirit of teamwork isn’t always evident in the real world.
“At this point in one’s career, it can be hard to strike a balance between your own personal goals and the goals of the research group at large,” Smith said. “In my case, the sincere interest of my mentor and the rest of the investigators have allowed me to find the perfect fit for me to both contribute greatly to our research group and to develop skills that will help me in my future.”
During his 10 months as a participant at USAMRICD, Smith—who holds a double major in cognitive and neuroscience, and psychology—worked with Dr. Heidi Hoard-Fruchey. Together they performed experiments examining the changes in proteins found in specific regions of the brain and heart following exposure to chemical warfare nerve agents.
As he furthers his career in the neurosciences, Smith takes with him valuable lessons. “I have been taught to think like a scientist, how to plan experiments, form testable hypothesis and choose the right test to answer the question at hand.”
He said another valuable lesson from the program is learning from others. “I believe that any time you work hard with someone and struggle through setbacks and obstacles in order to achieve a positive outcome, it makes the realization of the goal that much sweeter.”
Smith finished his time with the program in May 2010 and is now in pursuit of a Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. Like the alumnus who recommended him to USAMRICD, Smith is already spreading the word to others at his alma mater.
“It is a great opportunity to work in a nurturing environment and to develop a plethora of skills that will help you to open the doors to whatever path you choose,” he said. “Until I started working at USAMRICD in the research program, I was not aware of all the opportunities that exist in military science laboratories.”