Cathedral partners with University Medical Center

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 28, 2010

NATCHEZ — Cathedral High School students will get a chance to slip on white lab coats and use aspirators to collect fire ants and extract their DNA in a new biomedical research elective course this year.

The new course is part of the Rural Biomedical Initiative, which is funded by a grant aiming to breed Mississippi’s future scientists.

Denise Thibodeaux, who teaches biology and anatomy at Cathedral and will teach the elective, said five students have already signed up for the course since she found out about it last week.

“They’re excited about science,” Thibodeaux said of her students who signed up.

The renewable, five-year, $695,923 outreach grant has been awarded to The University of Mississippi Medical Center since 1994. The funding allows UMC to lend equipment and course materials to high schools around the state for use in biomedical research elective courses.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit medical research organization based in Maryland, funds the grant.

The program was originally designed for Jackson public schools, but it has recently expanded across the state.

Four other Mississippi schools have joined the program in Puckett, Brandon, Enterprise and Madison. Cathedral is the newest addition and only non-public school to partner with UMC to encourage Mississippi teens to seek medical careers.

Thibodeaux said one part of the curriculum lets students work on a research project called Muse of Fire, which studies fire ant DNA to look for bacterial infections, among other things.

Thibodeaux said exposure to the curriculum and equipment will give students an edge many rural areas cannot provide.

Students she has had in the past with an early interest in science probably felt overwhelmed when they got to college, Thibodeaux said.

“When they get to these big universities, they didn’t know how to use a micropipettor or DNA fingerprinting.”

Thibodeaux taught science in Jackson five years ago, and she has noticed the lack of resources in Natchez compared to bigger cities.

Students who take the elective will be exposed to microbiology, molecular biology, forensics and other research to prepare them for careers as physicians, nurses, dentists, biomedical engineers and other careers.

The elective takes a hands-on approach and focuses on research and critical thinking, rather than conducting experiments out of a textbook, “like following recipe,” Thibodeaux said.

Thibodeaux said Mississippi qualifies as medically underserved by the federal government based on the number of doctors per capita, and the Rural Biomedical Initiative is an effort to encourage local children to fix the problem over time.

She said research has shown the impact of one physician in a rural area is $1 million per year, according to the University of Minnesota and the Oklahoma Physician Manpower Training Commission.

Thibodeaux said a 2000 study shows students with rural backgrounds and interest in primary care are most likely to return to their rural communities.

“(The program) is going to benefit the whole community,” Thibodeaux said.

UMC Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Rob Rockhold said adding Cathedral to the program presented an opportunity to expand the grant’s geographical reach.

Rockhold met Thibodeaux when she attended a UMC teacher-training workshop this summer.

“(Thibodeaux) showed insight, initiative and enthusiasm that brought her to our attention particularly, and it just seemed like a logical new direction for us to go in and one that would be productive certainly for us and for Cathedral and the Natchez area,” Rockhold said.

Thibodeaux said she has a personal mission to provide her students with resources to reach their full potential, which is modeled after the catholic schools’ mission.

Thibodeaux said other teachers can learn about grant opportunities by applying to attend workshops like those she has attended at UMC, Princeton and Cornell universities.