April 20, 2016//
Meet Jennifer Watts. Just weeks from graduation, the UTSA undergrad is ready to change the world through cancer research.
UTSA brought research into my life, and I know if I had gone somewhere else my life would be completely different.”
– Jennifer Watts
Born and raised in Houston, Watts had radically different aspirations for her career.
"I wanted to be a lawyer by day and a singer by night," she said. "It probably wasn't realistic, but I knew I wanted to change lives."
At 15 years old, her focus changed when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The news made Watts decide to pursue a different path so she could make a difference for others who were undergoing the same painful treatments as her mother.
Watts came to UTSA knowing she needed to graduate from a top-tier biology program. After witnessing the wealth of research opportunities available at the university, she realized that she wanted to do more than become a pharmacist.
"I really wanted to have an impact on science and to help advance medicine," Watts said.
As a member of the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program, which uses federal funding to increase the number of minority students and faculty in biomedical research laboratories, Watts was initially drawn to neuroscience. In her junior year, she became a student of Matthew Gdovin, UTSA associate professor of biology.
"Dr. Gdovin was doing research into respiratory physiology and was participating in a neuroscience study," Watts said. "But eventually I found out he was developing this new method to treat cancer."
Gdovin's method involves injecting a chemical compound, nitrobenzaldehyde, into a group of cancerous cells and allowing it to diffuse into the tissue. He then aims a beam of light at the cells, which activates the solution, causing the cells to become very acidic inside. Overwhelmed by the acidity, the cells commit suicide. Within two hours, Gdovin estimates up to 95 percent of the targeted cancer cells are dead.
Watts, now a senior, was a part of the initial team that developed the method with Gdovin. She says the research is especially important to her as the daughter of a cancer survivor.
"It's definitely close to my heart," she said. "My mom's struggle was always a motivator for me to work harder and get the training I need to help find better treatments."
Watts' mother has been in remission since January, but the painful side effects of the treatments still weigh heavily on her. She knows that many more people are going through the same hardships, and hopes that the method she helped develop could eliminate that pain for some of them.
"I know we can get there," she said.
With a wealth of undergraduate research experience under her belt, Watts is set to graduate from UTSA in May.
"UTSA brought research into my life, and I know if I had gone somewhere else my life would be completely different," she said. "I've had amazing professors who were guiding me all the way and encouraging me."
She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in biology at Michigan State University with a focus on stem cell and cancer research.
"I'm really excited to build expertise in a unique area of science," she said. "Both of those topics offer so much potential for us to find alternative methods to wipe out diseases that affect people everywhere."
Do you know someone at UTSA who is achieving great things? Email us at email@example.com so we might consider your submission for an upcoming installment of Meet a Roadrunner.