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UNCP student wins top honors at national biomedical conference

February 27, 2015

Marcus ShermanComing out of the Army, Marcus Sherman was a man in search of a new mission, and he found it at UNC Pembroke. 

“I am constantly trying to figure out who I am,” Sherman said. “I knew I wanted to do something in science, but I didn’t know what.” 

What the senior biology major found is bioinformatics, a complex, interdisciplinary field that combines computer science, mathematics and engineering. How Sherman found this field of study is a unique student success story about the university’s capacity for nurturing young scientists, with a little luck thrown in. 

“I am the only student doing research in this field at Pembroke. My research is unusual, so it really stood out at the conference.” 

The research project that he presented at the recent Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) was one of 11 winners among 1,700 entries at the event held in San Antonio, Texas. The project explores data profiles of genes in nerve cells that have been exposed to excitotoxins, similar to what happens when a brain suffers a stroke. 

Dr. Robert Poage, a neuroscientist and RISE program director, and Sailaja Vallabha, the program's co-director, accompanied Sherman and 11 other UNCP RISE Scholars to the conference. RISE is a National Institute of Health grant-funded program at UNCP, titled Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement. It seeks to encourage students from historically minority colleges to become research scientists.

“We had several projects entered in the conference, and Marcus’s project was outstanding,” Dr. Poage said. “He worked really, really hard. It’s unusual to see a student turn on so completely to a subject.” 

Sherman is an outstanding student with a strong record of academic achievement and engagement with UNCP outside the classroom. He is a member of the Esther G. Maynor Honors College, the Student Affairs Advisory Board and the Chancellors Ambassadors. He also performed in two university theatre productions. 

Sherman is currently interviewing for graduate schools at Michigan, Kansas, Chapel Hill and Johns Hopkins. 

How bioinformatics became Sherman’s passion is a story. A six-year stint in the Army, with deployments to Italy, Afghanistan and Iraq, ended at Fort Bragg and found the Seattle native transitioning to a civilian life. 

“In high school, I only got as far as geometry. I had to start over with entry-level college math,” he said. “Pembroke was the right place for me because of the small classes and being able to talk to the professors.” 

As Sherman journeyed deeper into science, he did a series of mentored research projects with faculty members, including Drs. Tim Ritter, Lisa Kelly and Siva Mandjiny. Sherman’s breakthrough came last summer during a RISE-funded internship in Dr. Ben Bahr’s lab studying neurodegenerative diseases. 

Working with data from a series of experiments to measure gene expression in slices of rat brains after simulated strokes, he volunteered to analyze “a mountain of data” that was to become an intriguing research project. 

In Dr. Bahr’s lab, Sherman found a mentor in visiting research professor Dr. Conner Sandefur, a computational biologist who was teaching and doing research at UNCP through the UNC-Chapel Hill-sponsored post-doctoral teaching program (SPIRE). 

Sherman took an introductory course in bioinformatics and computational biology last fall that Dr. Sandefur instructed. It was a breakthrough educational experience. 

“Thanks to Dr. Sandefur, I am one of the few, if not only, people doing this kind of research at Pembroke,” Sherman said. “The RISE Program was a big help. Even with the G.I. Bill, it’s not easy financing a college education, a marriage and a household. 

As he contemplates graduate school, Sherman is forthright in his appreciation for many people and programs. He lists god, his wife, UNCP in the top three, but there are others. 

“Without the RISE program, I could not have gone to San Antonio,” Sherman said. “The stipend RISE pays is not nearly as important as the professional career development that I got.” 

For UNC Pembroke, Sherman has nothing but praise. “Pembroke set me up for success; I don’t mind telling anyone that,” he said. “My CV (resume) makes me stand out. In interviews with grad schools, I feel validated because Pembroke has made me a highly competitive candidate.” 

With his 30th birthday not far off, Sherman may have found what he was searching for. 

RISE had 12 members in their 2014 cohort and they are recruiting for 2015. For more information about the RISE Program at UNCP, please contact them at (910) 775-4278 or email joanna.cole@uncp.edu.