Oklahoma Baptist University

Alum Jadee Neff: Living the Dream

When Jadee Upshaw Neff was contemplating colleges as a high school student in Shawnee, she wanted to choose the right place to start her higher learning process. To aid her search, she made a list of potential universities to evaluate them based on their academic merit and cost. Even though as a Shawnee student it "wasn't cool" to consider staying in her hometown, she appeased her parents - who were Oklahoma Baptist University alums - and included OBU on what became a detailed spreadsheet.

After evaluating the results, she realized the top two contenders were OBU and the University of Oklahoma. Conflicted about her choice, and with deadlines looming the next day, she prayed about making the right decision and then went to bed. That night, she said she had a dream that she was on Bison Hill, attending classes, and very happy. When she awoke, she took her dream as a sign from God, and she chose OBU.

Now a Mayo Clinic medical student in Rochester, Minn., the 2001 OBU graduate already has completed her Ph.D. degree in immunology and additional research in a post-doctorate fellowship. Neff said she feels confident OBU was, indeed, the right choice.

Neff said attending OBU impacted her life in three areas: professionally, personally and spiritually. Professionally, she said her studies as a biology/chemistry double major with a physics/mathematics double minor laid a good foundation for her life work.

At first, she feared attending a relatively small liberal arts university would put her at a disadvantage because it is not a big research school. However, she said OBU professors helped her learn not only scientific hypotheses, but also the reasoning behind them.

"Through the classes I learned the principles behind the defense techniques and the hypotheses that everyone was learning about," she said. "I learned critical thinking."

The perceived disadvantage also pushed her to seek out summer research internships.

Personally, Neff said OBU introduced her to some of her closest friends. One friend, Dixie Williams Green, filled a summer internship position in Chicago. Through that internship, she met Kevin Neff - who would one day become the husband of her OBU classmate, Jadee Upshaw.

Back on Bison Hill, a close group of students with science-related majors developed late-night study habits in Wood Science Building. Her junior year, Neff joined Branson Stevens, Jeff Brooks and others who started taking their dinner to Wood, where their socializing involved staying up all night studying their science and math subjects.

OBU also provided a grounded spiritual component to Neff's scientific studies. Growing up in the Bible belt, Neff said she felt sheltered from varying challenges to faith. At OBU, she said she observed a group of intellectuals who love God and love Jesus.

"There is a notion in academia that people who are intelligent are not Christians, and people who are strong, faith-based Christians are not necessarily the most intelligent," she said, noting that while it is understood there are exceptions, such opinion holds a strong place in academic cultures. "If it weren't for the training at OBU and meeting intellectual people who are Christians, I wouldn't have had that to fall back on."

In addition to the culture at OBU, professors both inside and outside the fields of science affected Neff's future work. Dr. Albert Chen, professor of physics, expected her to give her very best, never relenting on her studious quests. Dr. Mark Hemric, Dr. Brad Jett and Dr. Dale Utt modeled a Christian intellect and modeled a balance between teaching and research.

"Dr. Chen was probably the most influential in pushing me for excellence, pushing me to strive hard and do my best," Neff said. "He always expected a lot, but then he was always there to help. He definitely pushed me, and Branson Stevens, to our limits."

As part of her liberal arts education, Neff noted the influences of Dr. Joe Hall and Dr. Jim Farthing - her freshman English and Western Civilization professors - for planting the seed encouraging her to be more critical in her thinking.

Following graduation from OBU, Neff began the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine M.D.-Ph.D. program, completing two years of medical school. From 2003-07, she earned her Ph.D. degree in immunology from the Mayo Clinic. She added extra research to her repertoire with a post-doctoral fellowship in the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine School of Graduate Medical Education. In April 2009, she entered her third year of medical school, beginning the "big survey" year where she completes rotations in various areas of concentration.

Neff's research focused on Natural Killer cells. She studied a specific receptor on those cells. The receptor, she explained, is important for seeking and destroying cancer cells. However, she said she anticipates her future work may focus on immunology, both by seeing patients and doing research.

"I think it would be very interesting to do research on allergies - mainly food allergies - and try to develop immunotherapies to cure that," Neff said.

With graduation from medical school slated for May 2011, Neff has a couple years of sleep deprivation still before her. But she keeps her eye on the end result of her efforts.

"The biggest reward is knowing that I'm learning how to take care of patients, that I'm learning how to help people when they're sick and that I'm one day going to know how to make them better," she said.

Despite her hectic medical school schedule, Neff makes time to lead the toddler/preschool Sunday School and the toddler/preschool choir at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Rochester. Both of Neff's children - 3-year-old Dixie and 1-year-old Ezekiel - are in the classes.

While she focuses on her career, Neff's husband, Kevin, is in a biochemistry graduate program at the Mayo Clinic. Building on undergraduate studies in electrical engineering, he hopes to one day be involved in designing equipment for medical research.

For this young family dedicated to hard work, the dreams of helping others are not so very far on the horizon. They're committed to the long, but rewarding, journey that started with another dream leading to OBU.

Jadee Upshaw Neff, a 2001 Oklahoma Baptist University alum from Shawnee, Okla., received the 2009 Graduate of the Last Decade (GOLD) award, an award given to a young alum (not necessarily a graduate) of OBU who has demonstrated outstanding achievement in his or her life and career and brought pride and honor to the University.

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