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OMRF internship reaffirms OBU student’s passion for medicine, research

September 20, 2023

As campus discussions turn to how OBU students spent their summers, Austin Lopez will have a response unlike any of her classmates.

Interning at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, Lopez infected cartilage cells with a virus to determine whether the virus might be therapeutic for osteoarthritis.

“The genes that are being transplanted through those cells are able to turn an older cell into a young, stem-like cell,” the OBU junior biochemistry major said. “After growing and infecting the cartilage cells, I extracted RNA and analyzed it to see whether the virus transplanted the genes into the cells.”

Wait – what?

Lopez, a Tulsa Union High School graduate, was among 16 students from Oklahoma who formed the 67th class of Fleming Scholars at OMRF. Since 1956, the internship program has given Oklahoma high school and college students hands-on biomedical research experience.

Her OMRF mentor was Matlock Jeffries, M.D., a board-certified rheumatologist and lead researcher on a clinical study aimed at identifying biological signs that could help predict the severity of osteoarthritis.

“Austin is quite conscientious and smart, and she did a great job on the final presentation summarizing her internship project,” Jeffries said. “We’re bringing her back as a research assistant this semester.”

The Fleming program is named for Sir Alexander Fleming, the British scientist who discovered penicillin and in 1949 came to Oklahoma City to dedicate OMRF’s first building. Alumni of the Fleming program includes OBU graduate and OMRF Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Judith James, M.D., Ph.D. Dr. James, an OBU alumna, will be formally inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame on Nov. 16.

Following her internship, Lopez hopes to become a physician-scientist like Jeffries, perhaps even in rheumatology, the branch of medicine devoted to diagnosing and managing conditions whose common feature is inflammation in bones, muscles, joints and internal organs.

“My experience confirmed my love for medicine,” said Lopez. “It’s really motivating to get hands-on experience in the scientific research community and be a part of real-life developments in medicine.”

Applications for OMRF’s 2024 Fleming Scholar program will open in fall 2023.