Independent Scholars

Health Disparities Research and Biotechnology

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SUMMARY: Simon Anderson (’22) combines advanced physical science and competencies necessary to help people of different backgrounds, capacities, and beliefs.

Simon Anderson is building an Independent Scholars major around disparities in health and healthcare that stem from broader issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. His major emphasizes coursework in biology and the medical humanities. Simon is also pursuing a degree in Biotechnology, with minors in Honors Interdisciplinary Studies and Pre-Medicine. “Simon is a prime example of a Biotech student at JMU--passionate, determined, engaged, and innovative,” says Dr. Stephanie Stockwell, past director of the Biotechnology program. “By combining a wide array of interests and talents, Simon is paving the way for a lifetime of success and positive impact.”

Simon is a graduate of South County High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, where he completed a demanding set of AP courses that nurtured his passions for math, biology, and chemistry. He also participated in the Governor’s School for Medicine and Health Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University in the summer of 2017. During this program he worked with other students to examine case studies from three perspectives: Person (in-person interviews with the “patient”), Scientist (lab tests and results), and Community (implications of the ailment for the surrounding people)—before splitting into smaller groups and analyzing a case study from all three perspectives simultaneously. “In the area I grew up in, sickness and injury were the main reasons people went to the hospital, not for treatments related to opioid abuse,” Simon remembers. “But I learned that opioid abuse was also becoming a huge problem.” Later, at JMU, he learned about the importance of local and county remote access clinics. “It’s not just in cities where people lack healthcare services,” says Simon. “If you’re in a rural area you may also not have access.”

Simon Anderson in lab

Simon took a Viral Discovery (ISAT 203) course with ISAT professor Dr. Louise Temple in his freshman semester. In that class, Simon had his first real encounter with laboratory research. Viral Discovery is an exploratory experiential science class designed for incoming freshmen. Students learn about the life cycle and ecology of viruses infecting bacteria, collect soil samples, and practice techniques for isolation and purification of viruses from the soil. Dr. Temple is an expert in bacterial pathogenesis and bacterial virus discovery and genomic analysis. Isolated viruses are visualized in her lab using electron microscopy, and the genomic material is isolated and prepared for nucleic acid sequencing. “Dr. Temple’s class built confidence in my ability to assess a problem and come up with solutions in a setting where there’s flexible structure and no right answer,” Simon recalls. He wanted to keep on with the work he had invested in phages, and so joined Dr. Temple’s lab. Simon has learned a number of valuable techniques related to DNA isolation and annotation, and is writing a paper about phages.   

More recently, Simon enrolled in Cancer Genetics (BIO 477) with Dr. Tim Bloss, associate professor of biology. The course is cross-listed as a graduate-level course (BIO 577). “I really enjoyed learning about how cancer develops and progresses,” he says. “Learning about molecular malfunctions in cancer helps me think about how I might create and test treatments in the future.” Simon notes that Dr. Bloss is gifted at explaining genetics to students at both a basic and advanced level.

Simon is also a teaching assistant for JMU’s General Chemistry laboratory courses (CHEM 131L and CHEM 132L). The course is designed to acquaint students with basic procedures and techniques encountered in the chemical laboratory. The experiments illustrate these techniques and supplement lectures. Simon gives instruction to students and assists with in-class procedures. He also digitally comments on students’ lab plans, data, and reports. It was a difficult, hybrid year of lab instruction due to the COVID pandemic. At first professors filmed experiments in the lab themselves, and then trialed virtual lab simulation software. This spring, Simon and other assistants returned to the labs to teach students. “Proper use of pipette filler bulbs is one lesson we teach,” notes Simon, “People seem to have a lot of trouble with them.”

Simon joined Independent Scholars to extend and broaden his undergraduate education. He understood that medical schools want to see students prepare themselves with an education in both science and the humanities. Simon found the Medical Humanities minor in the JMU catalog, and realized that he might build a major around it. Simon’s major is entitled “Social Responsibility in Healthcare.” It combines physical science and competencies necessary to help people of different backgrounds, capacities, and beliefs.

“I wanted to take more classes across a wider range of subjects,” says Simon. “The Independent Scholars major made it possible to take a bunch of science courses that built a broader base around medical humanities.” Simon hopes that the Independent Scholars major will give him exposure to a little bit of everything: biology, chemistry, bioinformatics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy. “I am just beginning to realize the connections between everything,” he says. “I want to understand how my research into biology and chemistry intersects with disparities in healthcare and beyond.”

Simon says he likes the Independent Scholars approach to learning: “I develop my questions, and then look for courses and experiences that can help me answer those questions. I wanted something different, to choose an area of study where the questions aren’t well established, or the answers known.” Simon has written about the complexities of healthcare for the Independent Scholars e-zine on multiple occasions. In his essays, Simon seeks answers to enduring questions: “What does it mean to be a doctor in our globalized world?” “How do institutions treat people of different backgrounds differently?” “What is ‘healthy,’ and who gets to decide what ‘healthy’ is?” “What are the impacts of structural and institutional prejudices?” he asks. Simon is currently studying and writing about how person-oriented perspectives – characterized by a holistic approach to patient management that embraces the physical, psychological, and social aspects of health and disease – are becoming essential to undergraduate pre-medical education. His essays may be accessed here.

Independent Scholars students complete a culminating capstone project. Simon’s project has implications for the mitigation of racial disparities in health. He notes that, despite having roughly equal rates of breast cancer as non-Hispanic white women, African-American women are 40% more likely to die from the disease than white women, experience the highest breast cancer mortality of any racial group, and have an increasing rate of incidence of breast cancer. African American women are also more likely to have hormone-dependent breast cancers, which are deadlier than hormone-independent tumors.

“Researchers have shown that delivering the protein HES-1 to hormone-dependent breast cancers has the effect of decreasing a nuclear protein called PCNA (found in dividing cells), which inhibits proliferation of the tumor,” explains Simon. “We’re attempting to show that oxidative stress will prompt production of the GFP encoded behind an hlh-29 promoter to increase green fluorescent protein expression in all cells.” If Simon’s project can provide evidence that oxidative stress is capable of increasing cells’ levels of proteins like HES-1, then they will have also laid the groundwork for potential clinical applications. One such application could be the induction of localized oxidative stress in tumors in an attempt to stall their proliferation, which would provide other therapies with an opportunity to shrink and kill the cancer.”

Simon was a member of JMU’s Huber Residential Learning Community (RLC) for freshmen in 2018-2019. The Huber RLC (which no longer operates) required two classes, one in each of the students’ first semesters. These classes focused on how different fields of medicine coexist, and gave a place for analysis and discussion of the social determinants of health. In the second semester, each student was required to volunteer with health- and education-related services in Rockingham County and Harrisonburg. Simon volunteered with the Virginia Personal Responsibility Education Program Innovative Strategies (VPREIS) project through JMU’s Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services (IIHHS). His volunteer work included working through the units of VPREIS’s Vision of You—a program for teen sexual and social health education, currently being administered to at-risk youth as part of a randomized controlled study in decreasing teen pregnancy in Virginia. Simon also volunteered at the ECHO (Ecumenical Community Helping Others) food pantry in Springfield, Virginia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the summer of 2021, Simon participated in a virtual summer research internship with the Pediatric Oncology Branch of the National Cancer Institute.  During the experience, he worked on three projects that identified novel potential molecular targets in neuroblastoma, devised assembly schemes for designing new chimeric antigen receptors, and reviewed transcripts, patient data, and trial design documents for new psychological health programs.  He also attended daily interactive seminars on many topics, including pediatric bone and neural cancers, cancer predisposition syndromes, lab mouse genetics, translation of basic science into therapies, and patient advocacy.  Outside of the POB, he participated in an immunotherapy journal club, and two workshops on health disparities and social injustice in health research.

Simon also nurtures interests in how things are made. He enjoys watching videos about how the Disney and Universal theme parks create their engineered attractions, and builds models of landmarks and machinery from around the world. In the summer of 2019, Simon taught LEGO Robotics classes to young people in the Fairfax Collegiate Summer Program, based in Herndon.



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Published: Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Last Updated: Wednesday, May 11, 2022

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