Emmanuel Fordjour’s list of achievements would compare favorably to even the most industrious of graduate students. That’s all the more impressive when one considers that he still has a year to go before receiving his bachelor’s degree. An excellent student in the classroom, Fordjour’s laboratory research has drawn high praise and has been earning him awards as well as opportunities seldom afforded to undergraduate students.
A UT Arlington double major in biology and microbiology who plans to graduate in 2015, Fordjour got started in the lab as a sophomore, when he sought out Julian Hurdle, an assistant professor of biology, and asked if he could work in Hurdle’s lab helping research ways to fight a dangerous, hospital-acquired disease called Clostridium difficile infection (CDI). Since then, his research has been bringing him one impressive accolade after another.
In June, Fordjour was one of only 15 undergraduates nationwide selected to receive a 2014 UNCF/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Fellowship. The award comes with a $25,000 stipend which can be used for travel to the program orientation this summer and fellows’ Research Day in the fall; a summer research internship; an undergraduate scholarship award for tuition and other college expenses for the 2014-15 academic year; and travel and registration costs for scientific meetings in 2014-15.
When he learned he had been named a UNCF/Merck Fellow, Fordjour said he was overjoyed. He was quick to credit the strong support he has received from Hurdle and biology lecturers Lee Ann Frederick and Walter Schargel, among others, as being key to the success he has enjoyed.
“First came the surprise, then the disbelief, then the excitement and they all culminated into an overwhelming sense of gratitude: gratitude to God, gratitude to UNCF/Merck, gratitude to my family, gratitude to Dr. Hurdle and the lab group, and gratitude to my mentors, Dr. Frederick and Dr. Schargel,” he said. “I really had to take a moment to ponder how my undergraduate career has evolved from my working a full-time job in my freshman year to working in research beginning my sophomore year and consequently, earning prestigious national accolades in my junior year. It all seemed so surreal!
“I have been very fortunate to have an unwavering support system comprising my parents, professors, mentors and friends throughout my college years.”
The fellowship, Fordjour says, will enable him to enjoy being a “professional student” for his senior year and to engage in his studies, research activities and community outreach without the added strain of concurrently juggling a job.
“I sometimes work long hours in the laboratory and during the weekend,” he said. “I drive in and out since I am a commuter student. This full-ride fellowship will enable me to move on campus in my senior year to be closer to the laboratory and the University. My research experiences have centered on antimicrobial chemotherapy, pathogenic microbiology and infectious diseases, so I eagerly anticipate the opportunity to work in a state-of-the-art industrial laboratory with Merck & Co., one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Finally, the designation as an UNCF/Merck Fellow inducts me into a community of world-class biomedical research scientists, and I look forward to mentoring and networking opportunities with these accomplished research professionals in academia and industry.”
This summer, Fordjour is on a research internship at the University of Leeds in England, where he is conducting research on Clostridium difficile, also called C. difficile, with a group led by Mark Wilcox in the United Kingdom’s C. difficile reference laboratory. In July, Merck flew him to Washington, D.C. for a four-day fellows orientation, part of which took place at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) facility in Bethesda, Maryland. In the same month, Fordjour was invited to visit and present his ongoing summer research project at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute of the University of Cambridge in England.
In May, he earned the Undergraduate Research Capstone Award for his poster presentation at the 114th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Boston. He was one of only 16 undergraduates nationwide selected for the award.
In April, he and Hurdle went to Washington D.C., where Fordjour presented his research on Capitol Hill for U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Dallas), U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Ennis), and other government officials as part of the Council on Undergraduate Research’s 2014 Posters on the Hill competition. Fordjour was one of just 60 undergraduate scholars from across the United States selected from a field of 600 applicants.
Hurdle said the prestigious Posters on the Hill award reflects the dedicated work of Fordjour and his research partner Kieu Doan, an undergraduate in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry.
“Emmanuel is a very promising scientific talent, exemplifying the high quality of students in the College of Science and undergraduate research participation in the Department of Biology,” Hurdle said. “This honor will provide him the opportunity to shine light on a disease that is hard to treat, frustrating to clinicians, causes much death and is now deemed an urgent public health threat by CDC.”
In March, Fordjour was recognized as an honorable mention for the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship for 2014-15. Also in March, during UT Arlington’s Annual Celebration of Excellence by Students (ACES) symposium, he won the President’s Award (undergraduate morning session) for his oral presentation of his project, titled “In Vitro Activity of Paired Antibiotic Combinations against Clostridium difficile”.
In November, Fordjour earned the Joan Abramowitz Award for Outstanding Scientific Achievement for his poster presentation at the Joint American Society of Microbiology Branch conference in New Orleans. He was selected as the winner over nearly 200 student presenters from institutions across Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi.
Last October, Fordjour earned an oral research presentation award at the 2013 Louis Stokes Midwest Center of Excellence Conference in Indianapolis. He also received a travel scholarship to attend and present at the 2013 Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native American in Science (SACNAS) National Conference in San Antonio.
Last September, he earned the second place award for Best Poster Presentation in the Sciences at the 2013 University of Texas System Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Research Conference and West Texas Stem Day Celebration in Odessa/Midland.
Fordjour said his achievements stem from the “mind-blowing” opportunities he has had since choosing to attend UT Arlington.
“My entire undergraduate career changed after I got into research,” said Fordjour, who moved to Irving from the United Kingdom after high school. “So many doors have opened up to me, chances that I never thought I would get.”
The focus of Fordjour’s research, C. difficile, is an intestinal bacterium that causes severe diarrhea and is responsible for at least 250,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Elderly and hospitalized patients are especially susceptible. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named C. difficile one of the three most “urgent drug resistant health threats.”
Fordjour - who after earning his bachelor’s degree hopes to complete a combined M.D./Ph.D. program and become a physician, educator and researcher - saw firsthand the toll that C. difficile could take while volunteering at Baylor Medical Center at Irving.
“C. difficile just stood out to me because it’s a formidable pathogen. You get sick and you think you’re done with it, and it comes back,” said Fordjour, who has volunteered more than 600 hours in the hospital’s emergency room.
In a project overseen by Hurdle, Fordjour and Doan tested combinations of current and in development antibiotics against clinically relevant C. difficile strains isolated from patients. He found evidence that combining a currently used antibiotic called rifaximin and an antibiotic called fusidic acid that is still in clinical trials in the U.S. was particularly effective against different strains of C. difficile in lab tests, gaining better results than either drug alone more than half the time.
This combination could also reduce the risk of C. difficile developing resistance to either drug during therapy, Hurdle said. The next step will be submitting those results for publication.
“Rifaximin, which is used to treat traveler’s diarrhea, is currently in clinical trials as a treatment for patients who experience multiple episodes of treatment failures for CDI,” Hurdle said. “The problem is that resistance can arise to rifaximin during treatment. We hope the combinations showing improve efficacy over rifaximin alone, could provide a better treatment outcome.”
In addition to his work with Hurdle, Fordjour is a recipient of the 2013 UT System LSAMP grant, a scholar in the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program and a recipient of a 2013-14 William L. & Martha Hughes Award for the Study of Biology from the UT Arlington Department of Biology. Under Frederick’s supervision, he has served as a Supplemental Instruction (SI) leader for Cellular and Molecular Microbiology (BIOL 1441) as well as Structure and Functions of Organisms (BIOL 1442).
During the Fall 2013 and Spring 2014 semesters, he worked with staff from University Tutorial and Supplemental Instruction (UTSI) to establish the Tutoring Center on the first floor of the Central Library. As secretary of the Honors College Council, he collaborated with the management of Diggs Taco Shop and Pie Five to organize community engagement events for Honors College students, which resulted in monetary donations to Mission Arlington and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Arlington.
Ashley Purgason, assistant dean for undergraduate research and student advancement in the College of Science, said Fordjour’s success brings prestige to UT Arlington and its efforts to increase undergraduate research opportunities. Administrators hope to see more students seek out extracurricular experience in faculty laboratories.
“We try to give our students the best education we can in lecture halls and in our laboratory courses, but what really ignites a lifelong love of science is when our students can go further and get the thrill of inquiry-based experiments and the original thought that goes with that,” Purgason said. “Emmanuel is a wonderful example of what is possible when undergraduates become involved in research. He has made the most of his opportunities and it’s wonderful to see the great things coming his way because of his hard work and dedication.”
Posted July 14, 2014