February 16, 2017

It’s a scorching July afternoon, a few weeks before summer term ends and fall classes begin. Strains of conversation, followed by a burst of laughter, waft through the hallway that leads to Patty Wisian-Neilson’s chemistry lab in Fondren Life Sciences Building. Inside, Patricia Nance ’17 checks a beaker filled halfway with a milky polymer as it gyrates on a magnetic stirrer. Everything is going smoothly today, but when she hits a snag in the lab, Nance has a tried-and-true formula for shaking off disappointment and moving forward.

“Thinking of my grandmother’s battle with breast cancer reminds me that my research has a real purpose: to benefit the millions of women around the world who might one day find themselves in her situation,” Nance says. “Looking at it from that perspective makes any setbacks seem minor.”

With help from “Dr. Patty,” as Nance calls her professor and mentor, the SMU senior shaped an Engaged Learning project inspired by her grandmother’s fight for good health and fueled by her passion for inorganic chemistry.

For the past two years, the chemistry and math major has been developing a new antibacterial polymer, or coating, for breast implants.

“Synthesizing antibacterial polymers has been a project in Dr. Patty’s laboratory for some time now. When I inherited the work, the results did not look very promising. Instead of attempting to fix the procedures, Dr. Patty and I designed a new method of synthesizing these polymers,” Nance explains. “This made me feel as if my project were contributing something original to the work of the group. I also shifted the focus of my project after reading about some of the issues encountered with reconstructive breast surgery for mastectomy patients.”

Post-mastectomy breast reconstruction using saline or silicone gel implants is part of the recovery process for many women. However, their bodies have a difficult time combating infection-causing bacteria because their immune systems have been weakened by radiation and chemotherapy.

“The infection rate at the implant site is about 30 percent in post-mastectomy patients, compared to about three percent in those undergoing a standard enhancement procedure,” Nance explains.

She’s on a mission to even out the equation for women like her 75-year-old grandmother, “who has officially beaten breast cancer twice.” The high-energy septuagenarian loves to hike in the mountains and travel, and her determination to maintain an active lifestyle influenced her decision more than a decade earlier to eschew reconstructive implants, her granddaughter says. “She read about the risks and didn’t feel it was safe enough.”

Personalizing her research is one of many examples of how Nance’s independent spirit infuses all aspects of her University experience. Always game to try a new challenge, she enrolled in an arts and culture course at SMU-in-London last summer. Participants were encouraged to “become Londoners” and put their own stamp on the five-week experience. Even though she had not traveled out of the United States before, she relished living on her own and exploring the rich history and cultural diversity of England’s capital.

The chance to make her mark on the world as a student, her way, is what drew her to SMU in the first place.

“When I visited SMU, it was immediately clear that the school would be a good fit for me. During my tour I learned about undergraduate research opportunities, which were very important to me as a future researcher,” she says. “SMU really excels at providing undergraduates with opportunities to work closely with professors on important research with real impact. You don’t get that at other universities.”

Mentors shape a star researcher

Nance attributes her academic drive to strong women mentors who “recognized something in me I didn’t recognize in myself.”

It’s almost impossible to picture now, but in middle school she was the poster child for academic underachievement. At 13, her stepfather’s job took the family from the only home she had known in Raleigh, North Carolina, to “the tiniest place I had ever seen,” Santo, Texas, population 315 – about a two-hour drive west of Dallas. She was not happy, and her low grades showed it.

Nance’s high school science teacher Rita Elizabeth Tallant remembers “a young girl who was exceptionally bright but trying to find who she was and where she fit in.”

When Nance was placed in Tallant’s biology class, part of the school’s distinguished achievement program, she thought it was a mistake and tried to switch. “In my mind, I definitely wasn’t going to college,” she remembers. “I planned to go to cosmetology school.”

Tallant had other plans for her reluctant student. She served as the science coach for state UIL and Science Olympiad competitions, and eventually persuaded Nance to participate in her sophomore year. She thrived, winning numerous ribbons and medals, and eventually asked Tallant to find a university professor who could tutor her for a complex chemistry event.

Nance graduated at the top of her class of 47 from Santo High School four years ago and chose SMU as the best path to pursue a degree in evolutionary biology.

On the Hilltop, she found another mentor in “Dr. Patty.”

Wisian-Neilson made an indelible impression on Nance on the first day of her General Chemistry I introductory class. “Dr. Patty is famous for her ‘Welcome to College’ speech, and I was really intimidated by it. She had office hours after class, and I went in immediately and introduced myself by saying, ‘Hi, I’m Patricia, and I’m really terrified by your class.’ We’ve been close ever since.”

The professor’s classroom lecture made it clear the subject wasn’t easy, but in private she assured the first-year student that if Nance knew enough to be worried, she probably didn’t need to be.

After more than 30 years as an educator and researcher at SMU, Wisian-Neilson knows a serious scholar when she meets one. She instantly recognized Patricia’s “unusually strong work ethic and superb determination and, of course, amazing intelligence.”

Since joining the University in 1984, the chemistry professor has earned numerous accolades, including the President’s Associates Outstanding Faculty Award in 2013 and the Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor designation in 2005.

Like Nance, she grew up in a small town with limited resources and opportunities for budding scientists, yet managed to flourish because of caring teachers who recognized her potential. In another parallel in their stories, Wisian-Neilson didn’t discover how much she enjoyed chemistry until she began working in a lab as an undergraduate at Texas Lutheran College. Her involvement in polymer research now predates the birth of most of her students.

“I was part of what I call the ‘Sputnik Generation,’ so there was a recognition that science would be important to the future,” she says.

In the chemistry lab, ‘a team of equals’

While Nance started out doing research in a biology lab, by the spring of her first year, she had fallen in love with chemistry and switched her major. The summer after her sophomore year, she joined Wisian-Neilson’s research team, and the professor moved back into the lab to train her.

Her professor characterizes the event a bit differently: “I moved back into the lab to work with her. Note the ‘with,’ because I felt like we were a team of equals,” Wisian-Neilson says. “Within a few weeks, she was making suggestions for the project and designing her own direction for making biomedical coatings. We had discussions, not lectures.”

The work was intense but exhilarating, Nance says.

“The precursor to the polymer is air sensitive, so it’s not something you necessarily learn in your class labs,” she explains. “I was working with new materials, glassware and techniques to make sure the product is never exposed to air. You learn about safety really quickly because the product is reactive to air.”

Nance’s research involves polyphosphazenes, a versatile class of hybrid inorganic polymers with a phosphorous-nitrogen backbone. Because of their structural diversity and biocompatibility, they may ultimately be deployed in a multitude of biomedical applications, from drug delivery systems to tissue engineering.

Her contribution to the field will be a coating that attaches directly to synthetic implants. The coating should thwart bacterial colonization that causes serious infections in women who have undergone breast cancer treatment.

Scholarships create a platform for success

While on her scientific quest, Nance receives crucial support from the Hamilton Undergraduate Research Scholars Program in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences and SMU Engaged Learning.

A gift from the late Jack and Jane Hamilton established the scholars program in 2008. The competitive funding opportunity allows promising students like Nance to collaborate with distinguished faculty members on significant research. The program has grown from nine students in its inaugural academic year to 31 today.

Dan Hamilton ’71, ’79 and Diane Hamilton Buford continue to fund the program to honor their parents. In March 2016, they and other family members attended the annual Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute celebration for undergraduate research scholars, where Nance and other students explained their work and talked about their progress.

“It has been exciting to see our father’s vision grow over the years,” Dan Hamilton says. “Education was his priority, and he would be so proud to see what these students are accomplishing. The level of their research is amazing.”

As a Hamilton Scholar, Nance is compensated for working up to 10 hours per week in the lab on her project.

“Getting paid to do research is still so amazing to me. Not only am I able to do what I love, but I’m also able to devote large amounts of time to it because I’m not having to work a second job for living expenses,” she says. “It’s not common for a student my age to really love his or her job, but I am so passionate about my work. That’s something I wouldn’t be able to say without the Hamilton Undergraduate Research Program.”

An Engaged Learning Fellowship supplies additional funding for her signature project. The program challenges students to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to capstone-level research. The successful completion of a project is recorded on a student’s SMU transcript, a valuable distinction for those applying to graduate school or seeking a first job.

In August, Nance and another SMU student researcher, Shreya Patel ’17, presented posters and discussed their individual Engaged Learning projects at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in Philadelphia.

“It was the first time I had been in such a large group of scientists, and it made me feel that I have so much still to learn, but I was also pleased by how much I understood,” she says. “Other scientists had great feedback about our work. It really helped to have new sets of eyes on the project. I also met research developers who expressed interest in perhaps working with us, so that was encouraging.”

The experience was so valuable that she plans to attend to the ACS spring meeting in San Francisco in April.

Nance also receives merit-based Harold Jeskey and Lazenby scholarships from the Department of Chemistry, a tuition scholarship from the Dedman College and Southwestern Medical Center Graduate School of Biomedical Science BRITE collaborative, and was one of the Texas students who received a STEM Columbia Crew Memorial Scholarship. Additionally, she was named a 2016-17 Barry Goldwater Scholar, a national scholarship presented to top science, mathematics and engineering students nominated by their universities.

“The chemistry department does so much for its students, from providing teaching assistant jobs to writing countless recommendation letters. They even provide departmental scholarships, which have significantly eased my own financial burden,” she says. “I am so lucky to be a part of such an amazing department that truly cares for each of its students.”

Her final semester in Dr. Patty’s lab has been bittersweet for both student and mentor.

“We really do become a family in the lab, so it’s hard to see students go,” Wisian-Neilson says. “But I really can’t be too sad because they are going on to what we’ve been preparing them for.

“I give her credit for putting the ‘oomph’ back into my research program,” she adds. “This semester there is a new graduate student and four undergraduates. I am not sure this would have happened without Patricia’s enthusiasm and passion.”

Nance has applied to top graduate schools, where she plans to continue inorganic chemistry and delve into nanoscience.

“I’m hoping to find a graduate program similar to the undergraduate chemistry program I’ve found here at SMU: a department full of amazing and personable chemists who value both teaching and research,” she says. “I am looking for another program that cherishes its students both as chemists and as people while pushing them to become better scientists.”

– By Patricia Ward