Drug Use and Mitochondria: Beckman Scholars’ Research Answers New Questions


More people will die this year from opioid abuse than from gun violence, car crashes or AIDS.


"I love that the results of our work are tangible and provide hope for reduction in this epidemic," said Sarah Ethridge '19, whose work on opioid addiction with Professor Mark Smith is funded through the Beckman Scholars Award.

Personal experiences led Ethridge and Ummer Qureshi '19 to become interested in science and, in particular, medicine. Their research, focused on opioid self-administration and gene mutation, respectively, happens in labs at the E. Craig Wall Jr. Academic Center at Davidson College and could have far-reaching implications.

Ethridge, a Belk Scholar, and Qureshi, recipient of the George Richard Wilkinson Scholarship and the Crenshaw Premedical Scholarship, are recipients of the prestigious Beckman Scholars Award, which supports two summers and one academic year of in-depth scientific research.


Women and Opioid Addiction

Ethridge's interests lie in the field of neuroscience, inspired in part by her personal challenges with a chronic case of Tourette syndrome. Diagnosed at age seven, Ethridge and her family often lacked information about her case and how it would manifest in her life. Her experience has motivated Ethridge to become a neuropsychologist, a person who works with patients to not only understand the science behind a diagnosis but the "life stuff" that comes along with it.

"My mantra is ‘Knowledge is Power,' and I'm all about eliminating the fear and stigma that can come with a diagnosis," Ethridge said. "I want people to feel they can overcome whatever obstacles they are facing to a healthy way of life."

With funding from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, Ethridge works in Smith's psychology lab on research related to drug administration and substance abuse. Again connecting science to behavior, they work with rats to determine how ovarian hormones influence self-administration of heroin. If successful, their work could lead to hormone treatments that help curb relapse temptations.

"Women are more susceptible to relapse, and we want to know what triggers self-administration," she explained.

"Sarah began working in my laboratory having never taken a course with me," Smith said. "In less than a year, she has become my primary research technician, laboratory manager and co-investigator–all at once. All of our research runs through her, and she manages everything with unbridled enthusiasm and relentless professionalism."

Outside of the lab, Ethridge has held volunteer leadership roles through Connor Eating House and student-led philanthropic efforts. She is a part of the Davidson College Chorale and the Nuances a cappella group–activities that point to her original goal of becoming a Broadway star.

"I don't have a lot of time for myself, but time spent producing music and sharing the arts with campus is worth the effort," she said.


Gene Mutation and Mitochondria

Qureshi's first Davidson summer brought a discovery in Professor Karen Hales' lab that changed the direction of his work. He saw his hypothesis blossom into data and new questions that could shed light on a human gene associated with brain disease.

"We study how mitochondria get their shape," he said. "In textbooks, they are oval-shaped, but the shape is variable and depends on what the cell needs. So, we study proteins and the ways they connect to mitochondria in fruit flies."

The research could have implications for the human version of the gene Qureshi studies. The first semester of his freshman year, Qureshi was struck by Hales' enthusiasm for research–research he is now a part of every day.

"I am inspired by many of my professors, including Dr. Hales," he said. "I decided to ask her if I could join her biology lab, and I was very surprised she said yes because I figured those opportunities would go to upperclassmen."

Qureshi has twice presented his work at the Genetics Society of America's Annual Drosophila Research Conference.

"Ummer has been an enthusiastic and productive research student, pushing forward a project that was previously at a crossroads between two competing hypotheses," said Hales. "He has taken particularly skilled intellectual ownership of the project, with noteworthy initiative to find every relevant journal article as it is released and to connect the late-breaking information with possible new experiments to conduct. His research skills will be an asset when he ultimately heads to medical school."

Outside of medicine, Qureshi spends time exploring interests, including history and computer science.

Davidson's first Beckman Scholars were Vivienne Fang '18 and Nika Fendler '19. Post Davidson, Fang will be researching biomarkers for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) at the Albert Eye Research Institute at Duke University Medical Center. Fendler continues her dual focus on chemistry and German and hopes to pursue a doctorate after Davidson.


About the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation

Arnold Beckman always considered the greater good, whether it was through his scientific innovations, business dealings or personal relationships. The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation holds steadfast to the directives of Beckman and his wife Mabel, his values and the mission of the foundation. Beckman believed strongly in reinvesting in science and research, supporting up-and-coming scientists and looking for the future "Arnold Beckmans" of the world.

Beckman Scholars Program awards are institutional, university or college awards. Each year, the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation invites select research, doctoral, masters and baccalaureate universities and colleges to submit applications for the Beckman Scholars Program.




Danielle Strickland