Dominican University of California Biological Sciences graduate student Jordan Charlton ’21 is a true team player – be it playing NCAA Division II women’s basketball or working in a research laboratory in Uganda to examine the effectiveness of anti-malarial drugs.
As a member of Dominican’s NCAA Division II women’s basketball team this season, Jordan has helped the Penguins to a 10-3 record in the Pacific West Conference thus far. That includes a nine-game winning streak – the team’s longest winning streak since the 2004-05 season when the Penguins went undefeated (18-0) in the California Pacific Conference.
Furthermore, this past summer, Jordan experienced the importance of collaboration in a research lab when biology professor Dr. Roland Cooper from the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics approached her with the opportunity to participate in his ongoing malaria research in Uganda. The project involved working with anti-malaria compounds for a study that also involves scientists from the University of Central Florida, Cornell University and Portland State University.
“From the moment Dr. Cooper approached me with the opportunity I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do,” says Jordan, who as an undergraduate earned a BS in Biochemistry at Dominican in the spring of 2021. “I didn’t know much about malaria or the lab work regarding cell culturing, but because of that opportunity I knew I wanted to focus on it and learn about it.”
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Getting such opportunities was in Jordan’s game plan. After she graduated from Fort Lauderdale High School, she played basketball at St. Thomas University in Miami. She transferred to Dominican from Broward Community College.
“Dominican’s science program seemed very strong, and they had the pre-med mentorship program and that really stood out to me,” says Jordan, a native of South San Francisco. “The biological science program also seemed very strong. I also loved the small class size.”
That allowed her greater access to professors, including Dr. Cooper, who earned his PhD from the University of Arizona in Pharmacology & Toxicology and his master’s in Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health. He came to Dominican and the School of Health and Natural Sciences to combine his love of research and his commitment to mentoring students. He has been investigating the molecular mechanisms how drugs work against the malaria parasite known as Plasmodium falciparum, for more than 20 years with the help of funding from the National Institutes of Health and several private foundations.
In collaboration with scientists from research institutions across the United States and abroad, Dr. Cooper is studying how the Plasmodium parasites become resistance to drugs and how this knowledge guides development of new compounds to treat malaria.
Dr. Cooper invites Dominican undergraduates and graduates to participate in the malaria research, both in his Dominican laboratory and, during the summer, on field studies in Uganda. He also studies parasites at a laboratory in the west African country of Burkina Faso, where he and his team have started a new research program.
“We learn a lot about anti-malarial drug work and the genetic landscape of the parasite,” Dr. Cooper says. “When the government of Uganda says they are going to use this drug, they follow how malaria changes with the drug remedy. We research and learn a lot about how to give good advice as to what anti-malarial makes sense to use because which malaria chemotherapies to use may need to be reconsidered every few years. There needs to be constant updates in the way it treated.”
Jordan brought a basketball – as well as Dominican T-shirts from Dominican Athletics – with her to Uganda. Both proved popular.
“That ball was bouncing from sunrise to sunset once— we’d be eating breakfast and it would be bouncing,” she says. “We would come home from work, and it would be bouncing. Adults began to play with the basketball, too, and everyone became involved. It got put to good use to say the least!”
One night, a routine workout included doing pushups as Jordan did her best to keep some sort of athletics regimen, no matter how small, while on the trip. Charlton said kids approached her to see what she was doing, and she taught them how to do push-ups. The next afternoon, Charlton noticed the kids doing were doing high-five push-ups together, an exercise they learned the evening prior as skills and traits were often picked up by the people Jordan interacted with.
Ultimately, it will take years before the result of Charlton’s research comes to fruition, in addition to the studies of many researchers around the globe, as much testing and approval is needed before treatments can hit the market. Though now back on home soil, the ball will keep bouncing— both literally among those within the housing compound in Tororo, Uganda, where Charlton gifted the people the basketball she brought with her, and figuratively with the research that will continue to go forward.
“The entire trip was so rewarding,” says Jordan, who would like to pursue career fields in diabetes, medical device engineering, genetics research, or data science upon completing her Dominican education. “I can’t think of a single sentence or word that could describe how rewarding the experience was. I won’t ever take anything for granted. I was there for three months; I saw so much and became so immersed in their culture. There were so many moments that I loved. I came back, but life continues on for the people I met and love.”
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Through his mentorship, students learn to think and work as researchers. He has inspired future MDs and PhDs to not limit their ambitions.
Among the Dominican alumni whose lives Dr. Cooper has impacted are:
- Stephanie Huezo, DNP, ’12 BS, ’15 MS spent two summers working with Dr. Cooper in Uganda, before graduating and accepting a position as a technician in a microbiology laboratory at UCSF. She now is a pediatric nurse practitioner at Provider Healthcare.
- Dr. Jordan Rode ’14. The summer before Jordan began working on his medical degree at University of California Davis School of Medicine, he traveled to Uganda with Dr. Cooper to work at Tororo District Hospital studying the evolution of drug resistance in malaria parasites from blood samples from infants. Today Jordan is an emergency medicine physician at University of Utah Health.
- After rotating through several research labs at Dominican and completing a summer internship at Stanford, Dimitrios Camacho ’19 was the first Dominican MHIRT fellow work with a collaborator of Dr. Cooper in Malawi, on a malaria project. Dimitrios received a Minority Health International Research Training Fellowship (MHIRT), funded by the NIH through UC Berkeley’s Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases in support of his studies abroad. Dimitrios became a PhD candidate in the Merchant Lab in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley.
- Stephanie Rasmussen ’15 BS, ’17 MS spent three summers working in Uganda and was the lead author on a paper describing her work, published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy plus is a co-author on five additional papers. She graduated from the UC Davis School of Medicine with honors and began the residency program at New York University Grossman School of Medicine.
- Frida Ceja BS ’17 has spent three summers in Uganda with Dr. Cooper and has contributed to several important studies and continues to be a co-author on multiple publications. Frida is currently a first year medical student at Midwestern University in Glendale, AZ.
- Sevil Chelebieva ’20, went to Uganda in 2019, also with an NIH-MHIRT fellowship to study malaria. There she worked in the lab to assess the sensitivity of malaria parasites to new antimalarial compounds in blood samples from malaria patients. She has since appeared as a co-author on several peer-reviewed research publications and is currently an ophthalmic technician.