Volume 18 • Issue 2

Alumni Research

Photo by Gary Hansen-Scott & White Staff Photographer

Christopher Chaput ’93

While many students arrive at Southwestern determined to major in biology or chemistry in preparation for their future as a medical doctor, some manage to find a route to medicine through alternate paths. “In my philosophy and English coursework, I was encouraged to follow my own interests—however obscure they may have been,” says Christopher Chaput. “When I decided to take as many science courses as I could in my last 18 months, the close-knit Southwestern environment made it very easy for an English major to get access to science classes. It was like getting two educations for the price of one. I think Southwestern allowed me to challenge and nourish two different parts of my mind at once.”

Today, Chaput is a spinal reconstructive surgeon who also is the director of orthopedic research at Scott and White Memorial Hospital in Temple, Texas. His area of research involves clinical projects as well as basic science. He explains, “In the most general terms, I am interested in the preservation of spinal motion and the molecular basis of bone formation. The most exciting clinical project we currently have going involves replacing the discs in the neck with mobile devices (similar to knee replacement) instead of fusing the neck (making the bones grow together and stiffen).”

This project and other medical research in which Chaput is involved share a common goal. “All my research into degenerative disorders of the spine is directed at restoring function in the patient and causing less destruction to the normal structures in the process of relieving pain. My research into spinal trauma is primarily concerned with defining instability and treating it in the most effective way with the least amount of complications.”

Chaput’s lifelong pursuit of knowledge was, he says, significantly encouraged by his educational experience at Southwestern. During the summer between his junior and senior years, he had a particularly informative experience while attending another, much larger university. “Just step into an auditorium with 350 freshman (of whom the university needs to cut half before the lab portion starts). Talk about a crushing blow to the desire to learn—filling in those bubble sheets nearly ruined me,” says Chaput. “Fortunately, I came back to Southwestern in the fall to take organic chemistry with Robert Soulen, professor emeritus of chemistry, and had my faith in science restored.”

“What you need in your undergraduate experience is to nurture a desire to learn and translate that into a lifelong habit of learning. You will get the technical skills later with your M.D. or Ph.D., or whatever,” he says. “In my case, I actually learned most of the skills I now use in surgery as a fellow in spine surgery—nine years after undergrad. I can’t imagine how I would have ended up where I am today if my only undergraduate exposure to science had been that big auditorium and the bubble sheet.”

Photo by Jon Gardiner, Duke Photography

Alyssa Perz-Edwards ’93

Alyssa Perz-Edwards wouldn’t change a thing about her undergraduate experience. Currently a lecturing fellow in biology at Duke University, Perz-Edwards says, “Southwestern’s small classes, personalized advising and collegial community were important” to her individual development. While some students may thrive in the environment provided by a large research university, Perz-Edwards notes that other students lose confidence and struggle to get personal advice and attention. For her, the small courses and direct contact with professors at Southwestern provided the rare formal training she needed in conducting scientific research.

When she faced the decision of how best to pursue her future and create the life she wanted, Perz-Edwards found her Southwestern professors willing to support her own goals over the traditional career path taken by many others: “It was a struggle … to actively choose not to go to medical school. Being able to talk to my professors about the choices I was making then really was helpful.” The faculty served as important role models for Perz-Edwards. “Vicente Villa, professor emeritus of biology and holder of the John H. Duncan Chair, really inspired my love of molecular biology,” she explains. He exuded positive support for all of his students” and inspired Perz-Edwards to “play a fundamental role in the lives of undergraduate students by pursuing a Ph.D., with the goal of teaching at the college level. She also found Fred Hilgeman, professor emeritus of chemistry, Robert Soulen, professor emeritus of chemistry, and Stephanie Fabritius, now professor of biology, vice president for academic affairs and dean of Centre College, particularly influential in her early scientific training.

Weldon Crowley, professor emeritus of history and holder of the Lucy King Brown Chair in History, also had a lasting impression on her. “I think he first imposed the idea that I should strive for balance in my life, partly through his teasing, but also in his lessons about world history,” Perz-Edwards says. “He inspired me to think critically. His questions prompted a flood of thoughts and ideas about the relationship between science and society.”

“Southwestern planted the seeds of two of my passions: molecular genetics and undergraduate education,” Perz-Edwards explains. Her current work in molecular biology includes determining the effects of alcohol on fetal development. Working with fish embryos, Perz-Edwards analyzes alcohol’s impact on a variety of different morphological features, including eye size and eye spacing, as well as on certain behavioral responses. Perz-Edwards also studies embryogenesis in a variety of other animals and plants. All of her projects have important implications for understanding how organisms derive typical patterns over the course of embryogenesis.

Perz-Edwards values actively training undergraduates to ask very basic scientific questions and use experiments to test hypotheses. After grappling with experimenting and interpreting, Perz-Edwards knows her students have had a unique learning experience [and] are more comfortable with creative and independent thinking at the end of a semester. She boasts, “These students will go on to be better doctors, researchers and the like because they have had to do more than memorize facts and repeat published experiments.”

Photo by Washington University School of Medicine

David B. Clifford ’71

The son of a long-time faculty member and dean, David Clifford grew up in a Southwestern household. He credits the fertile learning environment at Southwestern, specifically the communication and interpersonal skills he learned through his liberal arts education, with many of his successes. Clifford acknowledges that the values he learned at Southwestern continue to influence his career, as he works to “contribute to the world through support for sincere concern for all peoples and continued effort to improve the lives of people everywhere.” Robert Soulen, professor emeritus of chemistry, Fred Hilgeman, professor emeritus of chemistry, Edwin Lansford, professor emeritus of biochemistry and Bob Brown, professor emeritus of physics, played significant roles in his education in the sciences.

Music plays a key role in his life as well, and he found this interest nurtured by Ellsworth Peterson, professor emeritus of music and holder of the Margarett Root Brown Chair, and John Richards, professor emeritus of music education. Clifford also points out that he met his wife, Judy Campbell Clifford ’71, while attending Southwestern and says, “She has supported me in countless ways throughout my life. I know that I could not have done the work I have done without her support.”

Clifford’s current work with treatments for HIV/AIDS reflects his commitment to the global community. Under his leadership, the federally funded Neurologic AIDS Research Consortium (NARC) associated with the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) is working toward improving treatments of HIV-associated disorders such as peripheral neuropathy, a painful complication of HIV, through neuroregeneration. Its first large trial of nerve regeneration, completed several years ago, studied nerve growth factor (NGF), the first of a large family of nerve growth factors discovered by Nobel Prize-winning researchers at Clifford’s own Washington University.

Clifford has investigated other opportunistic diseases that occur in patients with HIV. He recently published a detailed review of a series of unexpected deaths in patients undergoing a promising new monoclonal antibody treatment for inflammatory diseases in The New England Journal of Medicine. His research on progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) is contributing to development of promising new therapies for diseases such as multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.

Clifford works to reduce the global impact of HIV/AIDS by seeking better therapy for HIV on an international level, working in both Ethiopia and Kampala, Uganda. HIV “threatens to destabilize the social and political fabric of many African countries,” Clifford states. “With the global community that we now live in, destabilization of any part of the world threatens us all, and success in other parts of the world stands to benefit us all.”

Clifford notes that it has been “a rare professional privilege to have experienced the transition from caring for people dying inexorably, to having most of these patients living relatively full lives … I feel really fortunate to have had a small part in this achievement.”