An Equation for Success

An Equation for Success

By Rick Davis, BA’88

$10 million gift, plus outstanding science programs, equals infinite possibilities

The memory is still fresh in Noah Yoshida’s mind. He’s a senior now, but at the time was only a sophomore. He had just started working in the biophysics lab­oratory of Patricia Soto, PhD, earlier that year, and now he was facing his
fellow student lab partners — giving a presentation.

“I had to explain 13 different algorithms,” he recalls today, a smile crossing his face. “That was a very stressful moment. I remember, at the end, the back of my shirt was just dripping in sweat because I was so nervous.”

Fast-forward to February 2017: Yoshida was one of four students from Soto’s lab presenting research posters at the 61st Annual Meeting of the Biophysical Society in New Orleans.

“We got to meet people interested in bio­physics from around the world, and they wanted us to explain our research,” Yoshida says.

This time, no sweat. Yoshida and two other classmates plan to attend the same meeting in San Francisco in February.

Now in his third year in the lab, Yoshida feels confident not only in his research abilities, but in pursuing the opportunities that lie ahead — which, for him, include medical school.

“This lab has given me an opportunity to expand on the knowledge I’ve gained in the classroom,” he says. “I’ll learn concepts in cell structure, and then I’ll come to this lab and apply that in a real-world way.

“I feel like I can talk about this research both in scientific terms, and at a level that appeals to people who are not as familiar with science.”

The latter includes his own family. His father and sister are musicians with the Omaha Symphony, and his mother, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico, is a Spanish translator at a local elementary school.  

“I played jazz drums,” says Yoshida, who graduated from Omaha Central High School. “But my passions really lie with trying to understand the basic sciences and wanting to help people.”

Stoking the Passions of Science

Stoking the passions of the next generation of Creighton scientists is one of the goals of a recent $10 million gift by George Haddix, PhD, MA’66, and his wife, Susan, a member of Creighton’s Board of Trustees. It is the largest single gift to the College of Arts and Sciences, and enhancing research in the sciences is a primary focus.

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Bridget Keegan, PhD, is excited about the opportunities this gift will provide students like Yoshida and their faculty mentors.

“I’ve been on the faculty here for 21 years, and I’ve seen a lot of great things happen at Creighton, but to my mind, and I think many of my colleagues would agree, this is abso­lutely a transformational gift,” Dean Keegan says. “This is a gift that I think is going to make such a difference for our students in the years ahead.”

Adds Creighton’s president, the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ: “Susan and George’s gen­erosity will not only impact generations of students in the College of Arts and Sciences, but it will also build and enhance a legacy of faculty support George created many years ago, by giving our professors the resources to create new knowledge for our world, and enhance our preeminence in the country for providing research opportunities to undergraduates.”

Soto, a biophysics professor and researcher at Creighton for the last 10 years, believes the gift will further develop a “synergy of collaboration” that, to a great extent, is already happening among the various scientific disciplines at Creighton. For instance, Soto’s lab, which is strictly computational (using highly sophisticated computer modeling), is partnering with wet labs in medical microbiology to advance scientific discovery related to prion proteins.

Soto is a past recipient of grants provided through the Dr. George F. Haddix President’s Faculty Research Fund, which has awarded approximately $660,000 in seed-funding to promising Creighton researchers.

George and Susan Haddix say they are proud of the results. Since the fund was established in 2011, grant recipients have secured more than $6 million in new additional funding for their research. The success of that fund, in part, encouraged the Haddixes in their $10 million gift to the University.

“We look at these things as an investment, so you want to invest in something that is going to multiply,” George Haddix says.

Soto, a native of Colombia who also speaks to Latina high school students and encour­ages them to pursue opportunities in the sciences, received Haddix grants in 2012 and 2015 for her research into prion proteins. These abnormally folded proteins can lead to degenerative diseases such as Mad Cow disease in cattle, chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. The molecular mechanism studied in Soto’s lab also may offer insight into other disorders linked to similar protein-misshaping processes, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

“We want to know what triggers this process, this misfolding of proteins,” Soto explains. “The outcome of our research, we hope, will lay the groundwork for the design of diag­nostic tools and therapeutics to aid in targeting deadly prion diseases.”

On Campus and In the Community

The Haddixes’ gift will fund four distinct academic initiatives in the College of Arts and Sciences.

It will establish the Haddix Faculty Innovation Fund, which will help finance the renovation and modernization of the Rigge Science Building laboratories; the Haddix Faculty Research Incubator; and the Haddix Ignatian Advising Program.

It also will extend Creighton’s outstanding science programs into the community through the Haddix 24th Street STEM Corridor, which targets top students in the sciences from three local public high schools. STEM stands for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

“All parts of this gift are exciting to us,” Fr. Hendrickson says. “But this gives us a very special way to say we’re part of Omaha, that we impact the city of Omaha, we serve the city of Omaha. It’s part of who we are.”

Dean Keegan is equally excited about the Haddix Ignatian Advising Program, a project she described as “near and dear” to her heart, which will touch all students in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Student advising at Creighton, she says, is reflective of the Jesuit tradition and involves not only helping students find an academic or career path, but emphasizes care of the whole person and reflecting on one’s higher purpose.

“With this gift, we’re really going to be able to think about that mentoring process in a comprehensive, four-year developmental way,” says Keegan, which could include expanded advising programming.

In addition to the $10 million gift, the Haddixes previously established the Center for Mathematics of Uncertainty (Fuzzy Math) at Creighton and funded the Omaha North High School Scholarship Program, which supports four students annually at the University.

“Most of the kids from North High have been first-generation college students,” says Fr. Hendrickson. “They are amazing kids doing wonderful work. To see more of that, I can’t imagine anything better.”