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Goldwater Scholar's cancer battle led to new path

Daniel PostonAs a daydreaming middle schooler, Daniel Poston thought he might like to grow up to be, oh, maybe an architect.

“Design rollercoasters or something like that,” the Creighton University junior and Honors Program scholar from Sioux City, Iowa, remembers with a faux wistfulness in his voice. “It was seventh grade. It seemed like a good career to pursue.”

Then, in a mere moment, as life’s starker realities are wont to intrude, Poston’s whole outlook changed. At 12, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, and spent several months undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy. There, as doctors and nurses and researchers fluttered about him and he watched other children in the oncology department undergo similar measures, a newer, sharper picture of the future began to come into view.

Poston’s cancer ultimately went into remission, but his experience remains forever etched on his heart. He still returns to the hospital where he was treated to volunteer with children undergoing chemotherapy, and as a biochemistry major at Creighton, he’s amassed a research record in nucleic acid biochemistry, earning him placement as the University’s 16th scholarship winner in the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program. In the last five years, Creighton is the leading Catholic institution of higher education when it comes to Goldwater Scholars.

Following his Creighton graduation and with Goldwater scholarship in hand, Poston plans to pursue dual medical doctorate and doctor of philosophy degrees with an eye toward research, teaching and designing new cancer therapies.

“Prior to being in the hospital and having chemotherapy, I hadn’t given science much of a thought,” Poston said. “As I saw that work going on around me, that’s where my interest in science and medicine began. Of course, when you’re young and interested in science, they tell you, ‘Become a physician.’ I always wanted to be a doctor because I loved helping people, but after I came to Creighton and learned what research looks like, I wanted to do that, too. I realized my true calling is to use knowledge gained from scientific research and translate that into more effective treatment options. Having both an M.D. and a Ph.D. will help me perform that kind of translational research.”

At Creighton, Poston fell under the tutelage of Juliane Strauss-Soukup, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship, who recognized right away a discerning, agile thinker.

“Daniel has an inquisitive, scientific mind, and an innate aptitude to understand scientific processes and hypotheses and formulate critical questions,” Strauss-Soukup said. “Even as a freshman, he was reading and understanding the primary literature in my field of research and proposing and designing experiments. I have rarely seen this level of understanding at his age in my twenty years working with undergraduates at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Mayo Clinic, Yale University and Creighton University. Daniel has the potential to not just succeed in science but to shine as a leader.”

Poston has conducted research in synthetic biology as an Honors Program Summer Undergraduate Research Scholar. He is also a Baumann Family Scholarship holder in the Department of Chemistry, winner of the American Cancer Society Youth Survivor Scholarship, president-elect of the Honors Program Student Advisory Board, an ambassador for the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship, and is a member of both Phi Beta Kappa, the country’s oldest academic honor society for the arts and sciences, and Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit University Honor Society.

Preparing to enter the next phase of his life’s work, Poston said he wants to continue pursuing research in the locus where oncology meets immunology. He said a number of significant advances in cancer treatment are on the horizon and he’s humbled to be coming of age just as that research is getting more traction.

“Having gone back to the place where I was treated and seen the kids getting treatment, I think every cancer researcher asks themselves, ‘How can we do this better?’” Poston said. “I want to explore those treatment options. I want to be a part of providing new ways to fight cancer. I think we’re getting closer, every day, to the time when it might be possible that we look at cancer the same way we look at treating a cold.”

The 260 Goldwater Scholars named in 2015 were selected on the basis of academic merit from a field of 1,206 mathematics, science, and engineering students who were nominated by the faculties of colleges and universities nationwide. The one- and two-year scholarships will cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year.

Goldwater Scholars have very impressive academic qualifications that have garnered the attention of prestigious post-graduate fellowship programs. Recent Goldwater Scholars have been awarded 86 Rhodes Scholarships, 123 Marshall Awards, 123 Churchill Scholarships, and numerous other distinguished fellowships such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.