Students discover real-world applications of biochemistry research in Florence, Italy

May 30, 2017 | International Programs |

Most science majors at Harding will complete their required biochemistry lab on campus in the Pryor-England Center for Science and Engineering. But for some students this summer, they will complete that lab more than 5,000 miles away in Florence, Italy.

Led by Dr. Dennis Matlock, professor and chair for the department chemistry and biochemistry, nine students will conduct biochemistry research alongside Dr. Chiarra Azzari, an internationally known doctor and lecturer, as part of SURF — Summer Undergraduate Research in Florence.

“I decided to sign up for the SURF program because as a science major it is hard to study abroad with one of Harding’s regular international programs with the types of classes and labs that we are required to take,” junior Rachel Murray said. “SURF provided me the opportunity to get credit for some of my required classes and also some advanced biochemistry classes and labs.”

Matlock said it is not uncommon for science majors to feel like they are unable to study abroad at a traditional program, so when he first discussed the idea for SURF with Jeff Hopper, dean of international programs, it seemed like a natural fit.

The group will stay in the Villa at the Harding University in Florence campus. When they are not in the lab or local hospital, the SURF group will join summer HUF students for a brief stay in a castle in Tuscany and a four-day trip to Rome.

Matlock will work with Azzari to provide lab and clinical experience to students. Azzari works in the lab where students will be researching and at Meyer Children’s Hospital.

“These students, who would be taking biochemistry lab here, will be learning the same techniques, but they’ll be learning those techniques in a clinical setting,” Matlock said. “In the case of Dr. Azzari, I’ve been told that she lectures in a couple different countries. So she’s an internationally known lecturer in the life sciences who the students will be alongside.”

In February, Matlock traveled to Florence to plan out the details of this trip with Azzari and HUF director Robbie Shackleford. The lab space and health professionals who students will have access to impressed Matlock and made him eager to have students step into the lab this summer.

“It wasn’t [the researchers and physicians] thinking about ideas then carrying them out weeks later,” Matlock said. “They were putting their ideas into action right then and there. I could picture immediately where a student would be working here and working there.”

Murray said as she applies for pharmacy school this summer, her experience in a real-world lab setting like they will experience will be vital in setting her apart from other students applying.

“I know this hands-on, advanced research and lab experience will look great on a transcript, and the fact that I did it all in Florence will give me plenty of things to talk about in my graduate school interviews,” Murray said.

Matlock has high hopes for what the students will be exposed to through the program — not only from an academic and health science perspective, but also from a Christian perspective.

“I think there is this thought out there in the world that if you’re a Christian and a scientist that those are mutually exclusive endeavors,” Matlock said. “As a Christian, I’m hopeful that students can see how Christians can work in the sciences and be very well respected in the profession, and that’s with any program or class that I teach.”

At the end of the four weeks, Matlock said he hopes students leave Florence with a greater understanding of the role their work can have in shaping the lives of people around the world.

“At the first and foremost of this trip and all I do in the classroom, I’m very mindful of the role students can play as Christian researchers and physicians,” Matlock said. “I think my biggest hope is that the students would see firsthand how biochemical knowledge is applied in a real-world setting and how that can be used to change people’s lives.”

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  1. […] Dr. Dennis Matlock is currently in Florence with 6 biochemistry students working in a lab with Dr. Chiarra Azzari, an internationally known doctor and lecturer. This is the first time we have offered this specific program. Check out Harding’s article about it HERE. […]