While other high school students were still asleep on the weekend, Ellis Tibbs was at the nearby medical school studying the dissection of human cadavers, organ by organ. Because he was among the top four students in his anatomy class, he qualified to participate in the Saturday Scholars, which was a program hosted by the Office of Diversity Programs at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri.
“On Saturday morning at 8 am, we met medical students and physicians, and looked at cadavers. Each week there was a specific organ system,” said Tibbs. “It was amazing. That kind of set everything off!”
Because Tibbs was part of the Saturday Scholars program in high school, he had the chance to shadow an orthopedic surgeon in a program at the University of Missouri.
“I think that was what made me really want to become a doctor,” said Tibbs.
Award-winning NIH research trainee
During his senior year as a biology major at the University of Missouri, he learned about NIH’s research training opportunities. As a member of Express (Exposure to Research for Science Students), which introduces students from underrepresented groups to research, he attended the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. At the conference, Tibbs met Sharon Milgram, PhD, director of the NIH Office of Intramural Training & Education, who told him that an NIH training award would be a wonderful opportunity for someone considering graduate or professional school.
Heeding Dr. Milgram’s advice, Tibbs applied to NIH’s Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (Postbac IRTA) program, interviewed, and earned a spot in the lab of Matthew Hoffman, BDS, PhD, senior investigator and chief of NIDCR’s Matrix and Morphogenesis Section.
So that someday doctors will be able to repair or regenerate salivary glands, Dr. Hoffman’s lab has been identifying the cells, signals, and other factors that are essential for the gland’s development.
For two years, Tibbs contributed to the lab’s research on regeneration of the salivary gland. With then postdoctoral research fellow Isabelle Lombaert, PhD, he examined the role of a certain transcription factor in gland development.
“We observe developmental differences when we knock out the transcription factor,” Tibbs said.
For a cancer patient whose salivary glands have been destroyed by therapy, someday progenitor cells could be transplanted into the damaged gland along with any factors needed to restore the ability to make saliva.
He won an NIH Outstanding Poster Award for his poster “The role of Sox10 in KIT+ submandibular gland progenitors” at the April 30, 2015, Postbac IRTA Poster Day, which was held on the NIH campus. About 300 posters were scored by teams of staff scientists, staff clinicians, clinical fellows, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students, and Tibbs’ poster ranked in the top 20 percent.
“I want people to understand and really know what NIH is for,” said Tibbs. “When I go back to my undergrad, I tell students about NIH. One student has already applied and gotten into a lab here.”
Pursuing an MD/PhD
While working in Dr. Hoffman’s lab, Tibbs took the medical college admission test, applied to medical schools and graduate schools, and went on interviews. Now he’s enrolled in an MD/PhD program at the University of Maryland. This summer he will do his first summer rotation in a lab there.
“My dream is to be a clinician-scientist,” Tibbs said. “I would love to work with patients and continue to do research because I’ve found that is my passion as well.”
Tibbs said he hopes to return to NIH for the research portion of his MD/PhD program. In addition, he would like to work at NIH someday as a clinician-scientist. “NIH is the place to do research,” he said.
His advice for undergrad students is “Keep your door open for opportunities that come about. Students should keep their eyes open, keep their ears open, and they’ll find something that is really striking. You just have to keep searching.”
Tibbs’ Research Poster at NIH
Tibbs, E. The role of Sox10 in KIT+ submandibular gland progenitors. Poster 192 presented April 30, 2015 at the NIH Postbac IRTA Poster Day in Bethesda, Maryland. Preceptors: Dr. Matthew Hoffman, Dr. Isabelle Lombaert.