Brian Sloat is almost always the first person to open Dr. Cui's laboratory each morning — and he's rarely the first to leave. That may be part of the reason he's accomplished so much in his short time in OSU's pharmaceutical sciences graduate program. In about two years, Brian has had his name on seven peer-reviewed papers in prestigious journals of pharmaceutics and vaccinology. On four of those, he was first author. "He is arguably, to my knowledge, the most productive graduate student in our history," says his advisor, Dr. Zhengrong Cui.
Brian received the P.F. and Nellie Buck Yerex Graduate Fellowship for 2007-08. He is modest about his publication record, chalking it up to "a little luck and teamwork. By luck, I mean my experiments tended to work without too many complications," he says.
By teamwork, he means involving himself in a variety of projects within his own lab and beyond. Dr. Cui says he's "hungry" for projects, and is almost always engaged in more than one at a time.
"It's a good strategy because I learn a lot of techniques, and if one project hits a rough spot, I can still make progress on another," Brian says.
Brian's own Ph.D. research is focused on the development of an easily administrable anthrax vaccine. The anthrax contamination of US mail in 2001 focused attention on anthrax as a deadly, readily produced potential terrorist weapon. Since then, NIH has made it a high priority to develop a new anthrax vaccine.
The existing vaccine, called BioThrax, requires six injections over 18 months, followed by annual boosters. Dr. Cui's lab has been working to develop an anthrax vaccine that can be administered through the nose. In case of an emergency requiring the mass immunization of a large number of people, an intranasal vaccine could be self-administered without needles and without professionals to do the injecting.
Brian has made some very promising progress in the past two years. He has developed two intranasal anthrax vaccine formulations and evaluated the immune response in a mouse model. Dr. Cui is optimistic that this work will provide a sound foundation for the development of a newer-generation anthrax vaccine for humans.
Brian came to the pharmaceutical sciences program with a fairly unusual undergraduate background: neuroscience and mathematics. When he chose those majors, he thought he might apply them to a career in artificial intelligence or bio-informatics. But a couple of computer programming classes convinced him he wasn't cut out for a career based on intensive computer usage. A friend encouraged him to look into pharmacy, which he said was a "hot field," and Brian has adapted well.
"My math background helped out a lot, but my lack of chemistry has brought many challenges," he says. "There are no regrets, though. I find the work I'm doing very interesting, perhaps more so than neuroscience and math."
As a graduate teaching assistant, Brian has taught medical terminology for the last two years. He's known as a conscientious teacher and a supportive peer to newer GTAs in the department. As much as he enjoys that aspect of the academic life, though, the labwork is what fascinates him.
He traces this back to his first real experience in a clinical procurement lab at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. As a volunteer, he was limited in how much technical work he could do, but after that year, he was inspired to establish his own undergraduate research project at Pitt.
"I do believe that my experience in the UPCI lab was the beginning of a career in research," he says.