It was the sort of project middle school teachers devise to get teenage students interested in reading, new skills and science.
That project, which ended up shaping Howard Nicholson’s dreams of a research career, happened to occur in a computer science class.
His assignment was to translate a favorite book into a do-it-yourself movie. The book was Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future by doctor and scientist Gregory Stock, exploring the effect recent advances in human reproductive science could have on society. When it comes to genetically engineering humans, a practice in which many scientists have a go-slow ethical attitude, Stock’s philosophy is more like get going.
“This piqued my interest in biomedical engineering and, in particular, research,” says Nicholson, who studies chemical engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). His goal is a doctorate in biomedical engineering in any of his wide array of interests, such as stem cell engineering, cardiovascular engineering and neuroscience.
Nicholson recently took part in the Stanford Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, working in the lab of professor Vittorio Sebastiano on a project of Jay Sarkar to study how cells communicate to drive the effects of aging on the regulatory layer of cell genetics, knowns as the epigenome. Nicholson, who had previously sought to broaden his academic horizons through internships at Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan, credits SURF with providing insights into how to design experiments and improving his skill at searching the scientific literature for papers related to a given topic of interest.
“I got to fully design the project and learn about all the research already out there concerning how cells in a population cooperatively affect the epigenetic clock,” Nicholson says, skills he will rely upon in his graduate studies and work to improve lives for those who suffer from numerous genetic disorders.
At UMBC, Nicholson is president of the National Society of Black Engineers, among other professional affiliations, and advises younger students within the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Outside of academia, he is deeply involved in church activities and the UMBC Gospel Choir.