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New College student puts accent on research to help fight cancer

November 03, 2009

Julie Furmick is going places. A senior-year life sciences major in Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, Furmick is headed to the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), on her way to being published in the prestigious Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, in line for a National Institutes of Health (NIH) R15 AREA grant, and is on the road to medical school and, quite possibly, a career in academic medicine.

Furmick, who graduated from Peoria Sunrise Mountain High School in 2006, is an ASU SOLUR (School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research) participant and has been under the mentorship of Peter Jurutka, an assistant professor in the New College Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, for the past two years.

“Julie and her research exemplify the type of opportunities and achievements that can be attained by our students,” says Jurutka, who is also a founding faculty member of the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix in Partnership with ASU. “Her experience demonstrates that if students are intellectually curious and motivated, they can, with hard work, develop their own research goals and interests as undergraduates.”

The research being conducted by Furmick at the West campus – which is catching the attention of biomedical industry insiders – focuses on curtailing or alleviating altogether the side effects of Bexarotene, a secondary medication used to treat patients suffering from Cutaneous T-cell Lymphoma (CTCL). Her work won the Outstanding Student Research award in April at the Arizona-Nevada Academy of Science annual research conference in Tucson. It is the same research she was invited to present at the recent ABRCMS meeting at the Phoenix Convention Center where she competed in the chemical science division. The conference is one of the largest professional meetings for biomedical and behavioral science students, attracting nearly 3,000 individuals, including 1,500 undergraduate students from as many as 300 colleges and universities across the country.

“We are working on developing a better anti-cancer drug that works by the same mechanism of Bexarotene, but does not cause the same bad side effects, such as red skin lesions, in our patients,” says Furmick, who is originally from New Jersey but grew up in the Valley. “So far, we have developed 27 compounds and found six that appear to work anywhere from 20 to 100 percent of the Bexarotene’s ability.”

Furmick’s findings were recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, which publishes original research on the correlation of molecular structure to biological activity with a focus on the relationships of chemistry to biological activity. Jurutka says he is waiting to hear from the NIH if her research will be funded in the future through an AREA (Academic Research Enhancement Award) grant.

As exciting as Furmick finds her research, she is just as enthused about the opportunities provided by New College and SOLUR, a program that promotes and facilitates opportunities for undergraduates to participate in biological research at ASU and around the Valley.

“I knew that I was interested in research, but I didn’t know that I could act on it as an undergraduate student,” she says. “There are so many great programs ASU offers to support undergraduate research.

“Not only does research allow students to get an inside look into the wide variety of career paths a degree in science can offer, but it also allows them to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it. They see first-hand how science works, instead of just reading about it in a textbook.”

Jurutka, a recipient of the Norwich-Eaton Young Investigator Research and the John Haddad Young Investigator awards, believes the undergraduate research focus in New College is an important benchmark of the West campus school.

“New College embraces an interdisciplinary liberal arts college model where classes are small and professors not only are active leading scholars in their fields, but also are accessible to the student population,” he says. “Because of the small classes and the direct accessibility to their professors, students are better able to determine their areas of interest prior to applying for research opportunities, making for a more successful and enjoyable research experience. Moreover, many of our faculty actively pursue research grants that favor student participation.”

In the meantime, Furmick plans to graduate in May 2010 with bachelor's degree in life sciences from New College. She hopes to follow her undergraduate degree with a master’s in biomedical ethics at ASU’s Tempe campus and, eventually attend medical school. She says Jurutka’s mentorship has been a guiding force in her journey.

“He always takes the time to make sure I understand the science behind my work,” she says. “It would be easier for him to simply give me a protocol and tell me to follow the directions but instead he takes the time to ask me why and when each step is important. This allows me to develop as a researcher, and from it I am able to do better and more complex experiments. I couldn’t have become as successful as I am without his guidance.”

For more informtion on the New College, visit

For more information on SOLUR, visit