Covered in glitter and holiday-themed stickers, Samantha Robinson, a student in the Graduate School, laughed as she put the final touches on her holiday card. She tossed her finished product in a crate with many other colorful creations bound for Children’s Hospital Colorado.
On Dec. 7, the CU Anschutz Student Senate held a card-making event for kids who are spending the holidays in Children’s Hospital. This is the first year of this event, and the Senate wants to turn it into an annual tradition.
Students, teachers and faculty from all schools and programs were encouraged to make a card and spread holiday cheer. At times the table was crowded with students eager to share happy wishes and warm greetings. Each given a plain card, participants decorated them using a variety of stickers, seasonal stamps, glitter and markers.
“The turnout has been so great,” said Robinson. “It’s really uplifting to see students and faculty come together for a cause. We’re so happy to be able to share some smiles with the children and experiences with other students.”
Smith, who has a severe case of the disorder that affects about one in 50,000 people, explained how the craniofacial disease can lead to substantial deformities to his audience of about 30 in the Education 2 building. “There is a mass death of cranial neural crest cells,” he said. “These cells are what give way to the cartilage and bones in the face. If these cells are missing, you can imagine that this will be really detrimental to the development of prominent facial features, such as cheek bones and the chin.”
Smith was born unable to breathe, requiring an emergency tracheotomy. He was also born without ears, ear canals, and middle ear cavities, resulting in deafness. He had many types of bulky hearing aids throughout his life and was severely teased in school. Most recently, he received a “bone-anchored hearing aid,” which is a titanium screw with a small sound processor.
“It works like a violin or a guitar,” said Smith. “With this device, my brain can now perceive sounds, and I can hear.”
He also has many dental issues, including a very small, underdeveloped mouth. “My dentist most recently told me that I have a child’s mouth full of adult teeth,” Smith said. “This includes an oversized tongue, which can block my airway. As you can imagine, this makes eating and breathing very difficult.”
He recounted his 20-plus surgeries, including total jaw, eye socket and outer-ear reconstruction. Though his experiences were challenging, Smith eventually developed a positive attitude, hoping to influence other people with the disease through his actions.
“Through all the surgeries, I’ve had many metal implants,” he said. “I’m very much put together like a bionic man.”
Outreach from adversity
Smith doesn’t let the hardships of Treacher Collins syndrome control his life, and he uses his research and experiences for public outreach and advocacy. “I want to provide the support that I didn’t have.”
“It’s super inspiring to see him set aside his negative experiences to focus on others who are affected by Treacher Collins syndrome.” – Athena Clemens, first-year student in Modern Anatomhy
From Australia to Brazil and the United Kingdom to Denver, Smith has traveled the world to spread awareness of Treacher Collins syndrome.
“I’ve learned about this genetic disease in class,” said Athena Clemens, a first-year student in the Modern Anatomy program. “It’s super inspiring to see him set aside his negative experiences to focus on others who are affected by Treacher Collins syndrome.”
Aside from presenting at seminars, Smith creates intricate sketches that capture the physical anomalies associated with Treacher Collins syndrome. He also wrote the forward to a special edition of the book “Wonder,” which was recently adapted into a movie. He will speak at a sold-out CU special screening of “Wonder” at a movie theater in Denver tonight.
Continuing education and research
Smith used his disability to fuel his desire to learn, garnering extensive knowledge of his disease and seeking to pinpoint its exact cause.
While completing his PhD at the University of California, San Francisco, he found that low-oxygen conditions can result in altered craniofacial properties, such as those observed with his disease. This led to his first postdoctoral position in 3-D imaging and morphometrics, the process of measuring shapes and dimensions of living organisms.
Smith is completing his second postdoctoral position on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, concentrating his research on craniofacial studies.
“I’ve studied many aspects of Treacher Collins syndrome at this point,” said Smith. “I want to further consider the genetics and morphometry of this disease. I’m looking forward to continuing outreach while advancing my studies.”
Researchers examining understudied populations in Africa have found that skin pigmentation is far more varied and complex than previously understood. And that complexity increases nearer the equator.
“Previous studies have focused on more homogeneous European and Eurasian populations and concluded that pigmentation was governed by just a handful of genes,” said study co-author Christopher Gignoux, PhD, MS, associate professor at the Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “But in this study we looked at pigmentation among African populations and found a striking variability that has been underappreciated.”
The study, published in the November edition of the journal Cell, is the culmination of a decade’s worth of research involving scientists from CU Anschutz, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stanford University, Stellenbosch University, and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
The researchers studied two populations of the KhoeSan people, the Khomani San and the Nama. Both live in South Africa and have much lighter skin than other Africans who live closer to the equator.
Scientists conducted interviews, recorded height, age and gender and used a reflectometer to measure skin color of about 400 people. They discovered that skin pigmentation is highly heritable but that doesn’t explain its variance and complexity. Instead of a few genes controlling the process as many thought, they found far more genes involved, each one contributing something different. And many of the genes have yet to be discovered. Only about 10 percent of that previously discovered variation can be linked to genes impacting pigmentation in the KhoeSan.
One finding showed that the closer a population moves to the equator, the more genes come into play that can influence variability.
“Light skin pigmentation in the KhoeSan appears to be due to a combination of many small-effect mutations as well as some large-effect variants,” said the study’s senior author Brenna Henn, assistant professor of ecology and evolution at SUNY Stony Brook.
Some of those mutations, Henn said, may have arisen in southern Africa more than 100,000 years ago and were selected for in Europeans after they left Africa for higher latitudes where pigment lightens to absorb more sunlight which produces vitamin D and folate protection.
“We argue that the distributions of skin pigmentation globally suggest different forces of selection operating at various latitudes,” Henn said.
In order to understand baseline pigmentation, she said, it’s important to study a large set of genetically diverse populations that have historically been exposed to different levels of ultraviolet radiation.
Gignoux agreed saying earlier notions of skin pigmentation being relatively simple underestimated the genetics involved.
“At higher latitudes there is far less difference in skin pigmentation and that’s where most of the earlier research was done,” he said. “But there is more pigmentation variation on the African continent than any other place on earth and its needs further study.”
While the number of pharmacy schools in the U.S. has increased from 80 in 2009 to 143 today, the number of students applying to pharmacy programs seems to have plateaued. In the resulting competition for pharmacy students, CU Pharmacy is faring well – and the school’s leaders credit high-quality academic programs and enhanced recruitment efforts for this success.
“We are a top-tier school,” said CU Pharmacy Dean Ralph J. Altiere, PhD. “We recognize that competition for students has increased considerably over the past few years, and that led us to undertake a reorganization to establish a marketing unit last year.”
Stellar faculty and students
A growing reputation and top-notch academic and professional programs are motivating students to apply to and attend CU Anschutz’s No. 22-ranked pharmacy school.
“Skaggs has a reputation within the profession that is nationally and even internationally recognized,” said Hawaii native and second-year CU Pharmacy student Ryan Sutherlan. “Other schools that I considered also had strong reputations, but I worried that they may not be able to challenge me in the way I felt CU would.”
“I believe the future of medicine is based in collaborative care and want to learn as much about it as I can,” Hartsfield said. “I have really appreciated the stellar faculty and high-quality facilities of the campus.”
And as students express satisfaction with the pharmacy school, CU Pharmacy leadership express pride in both the students and faculty.
“Our students consistently outperform other schools by winning national competitions,” Altiere said, “and our faculty are lauded nationally with education and clinical awards.”
Strategic outreach and recruitment
To build on its reputation and promote its successful programs, CU Pharmacy has centralized and fortified its recruiting, marketing and communications efforts into a six-person team led by Dana Brandorff, director of marketing, communications and alumni affairs.
The team is implementing several new tactics to reach prospective students, including a strategic database management system, a multi-pronged advertising campaign and a live chat feature on the school’s website. To complement these traditional and digital approaches, the marketing team has had in-person interactions with more than 3,000 prospective students, advisors and influencers at conferences and other pharmacy events.
These efforts have led to that 30-percent application increase, as well as a completely full 2017 incoming class for the school’s PharmD program. And now the challenge, Brandorff said, is not just attracting students but changing the perception of what pharmacists do.
“The perception is that pharmacists only dispense medications,” said Brandorff, who came to CU Pharmacy in 2009. “Today, pharmacists are on the front lines of health care – in the ER collaborating with nurses and doctors, in clinics managing diabetes or heart disease patients and at independent pharmacies compounding medications or vaccinating patients. Our job is to help the general public understand the vital role pharmacists play in health care.”
To that end, the group engages in various community outreach activities, including volunteer days at health fairs and other events; a new Speakers’ Bureau showcasing faculty, alumni and students; and a new education initiative focusing on academic advisors, faculty members, administrators and students at Colorado universities. The school also conducts live, once-a-month call-ins on 9News and creates and distributes its own video content that is regularly aired by local and national television outlets.
CU Pharmacy is also helping change Colorado laws to allow pharmacists to be reimbursed for pharmacy services other than dispensing. Altiere believes this would create more opportunities for pharmacy practice and help change how the public values pharmacists.
Top-choice pharmacy school
Although changing perceptions takes time, many student perceptions are right where CU Pharmacy wants them to be.
“At CU Anschutz, I am consistently impressed and humbled to be among the ranks of the amazing student body, who are so wildly unique, brilliant, compassionate and welcoming,” Sutherlan said. “It’s like being a part of a large, extended family.”
And Sutherlan said this positive experience began before he even enrolled as a student.
“CU Pharmacy always reached out to me … which stood in contrast to other schools’ carbon-copy communications,” Sutherlan said. “I don’t regret my choice of schools at all.”