Purple wasn’t the color UMW junior Matt Tovar had hoped to see. The solution in the quantum mechanics experiment was supposed to turn red. But the mishap, caused by a contaminant in the container used by his chemistry-class group, sparked an idea.
“It all stems from that one mistake,” Tovar said of the freshman-year flub that led to his promising oncology research.
A biochemistry major on Mary Washington’s premedical track, the aspiring neurosurgeon hopes to use the small slip-up to do something big: fight an aggressive brain cancer called glioblastoma. And, as the first to take advantage of a new opportunity for UMW students to gain early admission to medical school, Tovar, an EMT and emergency room scribe, is set to meet his goals – stat.
Born in Panama City, Tovar moved with his military family to the U.S. when he was 4, landing in Stafford County, Virginia, as a teen. When his parents divorced, his mother went to school to become a nurse and worked nights as an EKG technician.
“Her professional life always seemed fascinating,” Tovar said. “She looked like a superhero in her scrubs.”
Inspired by his mother and by a decade of living the Boy Scout creed – “to help other people at all times” – he began to consider a medical path of his own. At 16, he landed a job as an EMT with the Aquia Harbour Volunteer Rescue Squad and next went to work as a scribe in the Stafford Hospital ER. Late-night calls and emergencies, he discovered, made his pulse race.
So when UMW announced a new biochemistry major and early admissions agreement to George Washington University (GWU) School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Tovar was prepped. That chemistry-class blooper had hooked him on nanotechnology (the manipulation of minute matter) and begun to color his college career.
In the gone-wrong experiment, the electrons’ energy level – along with the unintended change in frequency and wavelength – had caused the solution to take the inaccurate tint, Tovar reasoned. Captivated by the link between nanoparticles’ measurements and the amount of energy they can produce, he plans to create them in specific sizes, harness their magnetic properties and target specific cells. The work could help pinpoint and destroy cancerous cells that cluster with healthy ones, as in glioblastoma, the surgery- and chemotherapy-resistant brain cancer that made recent headlines when Arizona Sen. John McCain was diagnosed with it.
No doubt Tovar’s study, “Synthesis of Magnetic Nanoparticles to Induce Cell-Specific Apoptosis in Metastatic Glioblastoma Multiforme,” which he’s presented at conferences across Virginia and beyond, contributed to his early admission to medical school, the first under the UMW/GWU agreement. By gaining early acceptance, students like Tovar can more robustly explore the liberal arts in their final undergrad years.
“If you wanted someone to be the trailblazer and spokesperson for Mary Washington, you couldn’t have picked a better representative,” said Associate Professor of Chemistry Leanna Giancarlo. “I can’t even describe the number of hours Matt works.”
If Tovar isn’t scouring the Internet for studies to aid and support his work, he’s holed up in the Jepson Science Center, measuring the size of the nanoparticles he’s made by the green glow of the transmission electron microscope donated by UMW alumna Irene Piscopo Rodgers ’59.
His growing experience in the medical field has already taken him well beyond textbooks. He’s delivered a baby, seen a man die from gunshot wounds and watched a heart attack victim refuse treatment his family couldn’t afford. “That broke my heart,” Tovar said. “No one deserves to die because they don’t have money.”
He plans to volunteer with the student-run GWU Healing Clinic when he heads to medical school in fall 2019, and ultimately, he hopes to help influence healthcare policy.
“I just feel like that’s the place where I can help the most people, people who are facing extremely slim odds of making it through their illnesses,” Tovar said of his future work as a neurosurgeon. “I feel that’s my calling.”