It was just a white box, but Matt Tovar could not wait to open it. He tore through the thick Styrofoam shell and pushed past the packing, all for a tube the size of his finger. He’d rushed to the Jepson Science Center after getting an email: “Hey Matt, your cells are here.”
He’d been waiting on them – there were a million in that one tiny tube – to continue his search for a new treatment for an aggressive and deadly brain cancer called glioblastoma. A biochemistry major on the pre-med track, Tovar was first to take advantage of UMW’s early admissions agreement with George Washington University’s medical school. He’ll ramp up his work in a new lab in D.C. in just a few weeks. But the tools that took him this far? They came from Jepson.
Mary Washington created “the perfect storm” for his research, said Tovar, who’ll study surgical neuro-oncology and hopes to also work as a physician-scientist finding innovative treatments for otherwise incurable diseases.
A pair of chemistry professors – Kelli Slunt and Leanna Giancarlo, aka “Dr. G” – were “pivotal,” he said. And the Irene Piscopo Rodgers ’59 and James Rodgers Research Endowment, which he earned two years in a row, paid for those cells he unwrapped at Jepson. Plus, it picked up the tab for conference fees, travel – he’s shared his research from Boston to Orlando, Missouri to Tennessee – materials and more.
“Matt is one of the most outstanding research students I have encountered,” Giancarlo said. “Given all his amazing achievements and activities, I’m not sure when he sleeps.”
Born in Panama City, Tovar moved with his military family to the U.S. when he was 4, eventually landing in Stafford County, Virginia. He saw his mother, a nurse, as a superhero when she went to work in her scrubs. The bug bit him, too, and he got jobs early on as a scribe and a tech in emergency medicine – he’s already delivered a baby. But he’s seen the flipside, as well – fatal gunshot wounds, patients turned away for lack of insurance – which has only made him work harder.
At UMW, a mistake he made during a quantum mechanics experiment gave him direction, turning him on to the link between varying sizes of minute matter called nanoparticles and the amount of energy they can produce. From there, he created a compound that can find and kill brain cancer cells in a petri dish. And that has potential.
“Matt started his ambitious research project … as only a sophomore,” Giancarlo said of his work, which mixes biology, chemistry and physics. “When he proposed his idea … I thought optimistically that he might accomplish this goal by the end of the academic year. Matt did it in a few short weeks.”
The GW agreement doesn’t mean he’ll complete med school early but it freed him from worrying about applications and interviews. So in his spare time, he worked on a minor in music, studying the brain’s reactions to different chords and how that plays out in film scores.
“Speaking with Matt, you immediately sense his creativity and passion for science, medicine and music,” said Slunt, who also directs UMW’s Honors Program. “He has blazed a path that will enable other UMW Honors Scholars to follow behind and join him at GW.” Five more have already begun the process.
When Tovar heads to GW next month to start a research fellowship, he’ll scrub in for neurosurgeries, trading those mail-order cells for ones he’ll harvest himself from live bodies. And he’ll keep waging his war on glioblastoma.
“What motivates me most about my work is the fact that, at present, there is no cure,” Tovar said. “I want to show these patients that, yes, there is hope and promise for them.”