Union University
Union University Dept of Biology
A student works on a biology lab experiment.

Alumni Profiles

Dr. Gene Stevens

Dr. Gene Stevens, a current faculty member at the University of Missouri in Columbia, spoke at Union University March 28, 2012, on recent agricultural research that he has been conducting in Africa. However, Dr. Stevens is no stranger to the Union University Campus, having graduated from Union in 1979. While attending Union he obtained an internship with the University of Tennessee Agricultural Center, where he gained agricultural experience working with soil. This undergraduate experience led to a research assistantship in Knoxville. Since that time, Dr. Stevens has been involved with research projects that include the testing of soils and their proper utilization. One of his more significant research projects focused on agricultural water loss control in areas that lack adequate water supply, such as in poor countries like South Africa. The research farm that Dr. Stevens and his colleagues set up in South Africa focused on an increase in rice production, at which point he and his colleagues turned their work over to Texas A&M University for further follow up study. According to Dr. Stevens, "We start a project and get it up and running. Then, we quickly turn it over to another group who is capable of following up on what research we have already performed, and move on to the next project.

"Dr. Stevens also worked on a project in which genes for a particular drug were introduced into tobacco plants under vacuum. During this time, the genes introduced would be absorbed into the leaves. The leaves could then be harvested in order to produce helpful drugs or vaccines.

Dr. Stevens recently received the USA Rice Producers Award, presented to a researcher from the United States who has had the most impact on rice research during the year. During 2012, UT will also award Dr. Stevens with the Biological Systems and Soil Science Department Alumni Award. When asked about receiving the award in the upcoming months, Dr. Stevens commented that he had no idea they knew about his research until they called him and informed him. "That's why it is so crucial to publish your work," Dr. Stevens says, who asserts that many researchers underemphasize this part of the process.

Dr. Stephanie Mabry Perkins

As an undergraduate student, Dr. Stephanie Mabry Perkins earned dual degrees in biology and chemistry. Upon graduating from Union in 2001, she attended medical school at The University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, followed by a residency in Radiation Oncology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Dr. Perkins currently is serving as an Assistant Professor in radiation oncology at Vanderbilt University's School of Medicine. Through her current position, she is able to treat cancer patients with radiation therapy. She primarily is treating pediatric malignancies, lung cancer, and adult brain tumors. Dr. Perkins is involved in research projects with the Children's Oncology Group, a national group that designs clinical trials for childhood cancers.

She said she feels that the classes at Union were very challenging, but the faculty were always very supportive and encouraging. Additionally she indicated that, due to the preparation that she received at Union, she did well in medical school and was able to be matched into a competitive specialty.

Two of her favorite courses while an undergraduate student at Union were histology and gross anatomy, taught by Dr. James Huggins. She said that histology was one of the toughest courses in medical school and she was able to do well because of the experience she gained from Union. One of her favorite memories while studying in the biology department was the opportunity to visit the St. Louis Zoo with Dr. Michael McMahan.

Jil Konkol

After graduating from Union in 2007, Jill Konkol was accepted to Wake Forest University School of Medicine. Currently starting her fourth year, Jill has already enjoyed a wide variety of experiences in the medical field. While her first two years of medical school focused on medical education, Jill is spending the second two years involved in direct patient care at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. Medical students have the opportunity to experience areas of medicine such as Pediatrics, Surgery, OB/ Gyn, and Internal Medicine.

At the moment, Jill is serving with the Geriatric unit of the medical center and is enjoying the time she is able to spend with patients. Jill feels that the daily challenges of patient care thoroughly test both her medical knowledge and ethical standings. These challenges are a huge part of medical education and are a major component for preparing students of the medical fi eld. While medical schools allows for students to experience a wide range of specialties, Jill's current goal is to become a primary care physician. Jill hopes to be able to see patients frequently enough to build close relationships with them and aid them in maintaining long term health. She is also thinking of working to fulfi ll one of the many underserved areas in our country. The potential shortage of primary care physicians in the near future is another driving factor in her decision.

Jill feels that her time at Union aided her in her preparation for medical school in many different ways. The classes offered at Union provided valuable base knowledge that made the daunting amount of required medical information easier to handle. Jill also credits a number of professors for their hand in her preparation. Because Gross Anatomy is one of the fi rst courses taken by medical students, Dr. Huggins' Gross Anatomy course was invaluable to Jill's medical education. Dr. Weaver's Genetics, Dr. Wofford's Developmental Biology, and Mrs. Smith's Immunology courses were all important and provided relevant information to her medical education. Classes with Dr. McMahan prepared her for the attention to detail that is required of medical students. Also, her time with the cross-country team prepared her for enduring long work shifts with little rest.

When asked if she had any advice for current Union students, Jill emphasized the importance of having a well-rounded life. She encourages students to enjoy activities outside of school and work. Take breaks and enjoy life, or you will burn yourself out before you reach your goal. Jill is thankful to everyone who aided her in her journey at Union and wishes current students the best of luck in reaching their goals.

Dr. Mike U. Smith

Dr. Mike U. Smith, Ph.D. (Class of 1972) was one of 486 scholars nationwide recently named as Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Dr. Smith received this distinction “for distinguished research and leadership in teaching and learning genetics, problem solving, evolution, and the nature of science and for service in HIV prevention.” Only seven people in education nationwide received this honor for 2008.

Mike is Professor of Medical Education and Director of AIDS Education and Research at the Mercer University School of Medicine (MUSM), Department of Internal Medicine in Macon, GA where he has been on the faculty since 1985. Mike is also an adjunct professor of the Emory University Center for AIDS research in Atlanta.Mike also recently raised money and arranged for a shipment of $250,000 of medical supplies to be sent to the Baptist Hospital in Sanyati, Zimbabwe. Dr. Smith visited Baptist hospitals, seminaries, hospices, etc. in 2006 and established a program to send MUSM students to work in bush hospitals and clinics there as soon as the political situation stabilizes.

Mike is currently involved developing a program to teach youth with HIV to be peer counselors for other HIV+ teens. He is also the lead investigator in a program sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and then Indian Health Service to revise a peer educator training curriculum he developed earlier for HIV/STD prevention among rural youth. The new curriculum, called Native STAND (Students Together Against Negative Decisions), will be tailored for Native American Youth across the US.

Mike has one son, Art, who is in the US Army Military Police and stationed in Korea. Mike has one grandson, Caleb Michael, born June 26, 2008.

Wesley H. Stepp

Wesley H. Stepp—Hunter, as many in the Union community know him— graduated from Union in the spring of 2008. Since his departure, he has experienced a world of opportunities, including a summer spent in France, broadening his horizons. Upon his arrival at Georgetown to pursue a master’s degree in the fall of 2008, he acquired a staff consultant position in environmental science with the EPA using the eco-toxicology and environmental chemistry background he received in his Union coursework and also began work on his master’s thesis. Having never studied virology in depth, he chose a mentor who is renowned in the scientific community for the study of hepatitis viruses.

Coursework at the graduate level, although challenging, was much different than Hunter’s undergraduate experience. He believes the teachers at Union definitely prepared him for the rigors of graduate school in terms of information to know and the way that graduate schools test. In both regards, he felt himself to be well ahead of most of his peers due to that experience.

After major progress in his thesis work during the spring semester, Stepp learned that he would be able to graduate with his MS after only one year. In late March, he was accepted into the Ph.D program in the same department where he was completing his master’s work. Simultaneously, he was awarded a pre-doctoral fellowship appointment at the Naval Medical Research Center where he could complete his dissertation research for a Ph.D. In keeping with his busy personality, he also accepted a position to coordinate clinical research in the Department of Orthopaedics at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

For the next 3-5 years, Hunter will be in Washington DC finishing his doctoral degree and from there, the world is an oyster—so the saying goes. Ultimately, he would like to end up in one of two places: working either as a research professor at a university, or as a medical scientist (MD/ PhD) conducting translational medical research (research that takes lab work directly into patient care).

Jonathan and Melissa Gray

"The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps". These words from Proverbs 16:9 are how Jonathan Gray chooses to describe the path his life has taken. Jonathan graduated from Union University in 2000 with a major in biology. Looking back, he asserts that he was well-prepared academically for a field that involved molecular biology and genetics. As a freshman, he hoped to pursue medicine but later changed his direction to research after doing his senior research project in the microbiology lab at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital. After graduation, he pursued a personal goal of working on the human genome project and was soon employed by Celera Genomics in Rockville, Maryland. During this time, Jonathan continued his education at Johns Hopkins University where he obtained a master's degree in biotechnology. Although he had the opportunity to work on the human genome, he wanted to conduct his own research with projects that would make a difference. This opportunity came through St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in 2002, where he was in more of a position to help children with a catastrophic disease, retinoblastoma. His role involved chemotherapy trials and bioinformatics, specifically with retinoblastoma cells and tissue. Jonathan also used microarrays to look for genes that have been amplified or deleted in retinoblastoma cells as well as using mouse models of cancer to study different genes that control the cell cycle in cancerous cells. While working at St. Jude was a unique opportunity, Jonathan found some factors that conflicted with his faith. In 2006, he joined Transnetyx, Inc. in Cordova, TN as an Assay Design Specialist where he uses molecular diagnostics to screen for researcher's genes of interest. Transnetyx has markets all over the United States as well as in Europe and performs genotyping using highthroughput automation. Jonathan currently resides in Collierville with his wife, Melissa Yau Gray, who also graduated from Union University with a major in chemistry.

Jennifer Carter-Johnson

Jennifer graduated from Union in May of 1996 with a major in both Biology and Mathematics. In 2003, she received a Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Virginia. While in graduate school, Jennifer decided that she was more interested in the impact that science has on society rather than in conducting scientific research herself, so after graduation she went to law school, and in 2006, she received a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. From 2006 to 2008, Jennifer practiced intellectual property law with an emphasis on patent licensing and biotechnology business start ups in Seattle, WA with Perkins Coie LLP. Since 2008, she has been teaching Biotechnology and the Law, Patent Law, and first year Property Law at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, MO. Jennifer’s research interests revolve around the ways in which society regulates scientific research, both from an intellectual property/business perspective, as well as from an ethical perspective. Jennifer is currently on the academic job market for a tenure track position at a law school. When asked if she felt prepared by Union while attending graduate school, Jennifer replied, “I have always felt that Union University gave me a very firm foundation on which to grow after Union. I have attended graduate school with students from some of the premiere universities in the country and never felt outclassed.”

Regarding her future in biology, Jennifer would like to become a voice in the legal community for scientists. She said there are troubling attacks on scientific research and discourse from businesses that only see the financial bottom line, and she would like to help others look beyond the immediate financial gains promised by science to see the larger picture of how best to fund and direct scientific progress for the good of all people. There are many advancements in science that Jennifer hopes to see in the future, such as providing better health care by curing diseases, raising algae farms to provide bio fuels, and growing new drought-resistant crops to diminish hunger in third world countries.

Jennifer currently lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband of three years, Jeff. They want to start a family but have had difficulties, so keep Jennifer and Jeff in your prayers.

Dr. Cathie Scarbrough

Dr. Cathie Scarbrough received the call to international medical outreach as a high school student. Upon joining the Union community, Dr. Scarbrough found an environment that she said not only provided her with a quality education, which served her well as a medical student, but also supported and encouraged her call. The Union environment was so supportive, in fact, that Dr. Scarbrough was able to travel on her first overseas trip to Costa Rica during her time there.

After receiving her undergraduate degree from Union, Dr. Scarbrough went on to attend medical school at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center. Despite this busy time in her life, Dr. Scarbrough was able to serve with several more teams abroad including her first medical trip to El Salvador. Over the years, she has served in Central and South America, West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia; each trip provided new and unique lessons and opportunities.

During a fourth-year medical school rotation, Dr. Scarbrough’s decision to pursue international medical work was cemented when she spent two months in northeast Thailand using her profession to further the Kingdom. She recently returned from fourteen months in Central Asia teaching at a family medicine residency program. “The best part was being a part of a community of believers abroad. The depth of friendships was unlike any that I had experienced previously. It was an amazing thing to work with other believers of all different backgrounds and cultures toward a common purpose - a real glimpse of the true kingdom.”

Now back in the United States, Dr. Scarbrough is working in a small community northeast of Birmingham, Alabama, as a family medicine physician doing both inpatient and outpatient work, although her service abroad isn’t over. When asked about her future, Dr. Scarbrough says, “I feel that since God has provided me with an education, support, and opportunities to go, I should go whenever and wherever He sees fit to lead. The more places I go, the more opportunities I see. After all, the Great Commission is a command, not an option.”

Hannah Henson

Hannah Henson is a 2009 graduate of Union University. As a freshman at Union, Ms. Henson took Dr. Weaver’s Principles of Biology class. This class was very influential in Ms. Henson’s decision to pursue a degree in Biology. She remembers the class as fun and interesting, while also putting into perspective how studying biology was also the opportunity to study God's creation.

Now, she is a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, Tennessee. When asked how Union prepared her for her current work, Ms. Henson goes back to her first years as a PhD student and remembers the class work she completed as being very similar to work she completed as an undergraduate at Union. While these classes were fast-paced, she felt prepared because she had learned much of the information at Union. She says classes in Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, Genetics, and Developmental Biology were especially helpful in preparing her for her current work.

As part of the Integrated Program in the Biomedical Sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Ms. Henson is on the Cancer and Developmental Biology track. Through this program she has the opportunity to conduct research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital studying the blood-brain barrier and blood-cerebrospinal fluid barrier. She joined a lab at St. Jude last May in the Chemical Biology and Therapeutics Department and says that she really enjoys working in the lab. She says she is finally get the chance to apply what she has learned in the classroom to everyday work.

Ms. Henson is especially appreciative of the faith-based education she received at Union. She remembers how well her teachers integrated faith and learning in the classroom and says that this type of education really prepared her for the challenges she has faced during graduate school as she has come to realize that the science community is very much of a mission field. In fact, one of her best memories of Union was a GO trip she had the opportunity to go on to Honduras during spring break of her junior year.

When asked about her future plans, Ms. Henson says she is open to all possibilities. For now she is enjoying the research involved with her Ph.D. work. She does hope to one day go on to do post-doctoral research and later teach biology at the college level while still being involved in research.