Jim Heidings has always loved science and research. He remembers as a child watching scientists on TV working in the lab, wearing their white coats and doing “cool” research.

Sixty-one new graduate students begin programs at the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences this week, including 17 doctoral candidates and 42 master’s students.

“I was never a strong academic and so I thought it was a dream that was far-fetched for me,” he says. “It was not until I did a lab-based course as an undergrad that I realized that science and research is not something that is impossible to do, it’s something that you can learn to do and I started doing more of it and now I’m here.”

Today, as a budding scientist, he researches actin, a protein that allows cancer cells to metastasize or spread with hopes of finding a new anti-metastatic drug.

Heidings, who begins his master’s degree in biotechnology this fall, is one of 61 new graduate students who begin programs at the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences this week.

The group includes 17 doctoral candidates and 42 master’s students who, with the mentorship of faculty, will do research in areas including infectious diseases, neurosciences, cancer and cardiovascular/metabolic diseases.

Two students are enrolled in a joint M.D.-Ph.D. program that will prepare them to become physician-scientists.

Six students are enrolled in a new program this year — a master’s in integrated medical sciences, designed to prepare students who want to go to medical school or enter other health professions. The program allows students to take two first-year M.D. program courses along with graduate school courses.

“This year we received almost 400 applications across all programs, a significant increase from last year when we received 280,” says Saleh Naser, associate director of Burnett’s graduate program. “This is a testament to the growth of our programs, our multidisciplinary faculty, and an increase in the visibility of our school and its offerings.”

The new students come from a range of backgrounds including biomedical sciences, psychology, exercise physiology, environmental health and statistics.  They are from 14 countries including Germany, the Philippines, Japan, Egypt, Libya and Peru, and also represent 14 states. Many hope to go on to medical school or pursue careers in dentistry, veterinary medicine, environmental health and pharmaceutics.

The students were welcomed with a weeklong schedule of orientation activities that included a research colloquium featuring 66 poster presentations from current graduate students.

Trina Rudeski-Rohr is one of two new students who will be doing the joint M.D.-Ph.D. program. She joins her husband, Michael, who is also in the joint program, entering his third year. She previously earned a master’s in biotechnology at UCF, where she researched age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as glaucoma and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“I want to approach medical care with a creative and kindhearted perspective and at the same time would also like to pursue groundbreaking research which may directly impact patient care,” she says. “A career combining research and medicine in this field feels like a perfect way for me to help bridge the gap between research and medicine.”

Many students, such as Sakina Miller, are excited about the opportunity to do research for the first time.

“Coming to this colloquium and seeing all the different posters and research really piqued my interest and has me thinking about a lot of things I want to do research on,” says Miller, who will study metabolic and cardiovascular sciences in her master’s program. “I’ve always been interested in fetal and maternal health and would love to do research on health disparities in outcomes in different races.”