Kelvin Chaplin thought about applying his scientific mind to solving crimes – until he met a cancer patient whose disease had spread from his lungs to his brain.

“I saw his suffering,” said the incoming Ph.D. candidate at the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences. “That patient had a real impact on me. I kept thinking, ‘What did he do to deserve this?’ I don’t like to see people in pain. I had thought about forensic science before but now I wanted to develop cures, vaccines even, for cancer. I want to see people healthy.”

Chaplin is one of 66 graduate students who began their studies at the medical school this month. The number of new students is almost double last year’s and they come from 25 states and 14 countries. They bring the Burnett School’s total graduate enrollment to 153 – up from 113 last year.  This year’s new students exemplify several firsts, including 17 master’s candidates enrolled in a new neuroscience program and the college’s first M.D./Ph.D. candidate.

“We are thrilled to welcome these young scientific leaders to the medical school family,” said Dr. Deborah German, vice president for medical affairs and dean of the College of Medicine. “These students share a passion for discovery and health, and our goal is to help them work hard and achieve their dreams.”

To see a video of some of the graduate students at Burnett click here.

Chaplin was raised in South Carolina and before coming to UCF did his undergraduate work at that state’s Claflin University. He sang in a local Baptist church organization, “Full Gospel,” which gave him the opportunity to become active in the community and perform at events. He is the winner of a McNair Doctoral Fellowship, designed to help increase the number of African American Ph.D.s.

Chaplin heard about UCF’s program when he attended graduate school fairs for universities that have McNair programs.  Chaplin is excited because the Burnett School’s Ph.D. candidates spend about a year rotating between labs so they can find their niche. In addition to cancer research, he’s also interested in infectious diseases such as AIDS.

The increase in graduate students is a direct result of a greater emphasis on recruiting in biomedical sciences. Having a healthy mix of graduate and undergraduate students at a university amplifies the education and research taking place.

“Administrators, faculty and students really made a push to be good ambassadors,” said Saleh Naser, associate director of graduate studies, noting that this year, the school received 93 Ph.D. applications compared to 55 last year. Selected applicants were invited to visit the school where they met faculty and toured labs. The applicants also got a chance to tour the city with current Burnett students.

Two key selling points for new students were the ability to do collaborative research with UCF’s Lake Nona partners, including the Orlando VA Medical Center and Nemours Children’s Hospital, as well as local hospital partners Florida Hospital and Orlando Health. Ph.D. candidates particularly like the Burnett School’s practice of having them rotate through different labs during their first year so they can make the best choice for a research specialty and faculty mentor.

Incoming student Nada Abdelmaksoud received an undergraduate and master’s degree in pharmacy at Zagazig University in Egypt and is now seeking a master’s degree from UCF in biotechnology. Her first thesis compared brand and genetic antibiotics. Her goal at UCF, she said, is to expand her scientific and research knowledge to find better chemotherapy treatments for cancer. “You need to have collaborative opportunities between departments and specialties so you broaden your knowledge,” she said. “Expanding my knowledge of cell biology will give me a chance to deal with other fields.”

Ultimately, Abdelmaksoud wants to run her own lab to find new cancer therapies.

Master’s candidate Kaley Garner credits a UCF faculty mentor with getting her interested in heart disease and using new technologies to provide better care. While a biomedical sciences undergraduate, Garner worked in the lab with the College of Medicine’s Dinender Singla in exploring how 3-D printers can be used to model disease states and even protect cells inside the body. Today, an Orlando pediatric cardiac surgeon is using UCF’s 3-D heart to improve surgeries.  And Garner’s experience as a young scientist has her excited about the future.

“Dr. Singla has been my inspiration,” she said. “The more I learn about the heart, the more fascinated I am. I love a challenge. And this research has become a very big challenge.”

Science is a family calling for Michael Rohr and Trina Rudeski, who are engaged. He’s the College of Medicine’s first M.D./Ph.D. candidate who wants to become a physician scientist to treat patients with diseases of the pancreas, gall bladder and liver – like diabetes and cirrhosis. She is a master’s student in biotechnology, has done research with Nobel laureate Bert Sakmann at the Max Planck Florida Institute of Neuroscience and hopes to attend medical school in conjunction with Rohr’s seven-year path to two degrees.

Attracting excellent graduate students is an important step in becoming a top research institution. Those students help produce research that can have a profound impact on communities from the economy to its health.

“Graduate students are the glue that hold research together,” said Elizabeth Klonoff, vice president for research and dean of the College of Graduate Studies. “They not only do a lot of work, but they also provide fresh ideas and perspective. Working alongside faculty, they are essential to conducting the kind of research that makes an impact on our community.”