Three nights a week for four hours a night, Nicole Hensch was at a night class to become a registered pharmacy technician.
“It was a lot of work, and I was a senior in high school. I still had homework and extracurricular activities, but I was able to become a licensed pharmacy technician right after,” she said.
Hensch did exactly that and worked at Walgreens as a pharmacy technician during her freshman year of college.
However, while she was completing the prerequisites for pharmacy school, she realized that being a pharmacist was not the career for her.
“Being a pharmacy technician was what I expected because of my training, but I realized I liked the science behind the medicine and pharmaceuticals more,” she said. “I thought maybe I could design the drugs instead.”
Hensch attended California State University—Fullerton, where she received a Bachelor’s in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology.
“I didn’t have a lot of lab experience in my undergrad, and I knew I wanted to work in industry; however, I didn’t want to apply for jobs with no hands-on experience,” she explained.
Fortuitously, she found out about the Master’s in Pharmaceutical Sciences program at Western University of Health Sciences, where she gained a lot of practical experience by working in a lab with research focusing on platelet signaling in patients with an increased risk of getting a heart attack or stroke.
“Although I got good hands-on experience of working in a lab, I didn’t learn techniques that I felt were applicable to other types of research – like cell culturing – which would be important in the future,” she said. “The lab research and techniques were very specific to platelets. And when I thought about it, I realized by earning a Ph.D. I would have a more encompassing knowledge and skillset before I went to industry.”
Hensch started applying for graduate school outside of her Southern California bubble before deciding on UT Health San Antonio’s Integrated Biomedical Science Ph.D. program.
“I liked the integrated aspect, where people are doing different types research and you are able to have that relationship where you can ask questions and see how everything is interconnected,” she said.
She is a Ph.D. Candidate in the lab of Dr. Myron Ignatius, where she looks at zebrafish models to study tumor heterogeneity.
“I like this research because it’s a niche field; not many people utilize the zebrafish animal model, and the assays are totally unique and different than mice.”
She is currently involved in several projects, ranging from identifying and characterizing cancer stem cell populations in malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumors (MPNSTs) to narrowing down a mechanism for radioresistance in rhabdomyosarcoma.
Her dissertation project is focused on finding out exactly why rhabdomyosarcoma cells with lower levels of the transcriptional repressor, SNAI2, are more sensitive to radiation.
“We’re almost there; we have a few theories on which apoptotic players are being directly regulated by SNAI2. This could be the start of designing a targeted approach to the most common soft tissue pediatric cancer, a malignancy that currently does not have a targeted therapy.”
Besides school, she is also involved in the local collegiate chapter of her sorority Delta Zeta’s branch at St. Mary’s University.
“I was really involved in college, and I’m now serving as their Panhellenic Advisor and New Member Education Advisor.”
In the future, she still wants to be in industry, although she is open to other career possibilities.
“Whether it’s a start up or a big pharmaceutical company, I’m not sure. But I like the idea of being on the bench researching and envisioning how to make drugs better.”
This article was written by Charlotte Anthony, marketing specialist at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at UT Health San Antonio. This article is part of the “Meet The Researcher” series which showcases researchers at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.