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Graduation 2020

Pursuing Important Discoveries in Cancer Research

Honored Graduating Student: Zachary Ewell (MMBio)

Zachary Ewell is a student graduating in molecular and microbiology. He plans on pursuing a career in cancer research.

When Zachary (Zach) Ewell was 15 years old, he stumbled across a NOVA documentary episode called “The Ghost in Your Genes.” The documentary featured epigenetics: an exciting field of genetics research that studies how factors such as disease and the environment could tie to genome modifications. That night, Ewell immersed himself in the Brigham Young University website, where he looked over the various majors, ultimately deciding that he wanted to study microbiology.

On his first day at BYU New Student Orientation, Ewell learned about the dual doctoral degree for physician-scientists (MD-PhD) and decided that was the degree he would achieve. “A doctor is able to help one patient at a time,” he said. “But through research, you’re able to help multiple people at a time, perhaps many more.”

One day after class, Ewell talked to his MMBIO 121 professor Dr. Kim O’Neill and asked about getting involved in O’Neill’s lab. Ewell was welcomed into the lab and began conducting cancer research.

Ewell was captivated by lab research and the myriad of molecular biology classes he took. Through his research and studies, he has had the opportunity to present at the annual international meetings for the American Association for Cancer Research. He also presented at the BYU Cancer Symposium alongside the BYU Simmons Center for Cancer Research, where he spoke about his journey into cancer research.

No stranger to a full schedule, Ewell volunteered at Utah Valley Hospital as part of his MD-PhD preparation, where he worked in wound care, the emergency department, and operating rooms. Last summer, he also completed an internship at Tolero Pharmaceuticals in Lehi, where he focused on identifying a particular protein that facilitated the development of cancer cells. The research required intense and precise work that was also incredibly rewarding.

While cancer research is Ewell’s primary field of study, he has many interests and will also graduate with a minor in music. Ewell has played the piano since he was three and a half years old and the organ since he was 14. He played the organ during a student devotional with Elder Bednar and has also played the piano with local jazz performing groups. When he is not playing music or busy with school, Ewell enjoys hiking, reading, and cooking with his wife.

After graduation, Ewell will continue working in cancer research with a local pharmaceutical start-up while he applies for MD-PhD programs. He hopes that one day he will become an immuno-oncologist where he can use and modify the immune system to treat cancer.

Ewell reflects fondly on his experience at BYU as one that was spiritually uplifting and intellectually enlarging. He appreciates many of his professors who helped him learn he was not just understanding science on its own: “The things we do in the lab give us insight into how God works too.” Zach is excited to continue exploring the building blocks of life. “When you look at the sheer complexity of the cell, how intricate mechanisms all work together, then you can see how everything comes together on a bigger scale,” he says.