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Joint Effort

Above: Dr. Amy Stockert and sixth-year pharmacy student Emily Wells have researched together for more than five years.

Students integrate into professor’s career-shaping research

Every great scientific discovery started out as just an idea, and you never know where the next great idea will come from.

Dr. Amy Stockert, associate professor of biochemistry in the Raabe College of Pharmacy, has researched the positive effects of cinnamon on the body for six years now. This research has focused primarily on using cinnamon supplements to combat diabetes, and in the last few years, it’s even extended into anti-cancer and anti-aging potential. It has taken her, and several students, to great lengths, most recently being featured by Time magazine and CNN as a trending topic on healthy living. 

Emily Wells, a sixth-year pharmacy major from New Carlisle, Ohio, is one of those students. She began working in Stockert’s lab as a high school student and has spent more than five years as a student researcher. She has co-authored seven published abstracts and presented at six professional conferences across the country. She’s now vying for competitive residency programs, thanks to the experience she’s compiled.

These opportunities have been rewarding and effective, as they have directly affected my decision to pursue a residency,” she says. “Having the knowledge set on how to write professionally and having published abstracts have validated my work in research, and it truly makes the long hours in the lab feel worthwhile.

Martin Brenneman, a fourth-year pharmacy major from Forest, Ohio, is in his third year of assisting with cinnamon research. He’s worked with Dr. Tarek Mahfouz, associate professor in pharmaceutical chemistry, in developing computer modeling to aid the research. A diabetic himself, Brenneman was initially drawn to the research because of his personal connection, but he didn’t anticipate the heights it would bring him to. He found himself giving multiple presentations on his research at national conferences, including a podium presentation in Boston among some of the brightest professionals in the field.

“That particular presentation really pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and grow, as I was the only undergrad student to present at the conference – all the other presenters were Ph.D.s who are experts in their fields,” he says. “I was terrified, but when I finished I felt very proud that I was able to present to so many people much smarter than me.”

Matt Hill, a fourth-year pharmacy major from Little Hocking, Ohio, has gained critical-thinking and problem-solving skills by probing the anti-cancer potential of cinnamon, but the research means much more to him than just data and skill.

I have an even deeper connection with this research,” he says. “As a pediatric cancer survivor, my time with Dr. Stockert has allowed me to take an active role in fighting back against a disease that has taken so much from me – all in hopes that I could, in some small way, help to prevent other kids from ever having to face the same experiences.

And the list of contributors goes on. Pharmacy students Olivia Dinsmore, Rachel Bulko, Rawan Aljehani, Katie Bova, Joe Marchiano and Michael Young have also assisted in Stockert’s lab. Dr. David Kinder, professor of medicinal chemistry, and Dr. Amy Aulthouse, professor of biological sciences, have been involved as well.

All of this time and effort has resulted in amazing experiences and garnered national media outlet attention, and amazingly, it all started with a high school student who wanted to help people.

During her junior year of high school, Ashley (Hoehn) Burnett, PharmD ’16, presented at Ohio Northern University’s annual hosting of the district high school science fair. Her project examined the positive effects of cinnamon on pre-diabetics’ glucose levels. It was a project near and dear to her heart, one she’d been working on since the eighth grade. Stockert was a judge for the event, and when she saw Burnett’s project, it really piqued her interest.

As a high school student, Ashley Burnett won several national awards for her science fair project about the influences of cinnamon on pre-diabetics.“From judging Ashley’s poster, I thought the project had a lot of potential, and I felt like if we polished it up, it could be published,” Stockert says. “So I invited her, as a high school student, to work on it with me on campus.”

It was the beginning of a special working relationship between Stockert and Burnett, who worked together in Stockert’s lab throughout Burnett’s senior year of high school. After graduating from high school, Burnett chose to attend ONU to earn her PharmD, which allowed her to continue researching cinnamon with Stockert all through college too.

Burnett was a second-year pharmacy student when the journal article she co-authored was published. It was a day she’ll never forget.

"What really stands out to me is the day that the paper got published,” Burnett recalls. “I was worried about how my grades were going to turn out for the semester, and the day I found out was the same day that the paper came out. I was so excited. A goal all throughout high school was to be able to get to that point."

Burnett graduated from ONU in 2016, and she now works as a retail pharmacist in Delphos, Ohio. She’d put in a lot of time and energy toward the research she inspired. But discovery is a slow process, and research takes time. Stockert continues to expand the ongoing research, and several students have helped pick up where Burnett left off.

It was definitely cool when Time magazine and the CNN article came out,” Burnett says. “It was neat to see the link to my original research that Stockert helped me get out there, because even though it was how long ago, it’s still nice to know that the research I worked so hard on is still being carried out.

Inspiration comes in many forms, often through unexpected means. Prior to meeting Burnett, Stockert may not have imagined how much her life and career would change from judging at that high school science fair competition. It was certainly a chance meeting she will always be grateful for.

"I’m really thankful to Ashley to have presented something that I just happened to be interested in,” Stockert says. “My favorite part has been to see how the students have been able to integrate into my career and to see them so excited to be part of it."

It’s amazing how one idea can spark a passion, passing down from person to person, gaining momentum, until it’s become a movement. Science is and always has been a chain, connecting centuries of scientists all working toward a common good. That said, all of ONU’s cinnamon researchers count themselves lucky to be in such good company.