For Rachael Smith, earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a concentration in biochemistry from UM in December 2020 was just the first step toward making groundbreaking discoveries in the international medical field.
During her time as an undergraduate at Montevallo, Smith was selected to serve as an intern at Harvard University Medical School in the summer of 2020. The internship was made possible through a partnership with one of UM’s distinguished alumni, Dr. Richard Cummings ’74.
During her summer internship, Smith began studying a specific protein in the body that, when absent, can cause many forms of illness.
Smith’s research in 2020 was so promising that she was invited to return to Harvard Medical School for several months after she graduated from UM to continue her work.
Shortly into her second internship at Harvard, Smith recorded a medical breakthrough through her work. She was able to identify two patients in Germany who had a mutated version of the protein she researched during her first internship – the first time in the world the mutated protein had been identified
“The hope is that we will be able to create a therapeutic drug for people with this mutated protein,” Smith said. “Because these patients were identified, more and more patients will likely be identified because doctors will be screening for it. If we are able to design a drug that replaces the protein, it would change the lives of patients identified with this mutation.”
Smith plans to continue her research at Harvard until she begins attending Vanderbilt University in the fall to work toward her doctorate in the university’s interdisciplinary graduate program in biomedical sciences. After earning her doctorate, Smith said she plans to become a medical school professor and continue performing medical research.
The myriad accomplishments Smith has already seen in her life are directly tied to her time at Montevallo. From the first time she set foot on campus, she knew it was where she belonged.
“When I visited, I fell in love with the campus,” she said. “I also loved the faculty and the feeling that they cared about me and I wasn’t just another student to them.”
Smith found no shortage of ways to get involved on the UM campus. She competed on the women’s soccer team her freshman year before switching her focus to undergraduate research. She was also involved with the University Conduct Council, was a Montevallo Master, served as junior senator in SGA and worked remotely for the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization researching influenza.
For Smith, the personalized attention from the UM faculty proved invaluable in setting her up for future success.
“My professors at UM spent time ensuring that I would actually learn and retain the material for a lifetime rather than memorize for the test and forget it soon after,” Smith said. “This has been tremendously helpful during my time at Harvard, and I am certain it will prove to be useful preparation for graduate studies.”