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November 2008 Issue

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Doctoral Student Finds 'Art of Discovery' in Pharmacy's Cosmetic Science Program

Published November 2008

Jody Ebanks finds research to be extremely creative.

That’s a good thing, considering that in addition to science, one of her passions is art. The third-year PhD student selected the College of Pharmacy’s cosmetic science program so that she could weave her love for art into the art of discovery.

Born in Jamaica, Ebanks moved to Massachusetts when she was 7 years old and was always interested in drawing and painting, but was pulled to science and earned her undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Boston College.

She received the Albert C. Yates Scholarship from UC—an honor designed to recruit and retain underrepresented ethnic minorities in UC’s graduate programs. It’s given only to those nominated by their department.

As a Yates Fellow, Ebanks receives a scholarship which covers tuition, general fees and a stipend to assist in the first year of graduate study. While an undergraduate student in Boston, Ebanks participated in research, but now in graduate school she writes her own research protocols and has a lot more freedom to focus on the science most interesting to her—pigment-cell chemistry.

Within the cosmetic science program, Ebanks works with an advisor, Randall Wickett, PhD, to get guidance on coursework and research interests. With many graduate programs, students also work directly with their advisors to conduct research, but in Ebanks’ case, her interests—spurred by a colleague in the dermatology department—were better suited for another lab.

Although she’s a student in the College of Pharmacy, Ebanks is working in the College of Medicine laboratory of UC dermatology professor Raymond Boissy, PhD.

A graduate assistantship supports her as she investigates the biochemistry of skin pigmentation. She’s doing this by studying the specific cells responsible for making and receiving the skin’s pigment, called melanin.

Ebanks’ research is relevant to beauty care products, but could also be applied to skin disorders such as hyperpigmentation—a condition that leads to darkening of areas on the skin—or burn patients who’ve lost pigmentation.

She spends much of her time working with human tissue cultures, which means she’s in the lab a lot. In fact, culturing skin cells can take several months.

“The skin cell cultures kind of become your children,” says Ebanks. She admits that much of what she does involves troubleshooting since the studies she’s conducting are so novel, but it’s that type of work that allows Ebanks to channel her creativity.

“Research is about elucidating some process that everyone has been wondering about,” she says. “It’s about the quest to find some answer that no one has ever found before.”

Ebanks says that with research, you often think that you will get started and that there is a set path to how things will go. But, she adds, that’s not the case.

“It often doesn’t do what you want it to do. You get in there thinking this is going to be easy. It becomes a challenge of course. It guides you and you are not guiding how it will happen. You sometimes get the complete opposite of what you expected.

“Which is just fine,” she says.

The “unexpected” is where researchers get creative, rethinking logic, making changes, modifying timelines or going in different routes.

And what frustrates her most about research?

“Repetition,” she says. “But you have to remember that all the time you’ve spent hasn’t been wasted. It is a process and it might not work the first time you do it.”

UC’s cosmetic science program—which was the first of its kind when it began in the 1970s—is one of only a few PhD-granting cosmetic science programs in the world. Fewer than five master’s and PhD students are accepted to UC’s program each year.

The university added an online cosmetic science master’s program in fall 2006. Nearly 40 students have taken classes through the online program, with four already admitted as matriculated students.

Graduates of the cosmetic science program often go on to work in the cosmetic or beauty industry or continue research and teaching in an academic setting.

Ebanks isn’t sure where she’ll end up. For now, she remains focused on her research—which she estimates she’ll wrap up in 2.5 years—and is looking forward to the day she sees her name in print in a research publication.

“I’d mail it to my mom to say, ‘Look what I did!’”

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