Student Spotlight: Charles Coomer

University of Kentucky's Charles Coomer is the first UK MD/PhD student to be accepted into the National Institutes of Health Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program.

This program will allow Coomer to continue his study of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) with an international collaborative approach using both NIH and Oxford labs.

NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program is a four-year doctoral training program based on the British system where students participate in doctoral research. Students participate in doctoral research with their choice of courses in their interest of study. Participants are selected based on their demonstrated passion for science and research through past job or undergraduate research experiences.

As an undergraduate at Western Kentucky University, Coomer spent his summers as a fellow working under Dr. Mary Kearney at the National Cancer Institute. There he was exposed to medicine and basic research in relation to HIV. It was then that Coomer discovered his passion for studying the virus.

"The public health problem that HIV presents across the globe, although catastrophic, offers an exciting opportunity to meld basic science research, virology, and medicine," said Coomer. "The fact that the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars program has now allowed me an outlet to pursue this research, which gets me out of bed every morning, at highly regarded research institutions, is beyond a dream come true."

Coomer credits Kearney and his advisors from WKU, Dr. Rodney King and Dr. Audra Jennings for their teaching and support. After a few years of his fellowship with the NCI and with the help of his advisors, Coomer applied to the University College London as a Fulbright Scholar. There he was exposed to the lab culture of the U.K. and protease-inhibitor resistance, a different HIV research technique. It gave him the opportunity to understand more broadly how HIV affects the world and the importance of international collaboration in research and study.

"The experiences I have culminated at the NCI and UCL have solidified that I want to pursue a career that focuses heavily on curative strategies against HIV, focusing on international collaboration and using science as a catalyst for global advocacy for those affected by the virus," said Coomer.

At the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program, Coomer's studies will focus on Southern African adolescents with congenitally-acquired HIV. As opposed to infants who acquire the disease from their mothers during pregnancy and experience rapid disease progression, those with congenitally-acquired HIV tend to be relatively healthy with almost normal immune systems and low HIV viral levels.