The Columns

The Dart Internships at W&L: Five Years Strong

— by on May 14th, 2015

In March, Phil Marella ’81 and his wife, Andrea, visited campus, not only to visit their son Phil, who is a first-year student here, but to also personally deliver a check from Dana’s Angels Research Trust (DART) to President Ken Ruscio ’76. For the fifth straight year, those funds will be used to place W&L students into some of the most prestigious labs in the country to work on a disease that has a deeply personal meaning for the Marella family.

The yearly visits began in 2011, when Marella approached W&L with the idea that DART could provide research stipends for undergraduate students majoring in science. The organization, founded by Marella, raises money in support of research on Niemann-Pick Type C (NPC), a lysosomal storage disease that manifests predominantly as a collection of progressive, degenerative neuropathologies. At the moment there is no cure. Marella’s son Andrew suffers from the disease, and his daughter, Dana, died of it 2013.

In trying to help their children, the Marellas discovered that because so there are few diagnosed cases of NPC — about 200 in the U.S. and 500 around the world — there is very little research being done on the disease. They have become vigorous advocates for research into its cause and potential cure and, through DART, have established collaborations with five laboratories for the support of accelerated research of the disease.

Over the last four years, funds from DART have helped place 16 W&L students into top-notch research facilities, and this summer, another five will begin their stints:

Bob Stewart, chair of W&L’s Psychology Department, said, “This is such a unique experience for our students, and I have to hand it to Phil, the members of DART and the principal investigators (PIs) for taking a chance on our students, because they don’t have a lot of science under their belt. But from everything I’ve heard, our students have impressed the PIs.” He noted that McCauley Massie, who worked for the Nobel laureate laureate Joseph Goldstein ’62 last summer, has been hired to continue her work with his lab after graduation and before she starts graduate school.

The DART internships are quite a bit different from others that W&L students can access. “A couple of the lab groups attend the DART fundraising gala over Memorial Day, and they meet the Marellas, other families with NPC kids, NCP kids and the scientists,” Stewart said. “When they get into the lab, some students are using cells obtained from NPC patients, others are seeing patients or working with clinical faculty. The closeness of the science to the patient makes this experience particularly unique. The research they are doing has a very human face associated with it.”

When students return from their internship, Stewart notices an immediate difference. “Virtually every student who has been through this internship is now in graduate school. Of course, that was their intent from the very beginning, but having this experience—working with the graduate students, the post docs, PIs, the professional staff — changes their view of what they need to do to achieve their objectives. The education they receive from W&L and the DART internship experience is synergistic, and that was the intention from the beginning of this collaboration.”