Hitched to a STAR

Graduating chemistry, biological sciences and psychological sciences major Aidan Wirrick rode Mizzou’s research preparatory program to career-altering laboratory opportunities.

Aidan Wirrick portrait

May 8, 2023
Contact: Marcus Wilkins, wilkinsm@missouri.edu

Aidan Wirrick came to the University of Missouri from Ballwin, Missouri, as a motivated freshman looking to fully embrace the 30,000-foot view. With a father in microbiology and a mother in communications at a manufacturing company, he had been exposed to varied career paths as a youngster.

At Mizzou, Wirrick broadened his perspective even further. Initially a pre-med major, he enjoyed an academic “sampler platter” of chemistry, biological sciences, psychological sciences — you name it. Then he enrolled in the Student Training for Advancing Research (STAR) program through the Office of Undergraduate Research and discovered his passion for hands-on research.

Thanks to STAR — and a summer internship at the renowned Cleveland Clinic — Wirrick joined the MU Molecular Imaging and Theranostics Center as a junior where he worked with Carolyn Anderson, Simon-Ellebracht Professor in Medicinal Chemistry and professor of radiology. There, he researched targeted radiopharmaceutical cancer therapies supplied by the MU Research Reactor (MURR) and parlayed that experience into a summer 2022 internship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center — which is affiliated with Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. After graduation, he is headed back to Cornell to pursue a PhD.

Read on for a Q&A with Wirrick about his Mizzou experience.

How did you become interested in research?

I grew up in a family with parents who encouraged me to pursue my interest in health care. I originally thought that I wanted to do the pre-med track, and I was looking for job-shadowing opportunities. But during COVID, hospitals were all locked down. So, I enrolled in Mizzou’s STAR program to learn about research. I ended up falling in love with it.

I realized that a doctor’s ability to treat patients isn’t necessarily dependent on the quality of hospitals — or even the doctors themselves — but often it comes down to the available technologies and knowledge.

Describe your research. Why is it important?

The actual research process in my day-to-day is sort of like baking a cake: You weigh out your flour, sugar, eggs, etc. Of course, our ingredients are different, and you have to be a lot more careful in the laboratory. We create compounds using isotopes from MURR and employ a concept called “theranostics” — a combination of “therapy” and “diagnostics.”

The goal is for a radiopharmaceutical drug to be used for treatment and diagnosis. Ultimately, the drug would be injected into a patient, and technicians or doctors can image where the tumors are located. Then, for therapy, you use a different isotope with the exact same compound, and it will go directly to the tumor cells and destroy them.

How has Mizzou helped you take advantage of networking and advancing your academic career?

Dr. Anderson encouraged me to apply to the internship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which is the No. 2 cancer center in the U.S. and known for its groundbreaking clinical trials. While I was there, my mentor was a Mizzou alumnus — Naga Vara Kishore Pillarsetty.

In Dr. Pillarsetty’s lab, I used the same radiochemistry techniques that I use at Mizzou, but instead of using them to label pharmaceuticals, I was labeling components of a vaccine.

How has Mizzou propelled you into your future, and where do you hope that leads?

I wouldn’t have been able to find my niche anywhere but Mizzou; there are so many unique opportunities here. Of course, you hear about Mizzou’s excellence in journalism, but we also have a research reactor, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and some of the best math and physics teachers. There are tons of ways to get involved, and so many research opportunities — it’s mind-boggling. Because of the people who have inspired me at Mizzou, I hope to someday go into academic research and mentor future students like myself.

Meet more spring 2023 graduates

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