UCF Student to Conduct Research at Mayo Clinic After Graduation

Justin Barthel loves science and medicine – the meticulous details of how the body’s systems, chemicals and cells create health and fight disease. After graduating with honors from UCF on May 6, he will join Mayo Clinic to pursue cancer research — the next step toward his dream of becoming a doctor and addressing the healthcare inequalities that harm minority communities .

At Mayo Clinic, he will participate in the ReTOOL (Research Training Opportunities for Outstanding Leaders) program, a cancer research training program for underrepresented minority graduate students at the hospital’s Jacksonville, Florida campus. Barthel says he’s keen to understand and find solutions to the health disparities that cause people of color to disproportionately be diagnosed with and die from cancer.

“It feels great to actually be able to do research in a hospital,” says Barthel, who will continue to prepare for his upcoming medical college admissions exam after completing his bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Sciences. “Going from college to Mayo – one of the best hospitals in America – is incredible.”

Barthel was awarded the UCF’s Order of Pegasus Award, the university’s highest honor for students. He is a distinguished LEAD Scholar graduate, a member of the President’s Leadership Council, an Eagle Scout, a Knight of Distinction, a Burnett Honors Scholar and a community volunteer at Orlando Regional Medical Center. He says his parents — his father, an occupational therapist, and his mother, a pharmacist — instilled in him a passion for medicine and learning. Weeks after graduating from UCF College of Medicine, Barthel’s sister will graduate high school and prepare to study biomedicine at UCF.

“UCF offers you four fantastic years to immerse yourself in science and research projects,” he says. “You just have to take advantage of these opportunities. I couldn’t have done it without my mentors. I had numerous mentors who gave me more opportunities to network with medical officials. I learned the basics of leadership strategies and of course practical research methods.”

As an undergraduate, Barthel participated in three research projects, including a bachelor’s thesis with honors examining vaccine skepticism against COVID-19 in the UCF student population. Through this research, he also examined the common misperceptions students have about COVID-19. Inspired by his fascination with neurology, he created a computer design of gene therapy for Charcot-Marie-Tooth type 1A disease. This debilitating disease causes nerve damage, particularly in the arms and legs. He also researched the expression of the phenylethanolamine-N-methyltransferase (PNMT) gene under Steven Ebert to study its effects on the brain, potentially leading to neurological disorders such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

As a black man, he hopes his research experience will inspire other minorities to pursue careers in science and medicine.

“So often people say, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ My advice to them is to change their thinking: what if it works?” he says. “Don’t let self-doubt keep you from your dreams.”

He came to UCF in part because of LEAD Scholars Academy, a selective academic leadership development program dedicated to developing the leadership skills of students through community service. He served as executive director of the group’s Leadership Excellence Board, where he organized a mentoring workshop for students at Union Park Middle School.

“I was able to meet a diverse group of inspirational leaders (at UCF) who motivated me to look to the many medical opportunities that lie in store for my future,” says Barthel. “During my time at UCF, I have been able to use my managerial, academic and service experiences to collaborate with various campus organizations and undertake original research projects. The impactful teachings of the university provided me with numerous opportunities to strive for excellence.”

He also volunteered with Shepherd’s Hope, which provides medical care to the community’s underserved residents. He served as a patient transporter at Memorial Hospital in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, where he was known for his kind, caring approach that helped comfort patients in their times of need and pain. He helped other UCF biomedical sciences students as a peer mentor and was a board member of the Pre-Professional Medical Society.

“Justin has the academic strengths, research experience, and friendly personality that will serve him well in his future medical career,” said Assistant Professor Alicia Hawthorne, who led Barthel’s bachelor’s thesis project with honors on student reluctance to vaccinate against COVID-19 . The results of this study will be shared with UCF Student Health Services. Hawthorne and Barthel hope to publish their findings.