Dr. DNA

Susan Murphy Experience, Winter 2018

Reagan Barnett, PhD
Assistant Professor of Biology

Self-proclaimed right-brained thinker Reagan Barnett was on track for grad school to study biomedical Egyptology — diseases in mummies — when at age 20 her own health took a frightening turn. But instead of derailing her life and career, illness changed her focus from studying diseases in the dead to preventing them in the living.

“Colon cancer runs in my family,” said Dr. Barnett, who joined University of Mobile as assistant professor of biology in August. “Having spent many years studying the Bible, I was emotionally prepared before I got sick. God was in it, and I knew He had me.”

Barnett went for treatment to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and after four difficult surgeries in four months, she spent the rest of the year recuperating. During down time, she began reading papers on the genetics of cancer, how it forms and why some succumb to it.

“I really didn’t know enough about science,” said Barnett. “I’m not wired that way. I think like an artist.”

She continued researching and got involved in patient advocacy work during recovery. Barnett found herself in New York City delivering a speech on hereditary cancer syndrome to doctors. One of them encouraged her to go back to school and study science.

Yeah, right, she thought.

Smart Enough?

Barnett began rethinking her future and concluded that the part of biomedical archaeology she enjoyed most was medical. Why don’t I do something related to medicine, she wondered. 

“I believed I wasn’t smart enough for that,” she said. “But God asked me, ‘Is that a good reason not to try?’”

Barnett applied for a PhD program at the University of South Alabama (USA) College of Medicine, but didn’t get in. A professor called her in for a meeting and encouraged her to volunteer. She went one better: she began auditing classes and volunteering to get experience in a field in which she had little understanding.

“I wanted to show I was committed,” she said. “Though I didn’t receive credit, it helped lay a foundation for the science I needed to learn.”

Accepted to the program after reapplying the following year, Barnett also took every opportunity to continue learning by enrolling in certification programs. One such course she took was Teaching and Instructional Design.

God-incidences

“Strange things happened along the way — things that were preparing me for the future,” she said.

For instance, during Barnett’s second year in graduate school, she attended a conference and shared information from a session on her professional Twitter account. A doctor from Houston was at the same conference, saw the Tweet and asked to meet her for coffee. Before the conversation ended, he offered her a postdoctoral fellowship to study hereditary cancer prevention at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the nation’s top cancer hospital.

After finishing the PhD program at USA, she and David Barnett, whom she had married prior to grad school, decided to take time to travel, decompressing for eight months before heading to Houston for the fellowship. David left his family’s business in Mobile and the two continued her medical research journey in the nation’s fourth largest city. Last year, the couple rode out Hurricane Harvey in their third-floor Houston Medical Center apartment, confined for a week as 25 feet of water rose then subsided around their building.

“Over the course of the fellowship, God began showing me that research was not a good fit if I planned to spend time with my family,” she said. The couple, though not initially planning to return to Mobile, decided David should get back to the family business. 

Shaping Others

The Barnetts began volunteering with Roads of Hope, an organization that brought several Ukrainian youth to Mobile to make a plea for adoption. The same week Barnett began her job at UM, the couple decided to adopt a 16-year-old girl from the Ukraine. “We had never even thought about adoption before,” she confessed. 

Hindsight allows Barnett to see the wonder of God’s weaving together her life choices, cancer diagnosis and educational pursuits to deliver her lovingly where she is today. Because of professors and others who mentored her along the way, she has a driving passion for helping students find their way.

“Offering practical skills in science for students to take into future jobs is my focus,” said Barnett. “Introducing genetic software programs and online database tools in the classroom will help develop their career skills.”

Students in Barnett’s internship programs and those in her classes will have the benefit not only of her scholarship, but also practical life experiences she offers as a mentor who has followed Christ’s leading throughout her life and career.

“A Christ-centered university is important in helping students focus on more than academics,” she said. “As an undergrad and throughout my educational career, professors have served me well as life coaches and mentors. Their influence has shaped me.”

As important as the influence of her mentors was Barnett’s experience with colon cancer, which has taken her places she would never have gone and caused her to become someone she never would otherwise have been. “What I have after cancer is worth all I went through,” she said. “God really does create beauty out of ashes.”

WORDS TO LIVE BY:

“God allows us to experience the low points of life in order to teach us lessons that we could learn in no other way.” —C. S. Lewis

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Susan Murphy