Cherry Hill native forging path of scientific discovery with modern twist

Recognition for Potts’ work arrives via social media push.

Cherry Hill native Thomas Potts has gained fame via social media for a breakthrough in at Drew University’s Summer Science Institute (DSSI) lab, centered on the role of the IFI16 protein in immune system signaling and potential implications to the HIV virus. (Photo credit: Stuart Dezenhall/Drew University/Special to the Sun)

Cherry Hill native Thomas Potts is majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology, about to begin his final undergraduate year at Drew University in Madison. While those in the discipline might dream about one day making a breakthrough with a disease or virus, nobody ever thinks about becoming an internet sensation.

According to the July edition of Drew’s magazine, Potts was conducting research in Professor Brianne Barker’s Drew Summer Science Institute lab, centered on the role of the IFI16 protein in immune system signaling, and potential implications to the HIV virus. The results ended up revealing another protein interacting with IFI16. 

“I was doing DSSI, it’s an eight-week program where you get into small groups with a primary investigator or a research mentor. We were doing some immunology and biology research, and part of that is doing a thing called a ‘western blot’ which is used to study proteins that are inside a cell, and study how those proteins interact with other proteins because we’re studying this one specific protein, IFI16, and it’s a tricky, difficult and annoying procedure,” Potts explained. 

“About halfway through, after we’d done troubleshooting, I did this list of western blot images, and they turned out surprisingly well. My main research mentor, Dr. Barker, took a picture of one of them, tweeted it out, and said something to the effect of ‘I have a student, he’s going to be a senior, he’s doing research and looking at PhD programs, can I just submit this instead of a letter of recommendation,’ just as a joke.” 

The tweet served to boost the prospects for Potts’ immediate future plans, which involve remaining in academia to pursue a doctorate. 

“Actually my No. 1 place came from what Drew wrote the story on. It got picked up, about a week after (Barker) tweeted it, and got over 1,000 likes. A few representatives from schools said they’d be interested, and one of them was the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas. l looked into it some more and right now, it’s my No. 1 choice for PhD programs,” he said. 

While Potts wouldn’t reveal all of his potential choices to pursue his passion, he did admit that, of the remaining five or six schools that piqued his interest, Cornell University caught his eye due to interesting research dealing with HIV and genomics. 

Potts’ family put down roots in the Kingston section of the township when he was in fourth grade, and never left. The graduate of Kingston Elementary, Carusi Middle School and Cherry Hill High School West (class of 2017) also spent time in his childhood residing in Voorhees and Connecticut. 

Potts credits Ed Hart, his freshman-year biology teacher at West, for stoking the fires of scientific discovery. 

“I knew going into high school that I definitely liked science, math and STEM stuff more than humanities and art. I took Bio 1 honors, and almost every class was him standing in front of a blank SmartBoard with a topic and he would do a loose lecture, him talking … and it was all super interesting. You could tell he enjoyed all of it. He could just talk about the circulatory system for three hours if you let him,” he revealed.

Under normal circumstances, many collegiate matriculators will take the path of least resistance once confronted with the realities of their dream major and the work involved. Not so for Potts, who relishes the academic rigor of taking on more responsibility.

“Biochem and molecular biology are kind of two or three majors combined into one. I was a biology major, but I switched last year because it was a little more specifically what I want to do. I’m only going to be (an undergrad) for three years. Because I took a lot of AP classes at West, I did my first year at Rutgers New Brunswick, and then I transferred into Drew. I’ve done one year at Rutgers, last year at Drew, then another there and I’m going to graduate.”

Regardless of where his intended PhD studies might take him, Potts still has his mind set on his ultimate goal. 

“Back in freshman year of high school, I knew I wanted to be a bio major in college and that’s when I started deciding that I wanted to eventually end up teaching science. That’s my end goal: teaching and mentoring students.”

For more information on the DSSI, visit: https://www.drew.edu/science-research/about-us/drew-summer-science-institute/, and to learn more about Launch, visit: https://www.drew.edu/academics/undergraduate-studies/launch/