January

Elizabeth Wicks is researching a variety of cancer types during her fellowship.
Elizabeth Wicks is researching a variety of cancer types during her fellowship.
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People of the U: Elizabeth Wicks

Published on Tuesday, January 18, 2022

By: Gary Pettus, gpettus@umc.edu

On the day Elizabeth “Lizzy” Wicks delivered the valedictory address for Ocean Springs High School, her brother, Robert, graduated from medical school at Johns Hopkins University.

About two months later, her sister, Marie, took the crown in Vicksburg as Miss Mississippi 2012.

“It was a big year,” said Lizzy Wicks.

The years have only gotten bigger, not least of all for the youngest sibling.

Lizzy Wicks, a third-year medical student at the Medical Center, is doing cancer research as a Sarnoff Fellow, apparently the first person from UMMC ever accepted to this exclusive club of scholars.

Wicks is in the second year of her Sarnoff fellowship, as this certificate states.
Wicks is in the second year of her Sarnoff fellowship, as this certificate states.

The Sarnoff Cardiovascular Research Foundation awarded her a $35,000 stipend to perform investigations for a year at her choice of institutions, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, under the guidance of a Nobel Prize winner.

And then the foundation’s alumni association picked her again. Wicks, a future physician-scientist enrolled in the School of Medicine’s Medical Student Research Program, is now one of only two current second-year Sarnoff fellows.

Jerry Clark
Clark

“We’re quite proud to call her our student,” said Dr. Jerry Clark, student liaison for Student Affairs in the School of Medicine at UMMC.

“She’s very down-to-earth, somebody her classmates, faculty and staff enjoy being around,” said Clark, who supported Wicks’ fellowship application in his previous role as chief student affairs officer and associate dean for Student Affairs in the School of Medicine.

“To see a student with her level of success in research, to be able to help pave the way for a student to become a physician-scientist, is a homerun for the Medical Center.”

Portrait of Dr. Michael McMullan
McMullan

Very few are selected for this “prestigious award,” said Dr. Michael McMullan, professor of medicine, division director of cardiology, and the current associate dean for Student Affairs. “She is the first person I know of from UMMC to be accepted to this program.

“She has reached out to other students to let them know about this opportunity; it’s already clear that she will be a great leader and a great mentor.”

The thing is: This French-speaking graduate of the University of Mississippi’s Croft Institute for International Studies, this music-loving artist-photographer who likes to sing, bake, cook and run marathons, decided to become someone who doesn’t really have to be or do any of those things: a doctor.

It’s not hard to see why she chose medicine if you take a look at her family tree.

Wicks’ grandfather, aunt, mom’s brother, mom’s sister, and mom’s sister’s husband are all dentists. The latter is an orthodontist. And her mom, Caroline, worked as a licensed dental hygienist.

It’s true that Lizzy Wicks strayed somewhat from the family’s dental plan, but she did so primarily because of her closeness to two of her relatives: her grandfather and her brother.

Robert J. Eustice was an encourager, supporter and influential figure for his grandchildren, especially the one who shares part of his name: Elizabeth Eustice Wicks.

“But, when I was in high school, he went in for open-heart surgery, and didn’t make it through,” she said. She wanted to know why the surgery failed; she decided she might learn this by becoming a doctor.

The three former high school valedictorians, from left, Marie, Elizabeth and Robert, convene for a Wicks family moment.
The three former high school valedictorians, from left, Marie, Elizabeth and Robert, convene for a Wicks family moment.

Her brother – Dr. Robert Wicks, now a neurosurgeon in Miami, Florida – has been the most influential of all, she said. “He was the first to go through medical school; he’s been someone I’ve looked up to, and I’m inspired to be like him.”

In fact, the siblings, whose father, Thomas Wicks is a bank trust officer and assistant vice president, are alike in two particularly distinguished ways. Robert was also the Ocean Springs valedictorian, in 2002; sister Marie succeeded him to that place of honor five years later; the former Miss Mississippi is now an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. And all three were inducted into the University of Mississippi Hall of Fame, a distinction reserved for only 10 seniors each year.

“There is no other way to describe my entire family than as a blessing,” said Lizzy Wicks, crediting her parents and grandmother for their “constant encouragement and support.

Following her White Coat Ceremony in 2017, Elizabeth Wicks celebrates with her grandmother, Marie B. Eustice, who along with Wicks' parents, has been a source of "constant encouragement and support."
Following her White Coat Ceremony in 2017, Elizabeth Wicks celebrates with her grandmother, Marie B. Eustice, who along with Wicks' parents, has been a source of "constant encouragement and support."

“They have been there every step of the way cheering me on.”

If Lizzy Wicks felt any pressure to uphold the Wicks’ accomplished name, she must have found release at least by the end of her first year in medical school. Only one medical student from any school can be nominated for the Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship; at UMMC, she was it.

Awarded a $5,000 fellowship by the Alpha Omega Alpha national medical honor society to conduct a research project starting in the summer of 2018, she had one year to write a final report on “Immunomodulatory Biological Scaffolds to Create a Pro-regenerative Environment in the Eye.”

Wicks was representing the Medical Center on a national level.

She represents it, in fact, on many levels. Not only has she served as a tutor to other students, she also has been a mentor to a group of undergraduate and high school students interning for the Open Insulin Project at the Baltimore Underground Science Space.

For the past two years, she has served as a student representative on the international medical student committee, and more, for the Association of Women Surgeons, an organization, she said, that “has strongly defined my medical school experience.”

 It has allowed her, she said, to join a community of women leaders “who will be my life-long friends and colleagues.”

One of those is Dr. Felicitas Koller, who has worked with Wicks in the AWS and with the Jackson Community Response Adopt an Elder Program on a project that provided COVID-19 care kits and more at the start of the pandemic.

Felicitas Koller
Koller

“Lizzy Wicks has a really infectious sense of enthusiasm. She has a true servant’s heart,” said Koller, associate professor of surgery in the Department of Transplant, Hepatobiliary and Pancreatic Surgery at UMMC.

Wicks, Koller said, was one of three medical students who put together the COVID care project; two have since graduated: Dr. Mariam Ebeid, now a medicine/pediatrics resident at UMMC, and Dr. Phuong Le, a pediatrics resident at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis.

“Their project sought to care for the elderly’s physical needs, such as hygiene and food, as well as their emotional needs; they became someone else the elderly could talk to,” Koller said. “This was early in COVID, when lockdowns were so hard.

“In all situations, Lizzy looks for a way to be of service, to do more. Our future leaders in medicine are people like her who can understand both the hard sciences of medicine and the soft sciences of caring for people.”

Wicks is committed to the care of people, especially those with cancer, and to the drug research that may help them. “I’ve been fascinated with cancer research because I know cancer patients go through a lot, and therapeutics can be particularly beneficial,” she said.

“Cancer is a kind of enigma that draws researchers in. It’s that code to be cracked. “

As a Croft Institute scholar, Wicks did a year of study abroad, in 2016, in Switzerland. Here, she takes a break in the southern Swiss town of Zermatt, which is overlooked by the Matterhorn. Wicks actually studied somewhat north of there, in Fribourg.
As a Croft Institute scholar, Wicks did a year of study abroad, in 2016, in Switzerland. Here, she takes a break in the southern Swiss town of Zermatt, which is overlooked by the Matterhorn. Wicks actually studied somewhat north of there, in Fribourg.

This is not a passing interest; it has legs: During the month of September, Wicks ran 130 miles, collecting more than $200 for a fund-raising event benefitting the American Cancer Society and childhood cancer awareness.

At Johns Hopkins, under her Sarnoff fellowship, she is researching metastatic breast cancer, head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, prostate cancer and hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer).

And she’s investigating compounds that inhibit the proteins that serve as the master regulators of oxygen homeostasis, or hypoxia-inducible factors (HIF). At increased amounts, she said, these proteins have been linked with the progression of cancer and with poor prognosis.

Dr. Gregg Semenza won a 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, with two other awardees, for HIF research. He is the principal investigator on Wicks’ project.

“If you ever need anything, Dr. Semenza is there,” Wicks said. “It shows you that no matter how busy you get, you can still make time for people.

“I’m very honored to have this fellowship. The whole Semenza lab team is very encouraging and supportive of one another; I value their mentorship and friendship.

“And how many people get the opportunity to work with a Nobel Prize winner?”

Last year, in Boston, Wicks presented her research to about 100 people: Sarnoff fellowship alumni. Their willingness to reunite with each other in such numbers touched her. “It’s much more than a one-year fellowship,” she said. “It’s lifelong.”

Wicks’ life at the Medical Center, or at least as a medical student, may end in 2023. That’s the year she’s scheduled to graduate. If her plans don’t change, she will start training as a surgeon, no doubt remembering her grandfather often along the way.

Whatever she decides to do, for Lizzy Wicks, it promises to be another big year.


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