When he talks about the research he’s doing at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, doctoral student Richard Vestal says he sometimes marvels at how he got here.

At age 48, he admits to being a late bloomer in science research. But he’s here for a very personal reason – to help find a more effective treatment for the cancer that claimed his father.

His father died in October 2007, and Vestal gets emotional talking about it. The cause of death: a brain tumor that was diagnosed as glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of terminal brain cancer. Victims, on average, survive only 15 months. It is the form of cancer that brought down Sen. Ted Kennedy.

“It was a tough time for me and for our family,” Vestal said. “My dad only made it about 10 months after he had surgery to remove the tumor.”

The family ordeal began in December of 2006, nine days after his final exams at Duke University, where Vestal, at age 42, was pursuing a bachelor’s degrees in biology and history. He had transferred from the biotechnology program at Alamance Community College. His mother called to say his dad might have had a stroke, but the diagnosis would be much worse.

Vestal went on to graduate from Duke, knowing that cancer research and science were areas in which he wanted to pursue a career. He came to UNCG to pursue a master of science degree in biology. While he was studying and teaching labs for three years, planning began on the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (JSNN) by UNCG and NC A&T.

“I was looking for an area to do further work, and I didn’t even know about the JSNN until someone in the graduate school told me,” Vestal said. “I went to talk to Dean Jim Ryan. I told him what I wanted to do and why I wanted to pursue doctoral work. This is such a great opportunity.”

Vestal is a member of the JSNN’s inaugural class of 18 doctoral students, and hopes to complete his doctorate in nanoscience in May 2014. His project, titled “Targeting the Atypical Chemokine Receptor CXCR7 for the Treatment of Glioblastoma (GBM),” won a first-place award at this week’s Graduate Research & Creativity Expo, garnering Vestal a $1,000 prize. The research is conducted with some of the most advanced technology in the state, including the school’s Orion helium ion microscope, the only one of its kind in the Southeast.

His explanation of the research is understandably technical, laced with terminology that requires a degree in biology to grasp. Simplified, however, the work is aimed at discovering a more effective way to deliver chemotherapy to cancer cells without the debilitating side effects that can ruin a patient’s quality of life. If he can develop a successful procedure, it could eventually lead to an improved prognosis for glioblastoma patients, and could be modified to treat other types of cancer.

A long and looping path brought Vestal to research at the JSNN. He didn’t take to college right after high school graduation, although he did go to Davidson County Community College for a while before dropping out. Along the way back to academia, he worked as a welder, a bartender, a caterer and, at one point, as the facility manager of the Empire Room in Greensboro – a resume that he describes as “varied.”

But his motivation has never wavered.

By Steve Gilliam, University Relations

Photography by Chris English, University Relations