For all his knowledge about complex topics like robotics and cell biology, Chris Clifford ’21 does not know how to simply decompress. Clifford finished his electrical engineering degree in December, and he’s scheduled to leave for Cambridge, England, in October to continue his ongoing research in stem-cell therapy as UCF’s first-ever Gates Cambridge Scholar. It is among the most prestigious postgraduate scholarships in the world, with Clifford among just 23 researchers chosen from the U.S. because of the potential of their work to improve lives globally.
For the next few months, though, no one would shame Clifford for watching Ozark past midnight and sleeping until noon.
Instead, he’s up at 5:45 a.m.
“There’s a lot I want to accomplish before I leave,” Clifford says.
Start with the robot he designed for his senior project. It’s been graded and evaluated, but Clifford will not shove the prototype under a bed as a college memento. He’s perfecting the kinetics so medical researchers can actually use the robot to delicately transfer chemicals between plates of cells without using their hands. Clifford saw a need for precise automation during three summers interning in Mayo Clinic labs.
“I’ll donate the robot to Mayo when it’s finished,” he says matter-of-factly.
When he isn’t working on the robot, Clifford is working in a lab at AdventHealth where he continues the momentum he’s established on a potential cure for type-1 diabetes (T1D). He thinks it’s silly to wonder why he’d volunteer his time and expertise when he could be on a boat.
“My only objective is to make progress with the stem-cell therapy,” he says.
In all of his spare time between making a lab-ready robot and curing T1D, Clifford is studying for his pilot’s license.
“It’s an outlet for my engineering education,” Clifford says. “There’s a lot going on all at once in the cockpit — flight regulations, lift, safety, fuel dynamics. I find that enjoyable.”
A couple of questions come to mind: Does this guy have 36-hour days? And, by the way, how does a 23-year-old in an electrical engineering program get involved in … stem-cell research?
The answer to that last question is tucked under Clifford’s waistband.
How an Engineer Becomes a Medical Researcher
It should be no surprise that Clifford studied engineering at UCF. He grew up in Titusville, 20 minutes from the NASA Causeway Bridge. Both of his parents are engineers. One sister graduated with an engineering degree from UCF two years before Clifford did the same. Another sister is a pediatrician.
“My mom has always told us to do what we love,” Clifford says. “My sister who’s the pediatrician became a role model for her work in medicine. That was important when my life changed so much when I was 14.”
On a flight to visit family in upstate New York the summer before his freshman year of high school, a strange thirst overwhelmed Clifford. He had to urinate constantly, too. A few days later his uncle took him in for tests, which revealed Clifford had T1D. The first year of high school would be stressful enough, but now he had the added pressure of checking his blood sugar throughout the day and worrying if at any moment he might collapse in front of everyone. At lunch he’d find empty classrooms and crawl under desks to inject insulin. It was easier to hide than to explain to other teenagers what he was doing. He didn’t realize it at the time, but at least two other classmates were doing the exact same thing.
Every day he thought, “There has to be a better way to deal with type-one diabetes.”
When he entered UCF, Clifford didn’t know anything about lab research and he certainly didn’t foresee an interest in stem cells.
“It just … happened,” he says.
As a Burnett Honors Scholar, Clifford had the opportunity to work in a lab with Sam Song, an associate professor in UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. They explored a method where people in sensitive situations (combat or law enforcement) could use vibrations in garments to communicate, without making noise. They also worked on improving the process of harvesting cartilage for grafts. In that lab, the “what-ifs” began to pour from Clifford’s inquisitive mind. During that first semester, he also came across something else he didn’t expect at UCF: a T1D club.
“Unless you live with diabetes on a daily basis, you have no idea how mentally taxing it is,” Clifford says. “You’re always thinking about the insulin. You hope the beeper on your pump doesn’t go off in class. You have to explain to your professors why you might be snacking. There’s the concern about insurance and how to pay for supplies. The people in the [Type 1] club became my best friends because we could all relate to the nuances of the disease.”
They also helped Clifford clarify his purpose: To bring normalcy to the lives of everyone who’s diagnosed with T1D.
From UCF to Gates Cambridge
Four years of stem-cell research and a series of internships later, Clifford will take everything he’s learned to Cambridge, where he’ll work alongside others who’ve been chosen for their passion to use research on details as small as a stem cell to solve big problems. It also helps that Clifford can explain his work so anyone can appreciate it.
“Technically, I could receive stem-cell therapy right now for my diabetes, but one of two things would happen. My body would react by destroying healthy cells, or I’d have to take immunosuppressant drugs with dangerous side effects. I’m trying to find a way to protect the stem cells from the immune system so our bodies will accept them for long periods of time and allow the T1D to be alleviated. Eventually, we could apply it to other diseases, too.”
Clifford’s progress obviously made his application for the Gates Cambridge scholarship stand out. So did his engineering degree, and the robot he’s refining.
“Biology research labs like having someone who’s experienced with software and programming,” Clifford says.
Perhaps most important, though, is his determination find a solution for millions of people like him.
“That’s what I admired about the professors at UCF — they love what they do,” he says. “It motivates them to be better every day. I want that, too, knowing my work will make a difference in the lives of people all over the world.”
Students interested in applying for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship or other major national awards should contact the Office of Prestigious Awards at firstname.lastname@example.org.