From Homeless to Top Student Researcher

CEDAR CITY, Utah — From living on the streets of Los Angeles to graduating top of his class,
Donald Long, a first-generation student, says Southern Utah University gave him a second
chance.
After graduating from high school in New Jersey, Long joined the Air Force branch of the
military from 2000 – 2004. There, he learned the value of hard work and loyalty. Stationed in
Kansas for most of this time, he discovered a love for personal training and fitness, which kept
him in Kansas working at a local gym until 2009. Deciding to leave his possessions behind in
Kansas, Long followed his dreams of personal training to California.
Long lived in what he calls a ‘scary, bad neighborhood’ while in California. Working as a
personal trainer at a local gym, he was finally feeling good about his decision to leave Kansas
until he got involved in a neighborhood fight. During the fight, Long was stabbed inches away
from his spine and hospitalized, lucky to be alive.
After his hospital release, Long didn’t want to return to that neighborhood and became homeless
on the streets of Los Angeles. He bounced around multiple VA shelters, trying to keep his job
and survive.
“It got to the point I remember I was sleeping literally on the street,” said Long. “It was the
lowest point of my life. But I thought to myself ‘There’s nowhere but up from here’. So I didn’t
give in. I persevered and told myself I’d make it through this. That experience taught me about
independence, dedication and overcoming insurmountable obstacles.”
A friend convinced Long to move to Cedar City in 2011 and he was able to find a job working at
Gold’s Gym (now Vasa Fitness). He knew about Southern Utah University and wanted to pursue
a degree in medicine, but waited several years before applying to school. The biggest obstacle in
going back to school was the financial cut he’d take as a full time student, but a desire to help his
clients beyond the scope of a gym drove him to enroll at SUU in 2014.
Long began his academic journey in Professor Ty Redd’s organic chemistry course. This
comprehensive and very intense two-semester class educates students to think critically and
independently about organic chemistry through a mechanistic common theme approach to the
subject.

“At times I felt like I was back in military boot camp,” said Long. “But Professor Redd’s
demanding, passionate character really helped to refine my grit toward a vocation as a medical
scientist.”
Though challenging, Long’s academic performance ranked him in the 99th percentile of the
nation on that year’s organic chemistry exit exam nationally standardized by the American
Chemical Society. Redd has personally worked with Long through classes and extracurricular
research, always finding Long to be self-motivated and enthusiastic.
“The manuscript of Donald Long’s life could have been very small, ending with his death at the
hands of a man with a knife, but it did not and Donald is making the best of his second chance,”
said Redd. “His compassion is the fabric of his desire to serve and improve life for others.
Donald is cheerful, engaging, congenial and always lifts those around him. He is a self-motivated
student who challenges himself to succeed.”
While at SUU, Long discovered the ultimate channel for his greatest aspiration – science. With
the help of invaluable mentors like Dr. Ty Redd, department chair of chemistry, Dr. Fredric
Govedich, department chair of biology, and Dr. Bruce Howard, professor of chemistry, Long
discovered his passion to change the world through science.
“During my years at SUU, I have cultivated perfecting the scientific process, which has been
refined over the millions of years of humanity’s existence,” said Long. “A huge component of
the scientific method is being familiar with the ever-shifting foundations of the physical and
biological sciences. One has to grasp the core principles in order to understand what you are
observing in the world which prompts viable questions and hypotheses.”
As a member of the Rural Health Scholars (RHS) Program at SUU, Long has had service and
research opportunities woven into his undergraduate education. Through RHS resources, Long
was accepted to a Summer Research Opportunity Program at the University of Iowa. Last
summer he spent 8+ hours a day researching under Kairuki Maina and Hank Qi, co-PI and PI,
respectively, at the University of Iowa. In Long’s experience, internships are a crucial part of an
undergraduate education, especially if graduate school is a future option.
“Theory, which is invaluable, is what you learn at SUU and, may I say, they do a stellar job of
teaching that,” said Long. “Research skills, the other side of the coin, are what you learn with
these internships. Having these two components makes you a force to be reckoned with – it helps
you know what you are doing and why you are doing it.”
Although this is his first exposure to a research institution’s methodology, Long is no stranger to
lab work. He has spent a considerable amount of time in and outside the classroom collaborating
with professors and learning everything he can. Dr. Howard has mentored Long on multiple
projects and provides invaluable scrutiny to Long’s work.
“At times, I really gritted my teeth as his honest evaluation of my ideas and procedures were like
the sound of nails scraping across a chalkboard, but in hindsight I am greatly appreciative of his

guidance,” said Long. “It has helped me not only refine my scientific methods but has provided
immense insight into how to effectively and efficiently carry out future projects.”
Regarding Long’s research and work ethic, Dr. Howard said:
“Don is one of the most thoughtful, talented, and hard-working students I’ve had the pleasure of
working with at SUU. His perspective on life is well-grounded, and his interests are wide-
ranging. He excels at thinking outside the box and focuses on really understanding concepts and
ideas. As he continues his education, I’m confident he will become an excellent physician and
scientist and will make a real difference in the world.”
As a non-traditional and first-generation student, Long understands the struggles working
professionals face when deciding to go back to school. But as Long has progressed through his
degree, he’s found that hard work in school ‘pays’ in scholarships, grants and invaluable
internship opportunities.
Long has a deeply rooted thirst to engage in research and has been involved in four major
projects while at SUU. Two of these projects have been funded by the National Science
Foundation, and two via granted fellowships. He has investigated the effects of a community's
unique irrigational system on its local water chemistry and analyzed the effects nutrient
enrichment and pharmaceutical pollution has on stream biofilms. He’s analyzed inhibitors for an
enzyme linked to Tuberculosis, which is still a persistent disease in the 21st century. He’s also
evaluated the effects of genetically modified soy-based baby formula on the
methylation/acetylation patterns, reproduction, and development in Drosophila Melanogaster
over seven generations. He has presented his work at national conferences.
“Going back to school was the best decision I’ve made,” said Long. “I am beyond grateful for
the opportunities my professors at SUU have given me to grow as a scientist. They have
prepared me for the country’s top medical programs and have taught me the value of intensive
research.”
Long will graduate this May with a double major in biology and nutrition and a minor in
chemistry. He will take the MCAT and start applying for medical schools this fall with the goal
to study internal medicine. During his gap year, Long has plans for a post-baccalaureate
program, which entails a year of intensive research at an R-1 institution.
About Southern Utah University
Established in 1897, Southern Utah University evolved from a teacher training institution to
Utah's designated masters university, offering over 140 undergraduate and 19 graduate programs.
With world class project based learning, unique undergraduate research opportunities, and a
personalized learning environment (18:1) students lead projects mentored by professors. True to
the University's core vision, SUU faculty, staff and administrators enable students to honor
thought in all its finest forms, achieve excellence in their chosen field, and create positive change
in the world.

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