CLEMSON, South Carolina — When biochemistry student Leland Dunwoodie interviewed to be a part of Clemson University’s Student Government (CUSG) nearly four years ago, he thought he was a shoo-in for Undergraduate Student Senate. However, he ended up being placed on Freshman Council instead, where he learned the principles of servant leadership and how to be an effective collaborator.

Dunwoodie leans against a tree in his headshot.

Dunwoodie will serve as President of the Undergraduate Student Senate during the 2017-18 academic year.
Image Credit: Bryce on a Boat Photography

Now a rising senior at Clemson, Dunwoodie said that losing out on Student Senate as a freshman was exactly what he needed when he needed it. The skills he gained on Freshman Council inspired him to try for Student Senate two more times, eventually landing him his current role of 2017-18 Undergraduate Student Senate president.

“Student Senate president is a role that I’m really excited about and a role that I’m really honored to take,” said Dunwoodie, who is from Milton, Georgia. “My past roles in Student Government have had me doing projects, directly mentoring my peers in some of their projects, as well as collaborating with others on theirs. This role will be more about empowering others and empowering others to empower others. It’s going to be a shift in the way I’m looking at problems, which I think will be really good for me, and I hope for everyone involved.”

Dunwoodie will direct Senate’s committee chairs and executive team, as well as lead Student Senate’s weekly meetings. Dunwoodie will also serve as a voice for the university’s student population in meetings with campus administrators.

Beyond these basic duties of the position, Dunwoodie hopes to move Student Senate in a fresh direction.

“For me, that means helping senators take on initiatives that will impact Clemson students,” Dunwoodie said. “I think Senate’s done an awesome job in the past of handling the finances, structure and legislation involved with Student Senate. I’d love to see us carry on that tradition, but I also want every senator to do something – collaborate on something, finish something – that they can point to and be proud of and that personally impacts Clemson students. At the end of the day, that’s what I think we’re all here for in Student Government: to positively impact Clemson students and grow in the process.”

Dunwoodie also wants to implement a system that allows all Clemson students to feel comfortable – encouraged, even – when seeking help from Student Government.

“Every student that steps on campus should know they have a friend in CUSG regardless of who they are. I don’t know if that’s attainable, but it’s something I’m going to shoot for,” Dunwoodie said.

Next to CUSG, Dunwoodie’s other passion is his undergraduate research, which he conducts under professor Alex Feltus in the department of genetics and biochemistry. There, he investigates gene networks, which are groups of genes that work together to control a specific process or protein. Dunwoodie’s gene network of interest is specific to glioblastoma, an invasive form of brain cancer.

“I think it’s interesting, because many traditional scientific approaches have been: ‘Let’s find one gene that we can knock out to make the tumor go away.’ But, by understanding coexpression –  how groups of genes are expressed and controlled together – we can look at a broader, network-level approach that leads to some interesting insights,” Dunwoodie said.

Research intuition like this is what Feltus emphasizes about Dunwoodie.

“Leland has been an excellent collaborator,” Feltus said. “He aggressively dissects biological problems using wet and dry lab methods and is already making an impact in biomedical research. For example, he has identified several genes that appear to be mis-expressed in brain cancer and has authored a scientific manuscript currently in peer review.”

Dunwoodie’s success in his undergraduate research has helped him acquire three external internships during his summer breaks from Clemson. He spent summer 2015 and 2016 at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he studied pancreatic cancer and autophagy, or the breakdown of proteins and organs within a biological cell. Currently, he is finishing up another study of pancreatic cancer at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

It’s his research with Feltus and his efforts in Student Government that have inspired Dunwoodie’s career plans after graduation.

“My passion for interacting, leading and empowering people through Student Government, in addition to the informatics side that Dr. Feltus has taught me, have put me in a unique position,” Dunwoodie said. “I’m hoping to become a clinician that uses informatics to gain new insights into diseases and to help researchers advance the standard of care. I think, as a physician-informaticist, I will have room to navigate. It’s a unique career path, and it could be an interesting bridge between working with people and working with the newest technology.”

His future career is something he might not have discovered, if it wasn’t for the problem-solving skills that Feltus urged him to develop.

Dunwoodie plans to graduate in May 2018 with a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry.

“I’ve been blessed to be in the right place at the right time,” he said.