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Big Green working machine: East grad stays busy in Ivy League
Dartmouth is filled with high-level athletes, elite students and superb scientific researchers.
Senior Tyler Melancon, a Plano East alum, just happens to be all three.
Melancon is a standout outside linebacker for the Big Green football team, a Norris Cotton Cancer Center Research Fellow, John L. Murphy Family Fund Award winner and intricately involved with cancer research at Dartmouth Medical.
“Tyler is juggling a lot of things, but that’s the type of person we look for,” said Buddy Teevens, Dartmouth head football coach. “He takes his studies just as seriously as he does his play on the field; he’s the type of student-athlete we hold up as an example of what our school is about.”
Melancon’s desire to do cancer research stems back to his grandmother having the disease twice, but his desire to get into the medical field goes back even further.
“I have wanted to be a doctor since I was a kid,” Melancon said. “I did clinical rotations when I was a junior at East and also got to work with the blood bank and in the radiology and microbiology departments. Once I saw what medicine actually was about, I really became interested in the disease aspect of the field.”
Melancon, who is president of the Dartmouth chapter of Minority Association of Pre-Health Students, intensified his involvement in the medical field in 2011.
In conjunction with The Tucker Foundation, Melancon traveled to the Dominican Republic in March as part of an alternative Spring Break.
“That was a life-changing moment,” Melancon said. “We got to work with a Haitian migrant community on a variety of improvement projects. We painted a lot and built infrastructure for an internet center.
“It was a really humbling experience that opened my eyes.”
Melancon, who had already spent a summer researching at Yale, returned to school looking for an on-campus position so he could train for the upcoming football season.
“It basically just came down to did Tyler qualify. And they said no,” said Dr. Yolanda Sanchez, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Dartmouth Medical. “But Tyler is a very resourceful young man; he went and talked to the current dean, the former dean and his football coach for assistance.
“He’s just that kind of kid. He puts his mind to something and won’t be stopped.”
Melancon was granted a spot in the medical research program under Sanchez.
The project Melancon worked on during the summer is based on the knowledge that mutations that drive a cell to become cancerous rewire the cell in such a way that exposes vulnerabilities that a normal cell doesn’t have. By learning about the vulnerabilities of cells that have these mutations, therapies could be devised to kill the cells with the cancer-promoting mutations and spare the normal cells.
The process Melancon’s team rewired is causative in 30 percent of lung cancers and almost all pancreatic cancers.
Recently, the group found that four of its developed compounds stop the growth of human tumor cells of neuronal origin and pancreatic tumor cells from mice.
“Although these studies are at the very beginning of the drug discovery pipeline,” Sanchez said, “we are very excited about the implications of our findings and we are very grateful for the support that has allowed an undergraduate like Tyler to play a critical role during this process.
“And I can say with pride that Tyler is one of the top students I have had the honor to work with. I never thought football hands could be research hands.”
Though Melancon fits in academically, he doesn’t exactly line up with the rest of the researchers physically.
“Tyler is bigger than most of my undergrads,” Sanchez said. “And it’s kind of funny because I have him training with two of the smaller ones in the program.”
A combination that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Yeah, there is definitely a height difference,” Melancon said with a chuckle.
Getting laughs in has been important for Melancon this summer as he hasn’t had time for much else.
“There hasn’t been a lot of free time,” Melancon said, “but some of the work is fun, so maybe that counts.”
A typical day for Melancon during the summer has consisted of working in the lab from 7 a.m.-3 p.m., though that is sometimes extended to 5 p.m. if experiments are ongoing. From there, the former Panther works out until 8 p.m., grabs some food and goes to the library, where he also works. Melancon then returns home for bed, which is at 11 p.m. or midnight, “on a good day,” and starts the process over again the next day.
“It can be pretty tough sometimes,” Melancon said, “but I think it’s just a matter of time management.”
Melancon was set to return to the Metroplex this week, but cancelled the trip.
“I just thought it would be better if I stayed here, watched film and worked out with the team,” he said.
The need for that stems from the proximity to the beginning of the Dartmouth season, which starts Sept. 17 when the Big Green hosts Colgate. The start of the season also means the end of Melancon’s work with Sanchez … for now.
“Tyler has already told me he is coming back after the fall,” Sanchez said. “He’s very organized and has already worked things around his classes so he can come back.”
Sanchez will still see Melancon this fall as she is an avid Dartmouth football supporter. That fandom stems from the fact her brother-in-law, Donald Dobes, is the Big Green defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.
“I already went to a lot of games,” Sanchez said, “but now I want to go even more to watch Tyler play.”
And Melancon should play more than ever in 2011.
“Tyler is a game guy,” Teevens said. “He has good fundamentals and understands the schematics of the game.”
Melancon, who was a first team all-district player and first team all-state student as a senior at East, saw his freshman and sophomore college seasons limited by injury. But the outside linebacker was fifth on the team in tackles and third in tackles for loss last season despite starting just two games. As a junior, Melancon registered 10 tackles and a fumble recovery against Holy Cross and equaled that career best with 10 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss against Brown.
“Tyler suffered through some injuries early in his career, but stayed with it and developed steadily over time,” Teevens said. “The more playing time he got last year, the more confidence he gained and the more we used him.
“I really think Tyler has the ability to be one of the dominant guys in our league.”
But Melancon is more concerned with his team’s spot in the Ivy League than his own.
“I’ll play my role and do whatever is best for the team,” he said. “We are in a tough league, but I think we can win it. We have 17 returners and are going to have a really good team.”
Dartmouth has been picked to finish fifth in the Ivy League by the media, which is the highest the Big Green have been slotted since 2004.
A big season could give Dartmouth a league title and put Melancon on the NFL’s radar.
“I’ve thought about the NFL, of course,” Melancon said, “but I think I would be better served by pursuing my academic interests.”
After graduating in the spring, Melancon plans on seeking further fellowships, including a research spot at UT Southwestern Medical School. Melancon said he will seek an MD and MBA in hopes of becoming a clinical doctor, with specializations in oncology and immunology, and eventually entering health care administration.
“I’m sure if Tyler wanted the NFL, he could make a serious run at that,” Teevens said. “But if not, he is the type of person that could be a lawyer, engineer, investment banker or doctor; whatever he wants.
“Tyler is someone we will all be talking about when he graduates.”
BY Kevin Hageland, Star Local News