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Alumnus gives back by supporting genetic research

The Department of Biological Sciences at Boise State is researching genes that will help scientists better understand where body features like limbs develop — and when.

“The significance and possibilities that this research may hold are most likely to impact individuals with rare inherited diseases,” said Julia Oxford, a professor and the Lori and Duane Stueckle Endowed Chair of Biological Sciences.

researchers in lab
Graduate student Prayer Kasikar (left) with Julia Oxford.

Oxford’s research into Hox genes, elements that regulate the development of everything from the jaw and ears to fingers and toes, has received a boost with the $350,000 gift from retired neurosurgeon and author Theodore Obenchain who decided, while a student at then-Boise Junior College in the mid-1950s, to study medicine.

“Due to several inspirational professors, I received a first-class education at Boise Junior College — much better than one might have expected given its small size,” he said. “By tradition it is said
that one should not only give to a cause greater than one’s self but also to increase the donation up to a pain-inducing level. I have attempted to satisfy both these rules.”

After studying at Boise Junior College, Obenchain graduated from the University of Utah Medical School, then embarked on his 35-year career as a neurosurgeon. In retirement, Obenchain pursued a second career writing books on medical history. His contribution to the study of Hox genes, he said, is a way to contribute to current medical and scientific research.

Hox genes are essential to the expression of specific parts of the body plan, yet scientists know relatively little about their continued roles after an animal is born. Studying them, as Oxford does using zebrafish embryos, could lead to insights into uncommon genetic diseases, bone growth illnesses like early-onset osteoarthritis, and missing bones or limbs at birth. It also could help researchers better understand what triggers cartilage cell growth, one of the contributing factors of human height.

“Dr. Obenchain’s incredibly generous gift in support of developmental biology, the Department of Biological Sciences, and one of our college’s most stellar researchers, Dr. Julia Oxford, aligns perfectly with this mission and will create a positive impact that is felt for years to come, not just within our college and university, but far beyond,” said Leslie Durham, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences