Direct family ties, plus a “real welcoming, family feel,” play a strong part in Matt Hardee’s memories of Henderson State University. Hardee, who graduated Henderson in 2000, is now an assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He received his Ph.D. from Duke University’s Medical Scientist Training Program in 2007. But Henderson is still a special place for Hardee.
“I majored in chemistry,” he said. “Other than chemistry and biology courses, I’d say my favorite class at Henderson was medieval literature. That’s actually a question I got a lot in medical school interviews. I remember doing a project on hunting in the Middle Ages, which was a lot of fun to research.
“I had some really great instructors at HSU,” Hardee said. “The ones who come to mind immediately are Peggy Doris, Mike Matthews, Ann Smith, John Graves, David Thomson, Bill Gentry, and Margaret Shaw. Their common theme was their ability to push students and get them to think for themselves, beyond the required coursework. The best at doing that, certainly, was my father (John Hardee), who is still teaching and now dean of the Ellis College.”
Hardee said he “still keeps up with most of the happenings at Henderson” via his father. “I still keep in touch with the chemistry and biology departments. I was just recently there giving a talk to the new cancer biology class in the biology department. The friends I made at Henderson are still some of my best friends to this day, and I have stayed in close contact with them since finishing. Henderson has a real welcoming, family feel and that I've always remembered.”
He said he went to medical and graduate schools “with people who went to undergraduate schools all over the country, including a significant number of Ivy League schools. I have always felt that I entered medical school as prepared as any of them. Obviously, there is a certain amount of personal responsibility on the part of students to actually do the work and take advantage of their opportunities, but I think Henderson provides students – me, anyway – every opportunity to do just about anything they are set on doing.”
His professors at Henderson consistently expected him to do more than just score well on exams. “They weren’t as interested in simple memorization skills as they were interested in the ability to think critically and apply concepts taught in class.”
He said his parents, John and Brenda Hardee, played a big part in his academic and career success.
“Obviously, my father has been at Henderson some time as a physical chemistry professor, chair of the chemistry department and now dean of the Ellis College. My mother is now retired, but was a librarian in the Arkadelphia school system for years. They have been incredibly supportive of me my whole life, and I owe a great deal to them.”
He said that one of the experiences that significantly shaped his life was his involvement in junior tennis.
“I started playing competitively around the age of 11, and it grew from there. Within a couple of years, I was competing not only in tournaments in Arkansas but all over the country. It was an all-around great experience. I eventually scaled tennis back to focus on academics, but I learned about work-ethic and dedication. It was also a great experience meeting different people and getting to travel. It required a significant time and financial investment from my parents, for which I’m still grateful.”
Working in the field of science was always on his mind.
“For about as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to do something science-related, and medicine seemed like the best fit for my goals,” he said. “I got involved in a great undergraduate research project with Dee Palmer on superconductors, which really sparked my interest in pursuing research and led me to apply to M.D./Ph.D. programs.”
From Henderson, Hardee went to Duke, where he studied for seven years.
“I really enjoyed my time at Duke. To its core, Duke is an academic environment and really promotes academic and research pursuits among medical students,” Hardee said. “I did my Ph.D. in the laboratory of Mark W. Dewhirst, who is a giant in the field of radiation oncology and the tumor microenvironment. My time in his lab taught me so much that I still use today, and solidified my choice of radiation oncology as a specialty.”
Hardee said he appreciates other aspects of learning at Duke.
“Aside from the education itself, I’d say that appreciation for academia and the willingness of faculty to collaborate on projects were the big things I took away from Duke, and an appreciation for what it is like to live and breathe college basketball.
“I really felt like I belonged and was well-prepared with proper study habits and the realization that you had to do more than just memorize entering medical school at Duke,” Hardee said.
He did his residency at the New York University School of Medicine.
“My experience at NYU was great, as well, certainly an experience I'll never forget. Living in New York City took quite an adjustment and was something I had never imagined doing, but I had a good time. I did my internship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for a year, then residency at NYU for an additional four years.
“My time at NYU was just an overall great experience, meeting some really great people from all over and getting top-notch clinical training in an environment like no other. I was lucky enough to be able to continue my research interests during residency, as well.”
After finishing his residency at the end of June 2012, Hardee accepted a position at UAMS in the Department of Radiation Oncology.
“As the Winthrop Rockefeller Cancer Institute is growing, our department has been undergoing lots of changes, for the better, and moving towards a more academic environment,” he said. “Arkansas does not have a radiation oncology residency program. I’m very interested in teaching, and one of the reasons I accepted the job was to help start a residency program.
“Just about every aspect of my job is fulfilling, from patient care to research to teaching. Patient care is particularly fulfilling, and I’m asked all the time whether taking care of (cancer) patients is depressing. It’s all about setting goals for each patient, whether it’s to cure them or help with some symptom they have.”
He said one of his goals is to make sure he helps the radiation oncology department grow and to be a successful component of the Cancer Institute at UAMS.
Still, Henderson remains home.
“I’ve been around Henderson since I was 7 years old, my father has taught there for over 25 years, my sister and my wife both graduated from Henderson; I’d say I have a good idea about what Henderson is about,” he said. “I would absolutely recommend Henderson to anyone considering it, and I do all the time. If you are willing to put the work in, Henderson can provide you with the foundation to pursue just about anything you are interested in. And it's a great environment; I've always felt at home at Henderson, whether it was when I was 7 and hanging around bugging my father’s students or when I was a senior on the tennis team.
He is married to Julie (Pennington) Hardee, a 2002 Henderson graduate.