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Doctoral student inspires as researcher and mentor

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Lauren Griggs.

The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, which provides support and opportunities for underrepresented students in STEM disciplines at VCU, offers a summer transition program for incoming freshmen students. The six-week program, which features structured online and face-to-face programming, prepares students academically and socially, connecting them with peers and mentors before the first day of class. 

At the conclusion of the program last summer, Lauren Griggs, program director of LSAMP, arranged for the approximately 40 participating students to stand in a circle. She then had the students, one by one, speak about what they would most take with them from their summer experience. Many of the students talked about the power of meeting each other and beginning to feel like they were part of a family at VCU. As the students spoke, they exchanged a ball of yarn. Each student held onto a piece of the thread as the ball was passed randomly within the group. By the end, the thread was interwoven throughout the circle, forming a striking purple web.

Griggs, a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering, then told the group, “This web shows all of the connections that we have created together. Think of this web as a support net for you from now on. We are all here to support each other.” 

Then everyone in the circle came together and hugged.

“That was one of the most overwhelmingly emotional moments of my life,” Griggs said. “I realized that the work we’d done was really important, and that these students had found a group that they could be with their whole four years here.”

Rosalyn Hobson Hargraves, Ph.D., principal investigator for LSAMP, which is funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation, said the moment was an indelibly powerful one, and it had been due largely to Griggs, who not only had coordinated much of the summer program but who had also devised the closing exercise.

“Lauren is going to leave a real legacy at VCU,” said Hargraves, an associate professor in the schools of Education and Engineering. “It’s the kind of legacy you don’t see that often.”

Griggs is the 2016–2017 recipient of the Susan E. Kennedy Memorial Scholarship, which honors the former chair of the VCU Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, a distinguished teacher, scholar and administrator. The merit-based award is given to a graduate student who has advanced the presence of women in higher education while demonstrating excellent scholarly work.

Those who know and work with Griggs, who is in the fifth year of her doctoral program at VCU in the School of Engineering, tend to gush about her. She has that effect on people. A skilled and accomplished researcher, Griggs is also a keen and devoted mentor to students and a talented teacher. She manages to balance her responsibilities without appearing to be in anything less than total control of each of her interests.

“It amazes me,” said Kiana Amy Jackson, a sophomore in the School of Engineering. “I forget she’s a graduate student sometimes. It’s crazy the amount of time she puts into other people. It makes you want to aspire to that.”

 

A standout in the lab

Griggs, who is from Herndon, Virginia, developed an interest in biomedical engineering when she took an introduction to engineering program at the University of Virginia the summer before her senior year of high school. She majored in engineering science, with a concentration in nanomedicine, as an undergraduate at UVA. Although rigorous, the field captivated her.

“I like the combination of it being related to the medical field while also allowing you to develop innovative solutions to problems,” Griggs said.

Griggs elected to continue her studies at VCU. She has worked in the Cell and Matrix Biomechanics Lab of Christopher Lemmon, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, since the fall of 2012. Lemmon, whose lab was less than a year old when Griggs joined it, said Griggs thrived immediately.

“From day one, it felt very much as if I was working with a third- or fourth-year Ph.D. student instead of someone who was just coming out of undergrad,” Lemmon said. “That was tremendously fortunate for me, particularly because I was a new professor without senior students yet. Honestly, Lauren deserves a lot of the credit for the successful lab that we have now.”

Lemmon said Griggs’ mastery of lab management starts with her meticulous planning and attention to detail. She oversees the day-to-day upkeep of Lemmon’s lab and “keeps things moving.” 

“She’s the person who always has sticky notes and her agenda out and she’s writing things down hour by hour,” said Roshni Malik, a VCU alumna who worked with Griggs in Lemmon’s lab as an undergraduate.

Griggs also is a talented experimentalist, Lemmon said, with an uncanny sense of where a research project should naturally progress next. Lemmon said Griggs has research acumen that goes beyond any instruction she has received over the years.

“I can try to direct students how to do what she does, but it’s not as simple as that,” he said. “Lauren has something you can’t really teach.”

Lauren has something you can’t really teach.

Despite Griggs’ obvious aptitude, Lemmon said she lacked confidence when she started at VCU. She did not understand how gifted she was. As the years have progressed, though, and the accolades and accomplishments have accumulated, Lemmon said he has seen Griggs begin to understand her capabilities. This is critical, he said. “If you’re going to be in the scientific community, you have to have the confidence to be willing to stand by your work,” Lemmon said. 

Griggs attributes part of her improving confidence to the work that Lemmon has done with her in recent years, especially overcoming her fear of presenting her research in public. She has begun to travel to conferences to give talks about her research.

“It’s something I never imagined I would do,” Griggs said. “I get so nervous talking in front of a big crowd. Last year, I gave a talk at the biomedical engineering society conference, probably in front of about 200 people in my field. It was exhilarating to do it and to see how receptive and interested they were in what I was working on.” 

Griggs’ research into the cellular properties of cancer earned her a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Service Award individual predoctoral fellowship from the National Institutes of Health. The prestigious grant provides research funding for Griggs into 2018.

The responsibilities of helping to manage Lemmon’s lab combined with the demands of her own research have failed to derail Griggs from her commitment to her fellow students. In fact, she particularly embraces her role as a mentor to other students in the lab. Lemmon said Griggs shows exceptional patience with less experienced students.

Malik said her time working with Griggs in the lab expanded her interest in research. She said Griggs was “a ray of sunshine, a bright positive force in the lab.”

“Even if she’s having a bad day or is behind in her work, she will put aside her whole agenda to be there for you,” said Malik, now in the Master of Biomedical Innovation and Development Program at Georgia Tech. “If you have a big test, she will push aside her work to help you get ready for it. It was such a pleasure being at VCU and working with her.”

 

Finding rewards in mentorship

When she was an undergraduate student, Griggs declined the opportunity to participate in a summer bridge program for underrepresented, first-year students in engineering. She calls it one of her biggest regrets. When she came to VCU and learned of the LSAMP program, she decided she wanted to get involved. 

The program creates a strong cohort of students and makes the demands of their chosen field less daunting. It is designed to increase the representation of underrepresented students in STEM fields and to improve retention and graduation rates for them. Students learn study skills and bond so that they do not feel alone when times get tough. Griggs is among those focused on ensuring that. She serves as the students’ chief contact, organizes activities and assists Hargraves, including with the research component of the program.

Griggs said she is driven by a desire to help students be better prepared than she was.

D’arcy Mays, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research in the College of Humanities and Sciences, presents Lauren Griggs with the Susan E. Kennedy Memorial Scholarship.
D’arcy Mays, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research in the College of Humanities and Sciences, presents Lauren Griggs with the Susan E. Kennedy Memorial Scholarship.

“Knowing they’re not the only ones in this situation can provide them with confidence,” Griggs said. “If they know we’re not going to give up on them, then it will help them understand they shouldn’t give up on themselves.”

Those she helps never feel like an afterthought or burden, Jackson said. Jackson took a class with Griggs as a first-year student on stress management and the transition to college. Jackson loved the class and appreciated the way Griggs sought to help every student in the room.

Jackson stayed in touch with Griggs, who became a mentor to her. Jackson frequently turns to Griggs for advice on both academic and personal matters. 

“As a black woman, she gave me a sense of hope,” said Jackson, a former biomedical engineering major who switched to mechanical engineering. “There are not many black women in this field. It’s been really important to have her in my life.”

Similar to her work in the lab, Griggs’ tenure in LSAMP has been marked by her deft management skills, Hargraves said. She is organized, keeps tight schedules, maintains excellent records and shows authentic, unwavering care for the students in the program.

Griggs manages to push students without pushing them away, Hargraves said. She inspires them without being easy on them. Hargraves cites Griggs’ practice of starting her study skills class with five minutes of mindfulness. The class is quiet, and Griggs plays guided meditations. It places students in a productive mindset for the time ahead.

“I think Lauren is a special resource for many of our undergraduate students and not just for African-American students,” Hargraves said. “She is so approachable and makes the work seem fun and doable. She’s a great cheerleader, a great motivator, and she has high expectations for the students. They often don’t want to disappoint her.”

Unsurprisingly, Hargraves and others see a future for Griggs in higher education. Hargraves said Griggs is the ideal package of teaching, research and service. For her part, Griggs’ dreams follow a similar path. She savors the prospect of a career as a professor and administrator, ambitiously pursuing her research while striving to enrich the lives of students.

“It would be one of the most rewarding things I could do,” Griggs said. “Just to see my students now on a weekly basis is great. They come up to me with all of their issues — academic, personal issues — and I can try to help. To see that the work you have done has positively impacted someone’s life is a profound feeling.”

 

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