Two VCU grads named to list of inspiring Black scientists

Tiffany Rolle and Nisan Hubbard have been recognized by the website Cell Mentor. Both honed their research skills through VCU’s Center on Health Disparities.

Tiffany Rolle and Nisan Hubbard.
Tiffany Rolle and Nisan Hubbard have been recognized by the website Cell Mentor. Both honed their research skills through VCU’s Center on Health Disparities.

A website dedicated to helping researchers and scientific professionals connect and improve their careers has recognized two Virginia Commonwealth University graduates. 

Cell Mentor compiled a list of “1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists in America,” and College of Humanities and Sciences graduates Nisan Hubbard, Ph.D., and Tiffany Rolle, Ph.D., were included.

A group of academics and researchers across the country developed the list. Candidates are nominated and then judged based on academic portfolios, advocacy, social-justice outreach and mentorship efforts. The goal is to inspire “the next generation of Black scientists and other minoritized individuals to enhance and empower our culture’s dignity,” according to Cell Mentor’s website.

Hubbard and Rolle said they were honored to be on the list and hope that they can inspire Black students to enter research.

“I always have seen my job as being a pipeline for the next generation,” said Hubbard, who graduated from VCU with a B.S. in biology in 2012. “I want to see people who are inspired by lists like this.”

Both Hubbard and Rolle honed their research skills through the VCU Center on Health Disparities, which strives to eliminate health disparities and also trains underrepresented groups in biomedical science by providing research experiences. Hubbard said the program played an important role in his career choices because it was his first exposure to research. Early in his academic career, Hubbard was focused on going to medical school but taking part in research through the center opened other doors.

“It wasn’t until I went into research that my mindset was changed,” said Hubbard, now a postdoctoral research fellow in cell biology and physiology at the University of North Carolina. “I realized I could effect change differently in the field of biology and life itself by pursuing my doctorate.”

Rolle, who earned a B.S. in forensic science from VCU in 2012, is a first-generation college graduate, and said she was not exposed to research as a career while she was growing up. Her research as an undergraduate showed her that pursuing a doctorate and undertaking research was a viable career option. Today she is a genetics education and engagement fellow at the National Human Genome Research Institute and a member of the American Society of Human Genetics.

“The center allowed me to work in laboratories at VCU Medical Center,” Rolle said. “It was a great opportunity to further my career and consider working toward a Ph.D. It’s very helpful to understand how a lab works and showed me the dedication needed to be a Ph.D. student.”

Rolle is now trying to inspire others to seek careers in research. At her fellowship at the National Human Genome Research Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health), she tries to increase the number of underrepresented groups in the sciences. She helps undergrads understand the opportunities that exist in the sciences, and lists such as the 1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists are important toward achieving that goal. Black and brown students need to recognize that others have been successful in the field, Rolle said.

“I didn’t necessarily picture myself in that role growing up,” Rolle said. “I think people who are in lower resource areas, or [from] backgrounds that are underrepresented, they maybe don’t have exposure to these opportunities or even know that there are career options that exist.”

Hubbard believes mentors play a significant role. He said he would not have been successful without mentors — including several at VCU — who challenged him and helped him further his career. Science, he said, is a lot more than someone in a lab wearing a white coat, and mentors are the ones who can help potential scientists see the opportunities.

“You have to expose young students [to] how big the field of science is even outside the field of biology,” Hubbard said. 

Jennifer Malat, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, was excited when she learned that people associated with VCU were on the Cell Mentor list. The university works hard to provide research opportunities to underrepresented groups, she said. Several other scientists who completed training and postdoctoral fellowships at VCU were on the list.

"VCU is an ideal place for students to gain hands-on research experience,” Malat said. “We know how important it is for future scientists to have research opportunities early in their academic careers, as undergraduates, and very few universities can offer the type of collaboration that exists between the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences and the School of Medicine. I am proud that the college was a part of Nisan [Hubbard] and Tiffany [Rolle’s] educational journeys. I can't wait to see where their careers take them."

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