Dec. 9, 2022
Class of 2022: Four standouts in research training program for underrepresented students earn their doctorates
The Initiative for Maximizing Student Development program at VCU expands opportunities for biomedical students from historically excluded groups. Four Ph.D. students from the program will be graduating this month, the biggest class in its history.
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Since 2010, the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development Ph.D. Program at Virginia Commonwealth University has provided training for individuals from groups traditionally underrepresented in biomedical research. This month, four IMSD students will be graduating with their doctoral degrees, an all-time high for the program:
- Lois Akinola, Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology from the School of Medicine.
- Deon Brown, Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the College of Humanities and Sciences.
- Fatmata Sesay, Ph.D. in clinical and translational sciences from the Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research.
- Gladys Shaw, Ph.D. in neuroscience from the School of Medicine.
Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the program provides students with financial and academic support in their first two years of Ph.D. training. This includes help with tuition and fees, a stipend to fund research projects and attend conferences, mentoring from IMSD faculty, and exposure to different research experiences, though this year’s graduates say the program provides even more than that.
“One of the biggest values of the IMSD program is the camaraderie and connections between Ph.D. students across different departments,” Brown said. “It’s important to know that you are not the only one going through this journey.
Having already passed their dissertations and completed their academic requirements, the students from this year’s graduating class have set out on different career directions, from government to academia and industry.
The IMSD graduate program, administered by the VCU Center on Health Disparities, is a team effort managed by multiple faculty members, including Hamid Akbarali, Ph.D.; Joyce Lloyd, Ph.D.; and Mychal Smith, Ph.D.
“Working with these students is a labor of love. It is so rewarding to see them develop scientifically and now fly away from the VCU nest. We are proud of them all, wish them luck, and hope they stay in touch so we can hear about their future success,” said Lloyd, co-director of the IMSD program and a professor at the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Human and Molecular Genetics.
“These students are stars, and they represent the best of VCU. It is a proud moment for the IMSD program as we continue on this journey for enhancing the biomedical workforce with diversity and excellence,” said Akbarali, co-director of the IMSD program and a professor at the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.
Making a difference through regulatory science
For Lois Akinola, her path toward a career in science has felt like a natural progression.
“I have always loved science, and science has always loved me back. The more science courses I took, the more I fell in love with them, especially classes focused on biochemistry,” she said.
After completing high school in her home country Nigeria, Akinola immigrated to the United States to pursue a college degree. She spent two years at Bridgeport Community College before transferring to VCU, where she graduated with bachelor’s degrees in forensic science and chemistry.
Akinola first gained hands-on research experiences through a science summer boot camp at VCU, led by Sarah Golding, Ph.D., which inspired her to consider research as a career. Akinola went on to work as an undergraduate research assistant for various biology labs at VCU, studying topics such as the genetics of alcohol use disorder and the impact of the gut microbiome on opioid tolerance. After receiving encouragement from her research mentors, Akinola applied to graduate schools, ultimately choosing the IMSD program at VCU.
“Going to grad school is already hard enough for anybody, but it’s even harder for women and racial minorities in STEM, which I am both. So, when I was considering graduate programs, Dr. Golding advised me to go to a school that would advocate for me and has an infrastructure in place to do that,” Akinola said.
In graduate school, advised by M. Imad Damaj, Ph.D., Akinola’s research focused on understanding how flavor additives in nicotine products enhance addiction. She and her colleagues found that certain genetic profiles were more susceptible to menthol-flavored products compared to tobacco flavors.
Akinola’s Ph.D. work has since inspired her to pursue a career in regulatory science. She is currently an ORISE Policy and Research Fellow at the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation.
“In regulatory science, you get to synthesize information from research and make decisions that impact people's lives. I was interested in understanding what that process looks like and play a part in making a difference,” she said.
Building a new generation of academics
When it was time for Deon Brown, a Richmond native, to consider options for college, he was ready to explore a new environment. He chose to attend Virginia Tech, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Brown ultimately returned to Richmond to pursue a Ph.D. in developmental psychology at VCU, focusing on research topics inspired by his upbringing at home.
“My parents were a strong presence in my life growing up, which made me interested in the role of parents in child development broadly,” Brown said.
His research, advised by Fantasy Lozada, Ph.D., specifically looked into how race, culture and gender inform the ways in which parents teach their children about emotions. He was also interested in how masculinity influences emotion-related behaviors of African American men.
“A lot of times it’s assumed that research constructs look the same across groups. However, I think there are nuances that aren’t always captured when we talk about parental emotional socialization and masculinity for African Americans,” Brown said.
Outside of his Ph.D. work, Brown was also involved in several programs that support and advocate for Black and African American communities, including the Building Legacies Around Cultural Knowledge (B.L.A.C.K.) project, the Men of Color Advisory Committee at VCU, and Cut to the Chase, a monthly men's discussion group dedicated to mental health and wellness.
Now, Brown is working as a postdoctoral research associate at Texas A&M University, where he is building a community-based program of research and planning to enter academia.
“I would consider myself a part of a new generation of academics who are bringing community-informed research and other nontraditional ways of producing knowledge into academia,” Brown said. “We’re aiming to diversify scientific research by emphasizing the lived experiences of members of marginalized groups and suggesting that they are the experts when it comes to their lives.”
The language of science
Fatmata Sesay was old enough to be in the third grade when her family immigrated to the U.S. from Liberia, though she hadn’t yet had the opportunity to attend school.
“When I was 10 or 11 years old, my parents and I came here to escape the civil war in Liberia,” Sesay said. “I couldn’t speak proper English at that time, plus I didn’t know how to read or write. However, I was always good at math and science. It’s a language that I understood.”
Her family settled in Georgia, and Sesay earned her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Georgia Southern University with plans to pursue a career in medical research.
“I saw a lot of suffering growing up,” Sesay said. “People were afflicted with diseases that we didn’t know how to prevent or treat. I wanted to learn biomedicine and take this knowledge back home to help my community.”
She was accepted into the IMSD program at VCU, which allowed her to focus on her Ph.D. training without the stress of tuition or fees. Sesay was also grateful for the program’s faculty and mentors, who supported her, pointed out resources, and encouraged her to believe in herself as a researcher.
“I always felt like I had somebody on my team,” she said.
Sesay’s Ph.D. research focused on understanding which genes and proteins play a role in promoting ovarian cancer. Her adviser was Larisa Litovchick, M.D., Ph.D. By analyzing cancer cells, Sesay found a previously unknown mechanism pathway that contributes to tumor growth and ovarian cancer development.
On top of her graduate studies, Sesay also found the time to establish a number of nonprofits dedicated to promoting health and wellness in Liberia. This includes a clinic where people can attend health seminars and receive wellness checkups and malaria medication, as well as a school program to teach young students about the health risks of drug abuse.
During this time, Sesay also welcomed her daughter, Aisha, into the world. “When I would leave the lab to go home, my focus was all on her. We would go for walks, and she made me laugh all the time. It was very therapeutic for me in a way,” Sesay said.
Sesay is currently working as a FIRST postdoctoral fellow at Emory University’s School of Medicine, where she’s continuing to study the intricacies of cancer development.
From basic research to industry opportunities
Growing up, Gladys Shaw knew she wanted a career in science. “I always had fun in my science classes, and it was the topic that came easiest to me in school.”
Shaw went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in biology from the College of William & Mary and a master’s degree in neuroscience from George Mason University. During this time, she immersed herself in several research opportunities, such as identifying new viruses and studying how chemicals impact frog development.
Through VCU’s IMSD program, Shaw’s research interests went in a new direction: chronic stress and its effects on the teenage brain.
“Many teens exposed to trauma and stress develop mental disorders, like depression and anxiety, but it’s often not diagnosed until their twenties or thirties,” Shaw said. “Being able to spot early biological signs of cognitive instability and maladaptive disorders could help ensure preventative care for those that need it the most.”
That’s where Shaw’s Ph.D. research came in. Advised by Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D., Shaw studied how stress affects mitochondria function in areas of the brain that control learning, memory and emotional regulation. Mitochondria act as power centers for cells in these regions, giving them enough energy to help elicit memory or regulate reactions to stress. She and her colleagues found that biological sex makes a difference in how mitochondria respond to chronic stress in adolescence.
Toward the end of her Ph.D. training, Shaw felt ready for a new kind of challenge. “Doing basic research is great, but I really want to see how it applies to people,” she said.
Shaw had the opportunity to connect with IMSD alumni who had since gone on to careers outside academia. Through those conversations, she became more interested in how industry partners and government agencies prepare and approve drugs for pharmaceutical uses.
She now works as a senior scientist at PPD, a clinical research organization that tests the function and safety of drugs developed by pharmaceutical companies.
“Through VCU and the IMSD program, I was able to not only study something that I'm extremely interested in but also network with partners in academic, industry, government and regulatory agencies,” Shaw said. “I don't think I would have had these opportunities if I went anywhere else.”
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