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Cameron Toler, a senior biology major, encourages students interested in research to “be adventurous and have the courage to ask big questions.” (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

How I found my research: Cameron Toler’s interest in the pathobiology of human disease is fueled by his own experience

Toler, a senior biology major, has found his research footing working in the lab of Huiping Zhou, Ph.D., and studying a chronic liver disease that affects 1 in 4 adults.

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Cameron Toler is a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University majoring in biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and minoring in chemistry and music. Toler works in the lab of Huiping Zhou, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine. The lab focuses its research on bile acid and sphingolipid-signaling in various liver diseases. In addition to his research interests, Toler, a native of Spotsylvania, has been a cellist with the Virginia Cello Ensembles, the Fredericksburg Symphony Orchestra and the University of Mary Washington Philharmonic, and he currently plays with the VCU Symphony.

Toler shared with VCU News his newfound love for research and how his own health challenges have inspired his interest in the pathobiology of human disease.

In two sentences, tell us the focus of your research ... and why it is important/impactful for all of us.

My project focuses on the role of sphingosine kinase 2 in hepatic mitochondrial dysfunction and metabolic dysfunction-associated steatotic liver disease (MASLD), a chronic liver disease that affects 1 in 4 adults, lacks FDA-approved treatments, and increases the risk of end-stage liver disease and cancer. Our work aims to enhance our understanding of MASLD pathology and identify potential new drug targets associated with sphingolipid metabolism.

What inspired you to pursue this line of research?

After being unexpectedly diagnosed with epilepsy in high school, I became fascinated with the pathobiology of human disease. The cause of my epilepsy remains unknown but is managed with medication. However, other people are less fortunate. There is no FDA-approved drug for individuals with MASLD. Moreover, its progression is due to a mosaic of factors, making MASLD difficult to understand and develop effective therapies. In MASLD, lifestyle modification is the current standard of care. However, dietary relapse is prevalent, and diet and exercise are insufficient as treatment for the later, nonreversible stages of MASLD, characterized by liver inflammation and fibrosis. I am particularly interested in the basic sciences which underlie MASLD. An understanding of the molecular foundation is required for therapeutic development. Together, lifestyle changes and novel therapies will allow a more integrative approach to MASLD treatment; this clinical need is pertinent for individuals residing in food deserts where affordable, health-conscious grocery is unavailable.

Tell us about an obstacle or challenge you had to overcome in your work.

As a first-generation college student, something I have struggled with my entire academic career is self-efficacy. At the start of my recent jaunt into research, I was unsure where I would end up. Ultimately, I found research to be extremely rewarding and fulfilling, regardless of the outcome. I have been fortunate to receive abundant encouragement from family, friends, mentors and advisors. I love updating my mom each week about my research as she always offers kind words of support and puts things into perspective. Within my busy schedule, my time on the phone with her is like the calm in the eye of the storm. My involvement with undergraduate research has helped affirm my educational value both within and outside scientific study. The personal responsibility required to work in research has helped me to build confidence, social awareness and self-efficacy. Importantly, these attributes contribute to greater personal satisfaction and will ultimately drive me to pursue even more significant challenges in the future.

A photo of a man from the shoulders up.
”My involvement with undergraduate research has helped affirm my educational value both within and outside scientific study,” said Cameron Toler. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Is there a memorable partnership or lesson you've embraced along the way?

This year, I participated in the Honors Summer Undergraduate Research Program and could not have had a better experience. Under the mentorship of Dr. Huiping Zhou, I was able to explore different aspects of liver research, foster my own inquisitiveness, and make connections with Ph.D. candidates, lab technicians, visiting scholars and other undergraduate students. More experienced student researchers help expand my lab techniques and I have the opportunity to reinforce my own knowledge by instructing others on foundational skills such as pipetting. I am especially thankful to my peer mentor, Kaitlyn Jackson, a Ph.D. candidate, Ruth L. Kirschstein F31 award recipient, and fellow first-generation college student for her direct support and guidance throughout my research journey. Due to the close relationships I have formed in the lab, I have continued research throughout the fall semester as a volunteer and plan to register for a directed independent study in the spring of 2024.

What do you find fulfilling about the research process?

During my time as a clinical shadow, I had the privilege of working with medically underserved populations, which provided valuable insights into the challenges faced by those less fortunate. This experience ignited a passion within me to address unmet medical needs that often go unnoticed. My research journey at VCU is a natural extension of this commitment. Every experiment brings us one small step closer to an applicable discovery that may be moved into practice. Rather than placing emphasis on publication metrics, I hope to have the opportunity to be a physician-scientist that will stay focused on making meaningful contributions to the collective knowledge base and promote healthier communities.

What advice would you offer undergrads to kick-start their own research journeys?

My advice for science-curious students is to interact with your professors and look for opportunities in unexpected places. A myriad of internships, summer programs and research-forward courses are offered for an almost endless variety of subject material. Specifically, the Honors Summer Undergraduate Research Program provided me with new, challenging experiences I otherwise would not have explored. Most departments offer courses on current, discipline-specific research methods and many offer directed independent study courses to award academic credit for undergraduate research. The research conducted here at VCU is available to you! Go find your calling, be adventurous, and have the courage to ask big questions.

“How I found my research” is a new series featuring VCU student-researchers.