A photo of a man from the chest up standing outside in front of a small tree and some bushes.
Sachin Kumar Kempelingaiah has obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees at VCU and will pursue a Ph.D. next. (Photo by Arda Athman, VCU School of Medicine)

Class of 2024: Former VCU men’s golfer prepares for Ph.D. program

School of Medicine graduate student Sachin Kumar Kempelingaiah reflects on taking another swing and following a new passion.

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When Sachin Kumar Kempelingaiah arrived in the U.S. in 2017, his goal was to become a professional golfer. A native of the Caribbean island Trinidad and Tobago, Kempelingaiah came to VCU on a golf scholarship and rarely missed a tournament while he earned bachelor's degrees in biochemistry and biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. But when a back injury during his senior year derailed his athletic career, he leaned on his other passion: science.

"I still played a few tournaments here and there, but it just wasn't at the level that I had been able to previously perform at," Kempelingaiah said. "I realized I wouldn't be able to go professional at this point, so I decided I needed to do something else."

That "something else" became graduate school. Kempelingaiah will graduate from the School of Medicine in May 2024 with a master's in biochemistry, and he's thrilled to remain under the mentorship of Can E. Senkal, Ph.D., as he begins working toward his Ph.D.

Same drive, new turf

As an undergrad, Kempelingaiah learned about autophagy, the process by which a cell breaks down and destroys old, damaged or abnormal proteins and other substances in its cytoplasm. Eager to learn more, he connected with Senkal, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and volunteered in his lab on the MCV Campus for about a year.

Alongside Senkal and a graduate student, Kempelingaiah learned more about cellular mechanisms and how a research lab operates. Using cancer models, Senkal and his team study the cellular roles, metabolism and regulation of sphingolipids, lipid signaling molecules that tell the cell whether or not to reproduce. The goal is to identify cancer-specific dependencies in the sphingolipid metabolic network and develop mechanism-driven therapeutics for cancer.

The environment of Senkal's lab inspired Kempelingaiah to apply to the M.S. program, and he officially joined his mentor's lab. His thesis work examined sphingolipids' involvement in ferroptosis, an intracellular iron-dependent form of cell death, within cancer models.

"I love having the opportunity to learn and discover in the lab, and perhaps even be a part of testing something new," Kempelingaiah said. "And I've really learned at an exponential rate in this master's program."

Kempelingaiah is grateful for the opportunity to stay at the School of Medicine for his Ph.D., where he'll dig deeper into his sphingolipids research and continue fostering the relationships he's built at VCU.

"VCU is pretty well known for their sphingolipid research, and I wanted to stay a part of that research because there are a lot of interesting things happening in the field," Kempelingaiah said.

A photo of a man swinging a golf club with grass flying up around him.
As an undergrad, Sachin Kumar Kempelingaiah played competitively on the VCU men's golf team. (Courtesy photo)

‘A team player’

Kempelingaiah attributes much of his success as a graduate student to the work ethic he developed by playing golf, noting the years of training and dedication to the sport it takes to be successful.

"I think that's the same thing in the lab environment," Kempelingaiah said. "You're not always going to get the results you're hoping for, so you have to put in the work to actually understand what it is you're trying to do and keep on trying."

Senkal echoed that sentiment. He noted other transferable skills, such as Kempelingaiah's attention to detail, that are especially critical in science.

"I think the skills he practiced throughout his time playing golf really helps him with research," Senkal said. "In the lab, he's persistent, friendly and always willing to help others out. He's a team player."

As for his lifelong passion, Kempelingaiah will always be a golfer. He still plays from time to time, with less back pain after a few years of not pushing himself as hard.

"I take it much more easily when I'm on the course," he said. "And I still have a blast."

This story was originally published on the VCU School of Medicine’s news site.