Class of 2021: Isaiah King’s love of medicine leads to a new passion for research

King’s experiences with the student organization Black Men in Medicine gave him the support and freedom to pursue his own path. Up next: A fellowship program at the National Institutes of Health.

Isaiah King.
Isaiah King's path toward a career in medicine and research begins this summer when he will start a one-year research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

When Isaiah King visited Virginia Commonwealth University as a prospective student and heard a member of the Black Men in Medicine student organization speak at a science panel, he made a note of the group’s name and sought them out when he arrived on campus to begin his freshman year. The group’s mission is to support and encourage minority undergraduate students pursuing careers in science and medicine.

“Overall, my VCU experience has been outstanding,” said King, a biology major with a minor in chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences from Harrisonburg, Virginia. Today, he is co-president of the student organization that made such a big impression on him when he toured the university years ago. “I brought my own chair to the table, getting mentoring, shadowing doctors and enjoying extracurricular experiences,” King said. “I was given the freedom to pursue my own path.” 

After King graduates in May, his path is set for the next year as a researcher with the postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award fellowship program at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He will start this summer in a lab that employs translational research techniques to examine the genomic and genetic changes associated with prostate cancer development, progression and drug resistance. As he completes the fellowship, he also will be going through the yearlong medical school application process.

“I’m interested in health disparities in Black men,” King said.

Unlike his determination to enter medicine, research didn’t always figure as prominently in King’s academic and professional plan. He came to research at a point during his undergraduate career that he considers late, only after learning about the opportunity at workshops. 

He participated in research in a lab that studied aging, using yeast as a model, and then settled into the lab of Maria Teves, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the School of Medicine, who studies microtubule arrays and how they are related to embryonic development, fertility and the pathophysiology of several diseases.

“Research is a team effort,” King said. “I like that the Ph.D.s and [principal investigator] and I get together at the weekly lab meetings and talk about how we are going to help each other and reach our goals.”

Research taught King that he would hear a thousand nos before hearing yes.

“You may get the wrong answer, but you have to keep pushing and optimizing,” he said. “You have to have grit, be stubborn and refuse to quit.” 

King said his most memorable class at VCU was Biology of Cancer taught by Santiago Lima, Ph.D., which presented the medical condition through the lens of active research.

“There is no textbook because cancer is always evolving,” said King. “We just read papers from the last two to three years about the latest pathogenesis. His lecture slides have links to those research papers [he cites].”

Discipline — which King said he cultivated as a runner, gymnast and diver in high school — carried over in his tenacity to persist in science. Now he is certain that research will be part of his career, alongside a clinical medical practice.

His sense of service extends into the community. In his role as a volunteer coordinator at the Grace & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church Red Door Ministry, King has not only had a chance to assist those in need with free lunches every Friday, but also developed leadership skills scheduling volunteers. King said he made some of his greatest college memories at the soup kitchen being a friend to those who came for sustenance and offering them help. 

Coming from a family of teachers, King also enjoys mentoring students in Black Men in Medicine, just as he found support and community from the club’s advisers, Henry W. Lewis III and Eric Freeman, M.D.

“The pressure with the pre-med track sets in quick,” King said. “Black Men in Medicine helped me to structure my years to find some success. And through that executive board role, I was able to plan events and get involved in research. I look up to BMIM alumni [and] freshmen looked up to me.”

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