Being diagnosed with alopecia areata at age 16 inspired in La'Tila Abbott a passion for health sciences that eventually led her to VCU. Abbott will graduate in May with a biology degree. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Class of 2019: Entrepreneur and biology graduate driven by a personal mission

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When she was 16, La’Tila Abbott was diagnosed with alopecia areata, a medical condition that causes the immune system to attack hair follicles. Her hair fell out, and she began to receive steroid shots in her scalp that came with “really horrible side effects,” she said. She wore a wig to school.

“It was tough,” Abbott said. “I was driven to understand it. I wanted to find alternatives to the steroid shots.”

Her diagnosis inspired a passion for the health sciences that eventually led her to Virginia Commonwealth University, where she will graduate in May with a biology degree from the College of Humanities and Sciences.

A native of New York City, Abbott spent one year at Pace University before moving to Richmond in 2006. In 2007, she founded an organic juice company, Juicy’s FlavorJuiceBar. Starting out at farmers markets and local groceries such as Ellwood Thompson’s, she grew the business to the point that Whole Foods Market began selling her juice. At the same time, Abbott was managing an eight-person team at Verizon, and raising three daughters with her fiance.

“I was pretty burnt out,” she said. “I realized I was working harder, not smarter, and something had to change.”  

In January 2016, Abbott enrolled at VCU. “I watched my younger sister graduate from the VCU Honors College with a degree in accounting and human resources, and it inspired me,” she said. “My fiance was so supportive. He told me, ‘If you want to go back to school, just do it.’”

While Abbott knew that she wanted to study biology when she enrolled, it was not until she began her studies that she developed an interest in laboratory research.

“I fell in love with [performing research],” she said. “I love asking questions, and getting close to answers, or even going through the trials and tribulations of not getting answers and then starting over! It keeps me excited.”

Abbott now works as a researcher in two life sciences labs. In the first, she monitors e. coli levels in the James River to determine the effectiveness of the city’s wastewater treatment plant. In the second, she studies clathrin-independent endocytosis in yeast cells. The protein clathrin was thought necessary for cells to bring in outside substances, such as food or medicine. The lab’s work aims to prove that it isn’t. A poster Abbott co-authored for that research was presented at the 2018 Gordon Research Conference on Lysosomes and Endocytosis in Andover, New Hampshire. 

At 34, Abbott acknowledges she isn’t a traditional student. It had been more than a decade since she had entered a classroom, but her experience in the workforce has given her an appreciation for her classes.

“The faculty don’t just teach, they prepare students for real-world interactions,” she said. “There’s a connection between faculty and students. … It’s like they’re working with you through your journey.”

Abbott has applied to the VCU master’s program in biology, and is considering pursuing a Ph.D. or attending medical school. Whether it’s as a researcher or a practitioner, she is still driven by her original mission. 

“I want to help people with health issues and add to the breadth of knowledge in the sciences,” Abbott said. “I’m motivated by finding new treatments and even a cure for alopecia. It’s personal. I’m here at VCU for a reason.”