As she researches how stress affects the teenage brain, Gladys Shaw pushes to improve diversity in science

Shaw, a Ph.D. candidate, has found community within VCU’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Development program, which expands opportunities for underrepresented students pursuing STEM careers.

Gladys Shaw.
Gladys Shaw, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Medicine, is researching how stress affects the teenage brain. (VCU School of Medicine)

When researching doctoral degree programs, Gladys Shaw, a native Richmonder who attended Virginia schools for her undergraduate and graduate degrees, knew she wanted to stay local. Not only was Virginia Commonwealth University close to family, the school just felt right to her.

“I wanted somewhere that automatically felt like home,” said Shaw, a Ph.D. candidate in the neuroscience program in the VCU School of Medicine. “Seeing the faculty and the support that they give you, VCU was the school for me.”

When she was accepted into the School of Medicine, Shaw also received an invitation to apply to the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development scholars program. Since 2010, the VCU Center on Health Disparities has housed the scholars program and several other research and training programs funded by National Institutes of Health grants. The programs are designed to expand the pipeline of underrepresented students into STEM-related careers.

Now a fourth-year student, Shaw has found that opportunities on the MCV Campus have laid a foundation for success. In 2019, she attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, where she presented her preclinical research on stress and its effects on the teenage brain.

She relished the experience of sharing her work with fellow scientists and other guests who were invited to attend the day she presented.

“Any chance that I get to talk about science I’m going to take it,” she said. “It was an amazing practice of making my science palatable to both scientists and nonscientists.”

Diversity in the sciences: ‘We need that community’

Shaw’s presentation is just one example of the type of experiences the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development program is meant to create for students, said Joyce Lloyd, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Medicine who serves as one of the principal investigators on the initiative’s grant (funded through 2023), along with Hamid I. Akbarali, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.

“It’s important to have programs like this so that we’re getting all the talent into the various fields,” said Lloyd, who also serves as professor and vice chair of education and faculty affairs in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics. “If we don’t have the same percentage of underrepresented individuals in the programs as are in the population, then we are still missing talent.”

Shaw knows the importance of the program’s mission. She had three Black science teachers throughout her educational experience, one in middle school and two in college.

“I believe that just seeing representation, not feeling like you’re the only one, and starting from an early age, is how we’re going to increase diversity in science,” she said. “[The Initiative for Maximizing Student Development] not only promotes diversity in the sciences, but it also fosters mentorship and paying it forward to others.”

Being part of the program with colleagues striving for the same goal has provided welcome support and camaraderie, Shaw said.

“We’re not all in the same field, but we all have that mindset that we don’t want to be the only ones,” Shaw said. “We need that community to get through certain things, such as the lack of visual representation within our respective fields, historical mistreatment of Black, Indigenous and people of color in medicine, continuing racism and racial inequality, and micro- and macroagressions that may not even cross the minds of people who don’t come from backgrounds like ours.”

A scientist in the making

Shaw works in the lab of Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D., an associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology. Shaw’s dissertation explores how chronic trauma can modulate or change brain energy. She is especially interested in how stress affects different genders during adolescence, particularly with the increase of sex hormones.

“Looking at how the surge of hormones happens, specifically in adolescence, and how that modulates behavior in adulthood is really interesting to me,” she said. “And how something like chronic stress, bullying or fear can change the trajectory of the organism as a whole for the rest of its life is astonishing.”

Shaw served as the lead author on a recent paper written with other researchers in Neigh’s lab about the intersection of chronic stress and trauma. Their findings were featured in May in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, the journal of the PsychoNeuroImmunology Research Society.

After finishing her doctorate, Shaw is considering a career as a medical science liaison, a profession she learned more about with assistance from Lloyd. Medical science liaisons are specialized health care consultants who keep the line of communication open among drug companies, scientists and physicians. Lloyd introduced Shaw to an alumna from another of the Center on Health Disparities programs, who works in the field. The two connected and spoke multiple times.

“Knowing someone that I can identify with who has a similar background is just amazing,” Shaw said. “Dr. Lloyd is adamant about using her connections to help us expand our networks. She does that with all of us in the [Initiative for Maximizing Student Development] program, which is a huge time commitment, but she makes sure that she gives us what we need to reach our goals.”

Whatever path Shaw takes, Lloyd believes her talents and skills will serve her well.

“She’s always questioning, and that’s what a scientist needs to do,” Lloyd said. “A Ph.D. is the leader of the team. They’re training the next generation. Gladys will be a great teacher, whether in the academic setting or the industry setting, whatever she chooses to do.”

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