May 14, 2015

Supportive environment spurs Biomedical Sciences graduates

“It takes a village to raise a scientist.” That’s how Shenika Poindexter describes Vanderbilt University’s approach to graduate training in the biomedical sciences.

Shenika Poindexter, center, who earned her doctorate in Cancer Biology, is surrounded by family members at the Graduate School ceremony. (photo by Steve Green)

“It takes a village to raise a scientist.”

That’s how Shenika Poindexter describes Vanderbilt University’s approach to graduate training in the biomedical sciences.

“I had a lot of help,” said Poindexter, who celebrated her recently minted Ph.D. in Cancer Biology at the Graduate School’s Commencement ceremony last week. The support provided by faculty mentors and fellow students “really shaped my graduate experience,” she said.

Poindexter, a postdoctoral fellow and instructor in Biology at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi, was among 106 students who earned doctoral degrees in the biomedical sciences from Vanderbilt during the 2014-2015 academic year.

John Geer, Ph.D., interim Dean of the Graduate School, left, congratulates Rene Raphemot, Founder’s Medalist for the Graduate School, during last Friday’s Commencement exercises. (photo by Joe Howell)

Hailing from 56 different colleges and universities around the world, this crop of graduates is highly accomplished, independently funded and heavily published, according to Abby Brown, Ph.D., director of Outcomes Research in the Office of Biomedical Research Education and Training (BRET).

Two-thirds were funded by National Institutes of Health training grants, Brown said, and more than half were first authors on at least two papers published in prestigious journals like Nature Neuroscience and Cell.

Eighty-five percent have plans for postdoctoral fellowships at places like Columbia, Stanford and UCLA, she said.

Bojana Jovanovic, a native of Bosnia who also earned her Ph.D. in Cancer Biology, will pursue a postdoctoral fellowship focused on studying breast cancer heterogeneity and drug resistance at the Harvard University-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Bojana Jovanovic, center, at the Graduate School ceremony with her advisers, Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., and Harold Moses, M.D. (photo by Steve Green)

Reflecting her interest in translational research, Jovanovic constructed a dual mentorship at Vanderbilt that joined the basic science lab of Harold Moses, M.D., interim chair of Cancer Biology, with the clinical research program led by Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

“That’s what I love about Vanderbilt,” she said. “People are collaborative. If a larger goal needs to be achieved, the researchers will work to make it happen.”

Graduates who are pursuing their dreams outside the laboratory also praised Vanderbilt’s supportive environment.

Andreia Bates, right, celebrates her Ph.D. in Cancer Biology with her adviser, Barbara Fingleton, Ph.D. (photo by Steve Green)

Gloria Laryea, a native of Ghana, earned her Ph.D. in Neuroscience under the mentorship of former pediatrics professor Louis Muglia, M.D., Ph.D., now at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. His mentorship, support and encouragement “very much enhanced my graduate school experience,” she said.

After attending a career seminar at Vanderbilt, Laryea decided to apply for science policy fellowships. Ultimately her goal is to help improve the health care infrastructure in low- and middle-income countries.

“I appreciate having the experiences I had at Vanderbilt,” she said. “It’s a very supportive environment to grow and learn.”

With the encouragement of her adviser, Christopher Williams, M.D., Ph.D., Poindexter said she found her passion in mentoring other students in the lab.

Ian McFadden celebrates his Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Materials Science with former VU faculty member Lynn Matrisian, Ph.D., one of his advisers. (photo by Steve Green)

The experience led her back to Alcorn State, where she had earned her bachelor’s degree in Biology, and where she now serves as co-manager of the Alcorn STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Network.

“My goal is to start a cancer research laboratory at Alcorn State University. I want to provide an additional (research) avenue for undergraduate and graduate students,” Poindexter said. “For me it’s more serving as an example of what you can do regardless of where you come from.”