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Biomedical Sciences graduates driven by pursuit of discovery

May. 18, 2017, 8:31 AM

Corinne Simonti, left, earned her degree in Human Genetics; Lindsay Nyhoff earned hers in Microbiology and Immunology; and Allison Norlander earned hers in Molecular Physiology and Biophysics. (photo by Joe Howell)

When Allison Norlander was visiting biomedical science graduate programs in 2011, she nearly crossed Vanderbilt off her list before she even visited. After six interview trips, she was worn out.
Norlander is glad she overcame her fatigue. By the end of her visit to Vanderbilt, “I didn’t want to go anywhere else,” she said.

From left, Alexandra Fish earned her degree in Human Genetics, Arwen Frick-Cheng earned hers in Microbiology and Immunology and Jennifer Landino earned hers in Cell and Developmental Biology. (photo by Joe Howell)

Norlander, who received her Ph.D. in Molecular Physiology and Biophysics (MPB) last week, is among 88 students who earned doctoral degrees in the biomedical sciences from Vanderbilt during the 2016-2017 academic year.

Arriving at Vanderbilt with undergraduate degrees from 77 different colleges and universities around the world, they are a highly accomplished group, said Abigail Brown, Ph.D., director of Outcomes Research in the Vanderbilt Office of Biomedical Research Education and Training (BRET).

Ninety-nine percent of them were first author on at least one scientific paper and more than half published two or more first-author papers, Brown said. On average, they produced 4.8 papers each. Their research appeared in high-impact journals including Science, Cell and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

James Patton, Ph.D., center, with Mahesh Rao, left, and Diana Cha, two of his Biological Sciences graduates. (photo by Joe Howell)

More than 90 percent of them made presentations at national or international conferences, and one third had independent external fellowship funding.

Seventy percent of the graduates will continue training as postdoctoral fellows in academic research laboratories as well as in industry, government and clinical fellowships. The rest have accepted or are negotiating for positions that do not require a prior postdoctoral fellowship.

In his commencement address to the newly minted Ph.D. graduates, Mark Wallace, Ph.D., Dean of the Graduate School, issued a challenge. “Take the education and values you’ve learned here and be a champion of civil discourse,” he said. “Go out and make the world a better place.”

That’s what led Norlander, a Pennsylvania native, to pursue graduate school. “I like to work toward discoveries that directly help people,” said Norlander, who earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Microbiology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2012.

Nicole Sexton, who received her degree in Microbiology and Immunology, holds her son, Aiden, at the Graduate School ceremony. (photo by Joe Howell)

Norlander’s interest in immunology led her to Vanderbilt and, through the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program, to David Harrison, M.D., director of the Division of Clinical Pharmacology, and Meena Madhur, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine and Molecular Physiology and Biophysics.

Madhur and Harrison, the Betty and Jack Bailey Professor of Cardiology, study the role that inflammation plays in hypertension. Since 2013 Norlander, whose thesis focused on the contributions of T cells in high blood pressure, has co-authored 11 papers. She is first author of three of them.

On June 1 Norlander will begin a postdoctoral fellowship in the lab of Stokes Peebles, M.D., the Elizabeth and John Murray Professor of Medicine, whose research focuses on asthma. That’s what she likes about Vanderbilt, she said — “the flexibility to work on so many things.”

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