September 5, 2019

Three student-adviser pairs receive Gilliam Fellowships

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded 2019 Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study to three doctoral student-adviser pairs at Vanderbilt.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded 2019 Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study to 44 doctoral student-adviser pairs from across the country. Two are from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and one is from the College of Arts and Sciences at Vanderbilt University.

All have demonstrated high promise to become leaders in their fields, says David Asai, HHMI’s senior director for science education.

Kellie Williford

“These are incredibly talented young scientists with the desire to become college and university faculty, where they will help shape the next generation of students,” Asai says.

The Gilliam program aims to ensure that a diverse and highly trained workforce is prepared to assume leadership roles in science. HHMI is taking a two-pronged approach: supporting promising graduate students from groups that are underrepresented in science and helping their thesis advisers build inclusive training environments.

Each pair will receive an annual award totaling $50,000 — which includes a stipend, a training allowance and an institutional allowance — for up to three years. Fellows’ thesis advisers will participate in a year of mentor development activities, including online training and two in-person workshops at HHMI headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Justin Avila

Two students from VUSM’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD) and their advisers were selected for the Gilliam fellowship:

  • Neuroscience graduate student Kellie Williford and her mentor, Danny Winder, PhD, professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics and Psychiatry (Dynamic Role of BNST PKCdelta in Anxiety-like Stress Responses);
  • Neuroscience graduate student Justin Avila and his mentor, Michelle Southard-Smith, PhD, (Novel Roles for Sox10 in Enteric Neuron Specification)

The third student and adviser are from the College of Arts and Sciences:

  • Biological Sciences graduate student Jacob Steenwyk and his mentor, Antonis Rokas, PhD, Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in Biological Sciences and professor of Biological Sciences and Biomedical Informatics (Examining the Loss of Diverse DNA Repair Genes and Long-term Hypermutation in a Lineage of Budding Yeasts)

    Jacob Steenwyk

For the first time since the Gilliam program began in 2004, a portion of the annual award will support activities designed to foster diversity and inclusion in the mentors’ labs and departments. Applicants proposed some creative ideas, including partnering with their departments to impact faculty hiring practices and holding symposia that include speakers from underrepresented backgrounds. Such conferences “will show students that successful scientists don’t all look the same,” Asai says.

“HHMI Gilliam Fellowships are awarded to student/mentor pairs because the mentor is key to creating an inclusive environment for the student to thrive. So, these awards are a wonderful affirmation of both our students and our faculty,” said Linda Sealy, PhD, IMSD director and associate dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Basic Sciences at VUSM.

“Given the highly competitive nature of the awards, we are exceptionally proud to have three new Gilliam Fellowship recipients joining our three previous Gilliam fellowship recipients in 2018.

“This cadre of six student/faculty mentor pairs are committed to making our training programs ever more supportive and welcoming for students from historically underrepresented groups.”

This year, HHMI received 218 completed applications for the Gilliam Fellowships. These were reviewed by panels of distinguished scientists and leaders in graduate student training.

The reviewers were asked to evaluate the applications using two criteria: the scientific and leadership promise of the student, as judged by the career statement, the research proposal, and the letters of recommendation; and the quality and commitment to mentoring of the training environment, as judged by the nominating documents, the adviser’s mentoring plan, and the adviser’s proposal for the Diversity and Inclusion Activities allowance.