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Diversity role model inspires career path

Oct. 1, 2020, 9:00 AM

A childhood role model helped inspire Portia Thomas to pursue a career in medicine and research.
A childhood role model helped inspire Portia Thomas to pursue a career in medicine and research. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

by Tom Wilemon

Portia Thomas grew up in Doerun, Georgia, a small, rural city named by pioneer hunters as a place with “a perfect doe run,” where the population has hovered around 800 people for the past 30 years. A childhood impression lifted her aspirations beyond her hometown and inspired her to pursue a career as a physician-scientist.

“My passion for medicine began when I started going to the doctor myself,” she said. “My pediatrician was a Black woman. Having her as my doctor made me realize that it was something I could do as well.”

Thomas is today a role model for children just as Grace Davis, MD, was for her.

Thomas teaches science once a week in Metro Nashville Public Schools and is well on her way to achieving her dream. The Meharry Medical College MD/PhD candidate, who is finishing her thesis work in the Christine Lovly Research Lab at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC), is the recipient of the Ann Melly Summer Scholarship in Oncology, an American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Minority Scholar in Cancer Research Award and a U54 Vanderbilt Center for Cancer Systems Biology Pilot Award.

She is slated to begin her third year of medical school in 2021 and is scheduled to defend her PhD dissertation within the next six months.

Thomas, an MD/PhD student at Meharry Medical College, works in the lab of VICC’s Christine Lovly, MD, PhD, left.
Portia Thomas, an MD/PhD student at Meharry Medical College, works in the lab of VICC’s Christine Lovly, MD, PhD, left. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

The AACR Minority Scholar Award allows her to participate in the organization’s annual meetings and special conferences, where she will learn from and network with some of the nation’s top cancer experts.

“Being part of Portia’s team as she continues her medical and scientific training has been an inspiration. Portia has tremendous enthusiasm and passion, and she is a great team player. She is a rising star in translational cancer research,” said Christine Lovly, MD, PhD, associate professor of Medicine, Ingram Associate Professor of Cancer Research, co-leader of the Translational Research and Interventional Oncology Program and section chief of Basic and Translational Research in the Division of Hematology-Oncology.

Thomas works and studies in Lovly’s lab through the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance, a partnership between Nashville’s two medical schools, to enhance their educational, scientific and clinical programs through collaborations and shared resources.

“Working in Dr. Lovly’s lab has bolstered my career trajectory greatly,” Thomas said. “She has been a great role model for me and has shown me what it truly means to be an effective physician-scientist. She works in the clinic every week and runs her research lab. For me to be able to see her move fluently through both has been great, because that is ultimately what I want to do in my career.”

While Thomas knew she wanted to be a physician early in life, she decided to pursue a career in pediatric oncology after the death of her 7-year-old cousin from brain cancer.

“The network that Dr. Lovly has helped me establish and all the opportunities I’ve gained just from being in her lab have been extremely invaluable to my long-term career path,” Thomas said.

“She has connected me with people from universities around the nation. She has connected me with residency directors and fellowship directors. She always takes into consideration what I want to do long term. Even though her lab doesn’t specifically focus on pediatric cancer, she is always looking for opportunities for me to get involved in research within that space.”

Thomas said she’s grateful to Meharry Medical College, a Historically Black College and University, which opened the door for her to pursue her goal to become a physician-scientist and has supported her throughout her education and medical training.

The Metro Nashville Public Schools where Thomas has taught have large minority populations.

“It’s important that kids are able to see me and that they are able to see people who are on their level and know that we started at positions in life similar to the ones they are currently in,” she said. “It’s important to always have representation, whether that is a younger girl seeing me as a woman in science and medicine or whether that is young Black kids seeing a Black person in that position.”

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