May 20, 2005

Graduation 2005: Lab work pays off for newly minted Ph.D.s

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Linda Stephenson lines up before the graduate school ceremony. She received her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology.
photo by Dana Johnson

Graduation 2005: Lab work pays off for newly minted Ph.D.s

In recognition of years of hard work in the classroom and the laboratory, 47 biomedical science students were awarded the highest degree in academia, the Doctor of Philosophy degree, at last week's commencement. The 21 graduates participating in last Friday's ceremony on the Library Lawn received doctoral hoods lined with blue velvet from their faculty mentors, formally marking the end of their graduate studies.

Most of the graduates began their studies in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program (IGP).

The first year of training for students in the IGP includes intensive coursework and laboratory rotations. At the end of the first year, students choose mentors from around 10 academic departments, both in the College of Arts and Sciences as well as the School of Medicine, where they will complete their theses.

“The reason students are interested in coming to Vanderbilt, apart from the institutional component, is the freedom,” said Roger Chalkley, D.Phil., senior associate dean in the Office of Biomedical Research Education and Training (BRET).

On average, students require about five years to complete their degree. But the individual journey of each graduate student cannot be reflected in an average. Each person's path to the Ph.D. is as unique as their fingerprint, reflecting Vanderbilt's dedication to the ideal of academic freedom.

For some, family matters and personal hurdles extend the journey.

“I had a lot of challenges personally. I'm a single mother of three. It took me eight years, so it was a long haul,” said Permila Harrell, Ph.D., who completed her degree in Cancer Biology in August 2004. “It was a struggle, and it took a little longer than average, but I made it through and I'm really grateful.”

Now a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University Medical Center, Harrell credits Vanderbilt and her mentor, Lynn Matrisian, Ph.D., for preparing her for the academic world and the personal and professional challenges it presents.

“Being at Vanderbilt helped me learn about myself and what I needed to do in my personal life and professionally to be an effective scientist. I can check myself, and I know when I need to work a little harder, when to back off, how to interact with people, how to ask for help and when to be of help.”

“I'm very comfortable (at Duke) because of my education here.”

For others, the research itself provides the impetus to extend the stay.

Michael Davis, Ph.D., who started the IGP in 1998, delayed leaving Vanderbilt to see his research published in a leading journal in his field.

“It would be a terrific accomplishment. I couldn't and wouldn't pass up this chance,” Davis said.

The decision to take on the demanding research project and to see it through came relatively easy for Davis, who will move on to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle after acceptance of his paper.

“Vanderbilt is a collegial institution,” Davis said. “I would not have been able to accomplish what I have had I not been able to find help from many others here at Vanderbilt.

“I think it sets us on a better road when we leave — one where science is pursued through teamwork and collaboration.”