May 21, 2010

Graduation 2010: Thrill of discovery drives new Ph.D.s

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Sunday Abiria, left, with his mentor, Roger Colbran, Ph.D., at the Graduate School ceremony. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Graduation 2010: Thrill of discovery drives new Ph.D.s

At Vanderbilt's graduate school commencement ceremony last week, Sunday Abiria celebrated his Ph.D. in Neuroscience with his family from Uganda and his mentor, Roger Colbran, Ph.D., professor of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics.

Abiria's work experiences in a clinic ignited his interest in medicine and research. “I believed graduate training would allow me to understand biomedical research and the process of drug discovery,” said Abiria. Now that he has completed graduate school, Abiria is considering a brief fellowship in Peru.

Abiria is one of 78 graduates who completed degrees in Medical Center departments or programs. Fifty-four of the students are in programs affiliated with Vanderbilt's Biomedical Research, Education and Training program.

Most biomedical Ph.D. graduates began their studies in either the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program (IGP) or the Chemical & Physical Biology Program (CPB) at the Medical Center. Both graduate programs include rigorous coursework and laboratory rotations.

Graduate school faculty marshal Joey Barnett, Ph.D., center, with, from left, Teresa Croce, Melissa Carter, Keri Day and Joshua Davis. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Graduate school faculty marshal Joey Barnett, Ph.D., center, with, from left, Teresa Croce, Melissa Carter, Keri Day and Joshua Davis. (photo by Susan Urmy)

After their first year, students choose mentors and departments where they complete their doctoral dissertation research. Each graduate published at least one first-authored paper and presented their research at national or international conferences.

While at Vanderbilt, 13 of these students had their own independent fellowships from funding agencies such as the American Heart Association, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense.

About 70 percent of BRET students will continue their training with post doctoral fellowships. While some students are staying at Vanderbilt, others will attend institutions such as Harvard, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Genetech and the NIH.

The first student from the MSTP-CIT program (Clinical Investigation Track) is graduating with his Ph.D. and will return to medical school with other physician-scientist students. One student is attending business school and several others have found employment.

After completing his Ph.D., Eric Warren took a job at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation as a Special Agent/Forensic Scientist. While studying under Brandt Eichman, Ph.D., assistant professor of Biological Sciences, Warren published three papers on DNA replication. Warren sees his education at Vanderbilt as invaluable and says that he uses the critical thinking skills he learned as a graduate student every day in his work as a forensic scientist.

“I am always designing experiments, testing hypotheses and determining a conclusion. The biggest difference is that my experiments now focus on how a victim was shot instead of how a protein functions,” said Warren.

This year, 65 percent of graduates were female, reflecting the trend toward an increased number of women completing Ph.D. programs in the biomedical sciences.

Becca Zuvich chose Vanderbilt because she was unsure which field of biomedical research she wanted to pursue.

“I liked Vanderbilt's 'umbrella' IGP program, which gave me a year to decide between 10 different departments/programs,” said Zuvich.

Working under Jonathan Haines, Ph.D., director of the Center for Human Genetics Research, Zuvich received her Ph.D. in human genetics and a Master's of Science in applied statistics. She said her education at Vanderbilt has molded her into a confident and outspoken scientist.

“I've realized from my work at Vanderbilt just how important genetic research is. I have also learned the importance of collaboration. I think graduate school is a very humbling experience because we learn that we can't do it alone,” Zuvich said.

She is continuing her training with Marylyn Ritchie, Ph.D., assistant professor of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics, with an interest in genetics and ethics.