May 21, 1999

Ph.D. graduates honored as research colleagues

Ph.D. graduates honored as research colleagues


Constance Mobley (center) was in a hurry to receive her Ph.D. at last week's graduation. (photo by Donna Jones Bailey)


Tamara Fink (right) considered last week's graduation, where she received her Ph.D., a "privilege." Sharron Francis, Ph.D., filled in for Jackie Corbin, Ph.D., as Fink's mentor. (photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

For the Ph.D. graduates who were honored during commencement ceremonies last Friday, the phrase "Class of 1999" doesn't really apply. Although students in the biomedical sciences enter the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program as a class, the unpredictable nature of research means that they don't all graduate the same year.

Forty-one students who entered the IGP five to seven years ago earned the Ph.D. degree in August, December, or May. Thirteen graduates participated in last week's ceremony and were hooded by their mentors or other departmental faculty members.

Dr. Terrence S. Dermody, associate professor of Pediatrics and assistant professor of Microbiology and Immunology had extra help hooding his student, Geoffrey Baer. Baer's parents, both faculty members at Miami University, assisted.

"Having them participate made it a really great experience," Baer said.

It was an experience that brought graduates back to Vanderbilt from across the country.

Tamara Fink, who received her Ph.D. in Molecular Physiology and Biophysics in December, took a break from her postdoctoral fellowship at Case Western Reserve University to be there.

"I worked incredibly hard for this degree, and this is the first graduation that I have felt strongly about," Fink said. "The others–high school, college–were expected; this one was a privilege."

Susanne Kloeker earned her Ph.D. in Pharmacology in December and returned from her postdoctoral position at the University of Utah for Friday's ceremony.

"This is a once in a lifetime event," Kloeker said. "It's nice to celebrate and have a formal ending to the whole graduate school experience."

Like Fink and Kloeker, the majority of this year's graduates will continue their research training as postdoctoral fellows.

"One of the things that is very clear is that graduates are getting good postdoctoral fellowships, where they want them," said Roger Chalkley, Ph.D., senior associate dean for Education in the Biomedical Sciences, who has conducted "exit interviews" to evaluate the students' experience. "Our graduates are going on to top notch research universities like Harvard, MIT, Johns Hopkins, UVA, and Chicago. Of course we expect them to go places like that, considering where they started."

Constance Mobley, who received her Ph.D. in Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, will take a somewhat different path. She will enter medical school at Vanderbilt this fall.

"I see the need for physician-scientists who can take discoveries from the lab to the patient. There's a gap between basic research and the clinic that needs to be filled," she said. During her graduate studies, Mobley was a Patricia Roberts Harris Fellow and a United Negro College Fund/Merck Science Research Fellow.

Chalkley stressed the important role that graduate students play at the Medical Center.

"Graduate students are critical to the research efforts," he said. "If you were to ask the research faculty what they want in their labs, bright, creative graduate students would top the list every time."

The students who graduated Friday certainly fit the bill. They made research discoveries in every corner of the Medical Center.

Christopher Ballas, for example, studied aging-related defects in wound healing with Jeffrey Davidson, Ph.D., professor of Pathology. He identified the matrix metalloproteinases as a potentially useful therapeutic target for wound healing.

Another graduate, Hayes McDonald, studied cell division in the fission yeast S. pombe with Kathleen L. Gould, Ph.D. associate professor of Cell Biology. He found that a gene called cdc5 is important not only for cell division, but also for RNA splicing, prompting further investigation into the relationship of these two processes.

Chalkley is impressed with the Vanderbilt graduates.

"It always amazes me that these students come in from very diverse backgrounds–some are well prepared, some are quite wet behind the ears–and they turn into sophisticated, confident scientists," Chalkley said. "Somehow they metamorphose from students into colleagues."