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School of Medicine

VCU School of Medicine

Welcome to VCU School of Medicine

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Overview

The Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Portal (BSDP) at VCU is as an entry point for students interested in doctoral training leading to careers in academic research, biotechnology, scientific policy-making, higher education, and many other areas. The BSDP oversees admissions for and recruits students into six Ph.D. programs within the School of Medicine. Five of these programs are departmentally based (Biochemistry, Human Genetics, Microbiology and Immunology, Pharmacology and Toxicology, and Physiology and Biophysics) and one program (Neuroscience) is interdepartmental. Additionally, students may elect a curriculum concentration in Molecular Biology and Genetics within several of these Ph.D. programs. Within each program, students follow a unique curriculum and have research training experiences that align with the interests of the students and individual faculty mentors.

Please follow the links below for more information about doctoral training in each of the Ph.D. programs associated with the BSDP.

 

*A curriculum associated with several of the Ph.D. programs.

 

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How it Works

The Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Portal (BSDP) coordinates the training of first year students that will ultimately earn Ph.D. degrees in Biochemistry, Human Genetics, Microbiology and Immunology, Neuroscience, Pharmacology and Toxicology and Physiology and Biophysics. Additionally, the BSDP coordinates the first year of training for students pursuing the Molecular Biology and Genetics curriculum in many of the departmentally-based Ph.D. programs. Students are typically in the BSDP during year 1, after which they join a laboratory and transition into their chosen Ph.D. program.

Year 1

BSDP students are guided through two key training steps during their first year: selection of their program/curriculum and matching with their dissertation laboratory. In anticipation of completing these two steps, students spend their first year taking courses while performing research rotations in laboratories in their area(s) of interest. The coursework and curriculum are chosen with the guidance of an academic counselor from one of the Ph.D. programs. Although each program is unique, the coursework will normally include a series of foundational and elective courses as well as seminars. Research rotations can be performed in a wide range of participating laboratories. Students should join both a Ph.D. program and a dissertation laboratory by the end of the spring semester of their first year.

Year 2 and Beyond

After selecting their Ph.D. programs and dissertation training labs, students continue taking courses (typically through the second year), continue participating in journal clubs and seminars (typically throughout their training), and initiate or expand independent, mentored research projects in their dissertation labs. Students identify faculty members to serve on their graduate advisory committees and take comprehensive exams administered by the individual programs typically toward the completion of the second year. Upon completion of these key steps, students focus on their research projects and research productivity (publishing articles, presenting at regional, national and international conferences, etc.). Ph.D. training culminates with each student writing and defending a dissertation, typically 5 years after initially enrolling via the BSDP.

Financial Support, Tuition & Fees

PhD Financial Support

Admitted Ph.D. applicants receive offers of financial support in the form of assistantships that typically include a stipend/salary, which is set by the School of Medicine at a foundational level of $27,000 per year. This amount includes funds to defray the costs of health insurance. Additionally, financial support covers tuition and fees for both Virginia-resident and non-resident students. Students with assistantships continue to receive support as long as they remain in good academic standing and make satisfactory progress toward completion of their degrees.

Appropriately enrolled U.S. citizens and permanent residents might be eligible for financial aid. For more information, please contact the VCU School of Medicine Financial Aid Office.

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Apply

All prospective Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Portal (BSDP) students must apply on-line through the VCU Office of Graduate Admissions by following this link. To apply to the BSDP, make the following selections in the "Intended Program of Study" section in the on-line application:

  • Entry Term--FALL YYYY
  • Intended level of study--Doctoral (PhD and EdD)
  • Planned Course of Study--Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Portal - School of Medicine - PHD

Applicants DO NOT apply directly to individual Ph.D. programs or departments for admission to the BSDP.

Applications to the BSDP should be completed (i.e. receipt of all forms, letters, transcripts, etc.) by January 1 of the anticipated enrollment year. Applications completed after this date will be reviewed only as remaining spaces permit.

Admissions Requirements

Applicants to the BSDP must have earned a baccalaureate (i.e. bachelor's) degree (or higher) in the biological, chemical or related sciences by the time of enrollment. Successful applicants will have completed undergraduate courses in biology, chemistry through organic chemistry, and mathematics often through calculus. Typically, we target applicants with grade point averages of 3.3 or higher, verbal and quantitative GRE scores at or above the 50th percentile, and substantial research experience in a biological, biomedical or chemical laboratory setting. International applicants must have a minimum score of 100 on the TOEFL or 6.5 on the IELTS. We take a holistic approach when evaluating applications, though, and strength in one or more aspects of an application can compensate for another area that is not as well developed. 

Required Application Materials

A completed application contains all information requested on-line, transcripts, general GRE scores (VCU code 5570), three letters of recommendation and a personal statement. Letters of recommendation should comment on the applicant's suitability for graduate training and on the applicant's research or other relevant experience. The personal statement should be 1000-1500 words and describe the applicant's:

  • anticipated Ph.D. programs/curriculum (if known)
  • research or other relevant experience including the overall project goals and the applicant's role (e.g. design of experiments, performing experiments independently, data collection under the guidance of a more senior laboratory member, etc.) in the experiments
  • main graduate research interests and a short list of prospective faculty mentors
  • rationale for pursuing Ph.D. training and any tentative career plans
  • other pertinent information that will help us evaluate the applicant as a prospective Ph.D. trainee including information on circumstances that may have hindered the applicant's progress or development

International applicants must provide TOEFL or IELTS scores (VCU code 5570). In addition, international applicants must arrange to have their academic credentials evaluated by a service that is a member of the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES) and must include the evaluation of their credentials in the application for graduate training. See VCU Graduate Admissions for more information.

Applicants with governmental or other scholarships, fellowships, etc. should also submit a copy of the financial guarantee or award letters.

Applicants should make every effort to submit all documents electronically to ensure efficient handling. Please contact VCU Graduate Admissions at vcu-grad@vcu.edu for instructions regarding materials that cannot be submitted electronically.

Application Review and Applicant Interviews

After being reviewed, selected applicants are invited to interview on-site starting in January of the anticipated enrollment year. Travel-related expenses will be paid by the BSDP. The interviews are a critical step in the admissions process during which we learn more about the applicants and the applicants learn more about VCU. Applicants should be prepared to discuss their prior training at a depth appropriate for their level of education and experience during the interviews.

Interview dates for 2019 will be:

  • Jan 11
  • Jan 25
  • Feb 8
  • Feb 22
  • Mar 8
  • Mar 22

Commitment to Enroll

Based on the outcome of the interview process, selected applicants are offered admission for fall enrollment. Although we prefer that applicants confirm their commitment to enroll as soon as possible, applicants have until April 15th to accept a training position in the BSDP.

Contacts

Please contact the Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Portal (BSDP) office or any of the seven BSDP programs for more information.

Program

Contact Information

BSDP

Mike Grotewiel, Ph.D.
Assistant Dean for Graduate Recruitment and Admissions
804-628-4086
E-mail: michael.grotewiel@vcuhealth.org

Natalia O'Brien, M.M.
Coordinator
804-828-0609
E-mail: natalia.obrien@vcuhealth.org

Biochemistry

Tomasz Kordula, Ph.D.
Program Director
804-828-0771
E-mail: tomasz.kordula@vcuhealth.org

Human Genetics

Rita Shiang, Ph.D.
Program Director
804-628-4083
E-mail: rita.shiang@vcuhealth.org

Microbiology and Immunology

Cynthia N. Cornelissen, Ph.D.
Program Director
804-827-1754
E-mail: cynthia.cornelissen@vcuhealth.org

Molecular Biology and Genetics

Michael McVoy, Ph.D.
Program Director
804-828-1739
E-mail: michael.mcvoy@vcuhealth.org

Neuroscience

John Bigbee, Ph.D.
Program Director
804-828-0948
E-mail: john.bigbee@vcuhealth.org

Pharmacology and Toxicology

Hamid I. Akbarali, Ph.D.
Program Director
804-828-8400
E-mail: hamid.akbarali@vcuhealth.org

Physiology and Biophysics

Christina I. Kyrus, M.B.A.
Program Coordinator
804-628-5506
E-mail: cikyrus@vcu.edu

BSDP News and Highlights


PHD student Erin Garcia holding award

April 20, 2018:

Erin Garcia, a Ph.D. student in Microbiology and Immunology under the guidance of Dr. Kimberly Jefferson, received two awards for her presentation at The Women's Health Research Day: the Basic Science Research Award and the Elizabeth Fries Young Investigator Award. These are terrific achievements and we should all congratulate Erin! To find out more about Erin and her doctoral work, see what she had to say about her research project and career plans.

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What was the main research question and findings you presented on your poster?
We sought to investigate the role of vaginolysin, a cholesterol-dependent pore-forming toxin, in the colonization and growth of Gardnerella vaginalis (GV) in the context of the vaginal epithelium to ultimately characterize the relationships between vaginolysin, GV, and the human host that may promote the establishment of bacterial vaginosis (BV), as well as how statins alter these interactions. What we found was that in a 3D model of vaginal epithelium, VLY + GV strains had a growth advantage relative to the vaginolysin- strain. GV and purified, recombinant vaginolysin induced pro-inflammatory IL-1-beta secretion and lactate dehydrogenase release (a marker for cell death); these effects were mitigated by statin pretreatment. Statin treatment also led to an increase in pro-inflammatory TNF-alpha secretion in response to GV, but did not suppress GV growth. We are not quite convinced that vaginolysin supports GV growth, but our evidence does suggest that vaginolysin exhibits significant interactions with the host immune response, which are altered by statins.  Furthermore, we found that vaginolysin cytolytic activity and cytokine release in response to vaginolysin were only detected when vaginolysin was added to the basolateral face of the vaginal tissue, which may have important implications for BV pathogenesis.
 
What is the health-related impact of your project?
Bacterial vaginosis (BV) describes a dysbiotic state of the vaginal microflora that promotes preterm birth and acquisition of HIV, among other things. Both prevention and therapy for BV are currently suboptimal, and despite over 50 years of research, the etiology of the disorder remains elusive. While it is known that lactobacilli dominance of the vaginal microbiome is preventative of BV, the molecular mechanisms promoting the dominance of potentially pathogenic, anaerobic organisms, which lead to the establishment of BV, are unknown. The most common bacterial species to predominate during BV is Gardnerella vaginalis (GV). It is often regarded as the keystone species for the establishment of BV because of its high abundance in BV and because it expresses a number of virulence factors that are thought to contribute to its pathogenicity; however, the distinct roles of these virulence factors remain uncharacterized. Understanding the pathogenesis of bacterial vaginosis (BV) will promote the development of more effective therapies to reduce the rate of BV recurrence and ultimately reduce the risk for preterm birth and HIV acquisition.
 
What has been the most challenging and the most rewarding part of your research training?
The most challenging part of research is the inevitable failure of experiments. But more specifically, that the amount of effort you put into your experiments doesn't necessarily dictate their success. Of course, that's science. The failures are often as equally important as the successes. But, it takes getting used to and I'm still working on not taking experimental failures personally. The most rewarding part of my research training has been witnessing how technology and biology intersect to give us a better understanding of how life works and to answer questions that previously couldn't be answered.

Where do you see your project going in the future?
The results we have now, while interesting, are very much preliminary. In order to better characterize these relationships between GV, vaginolysin, and the vaginal epithelium we need to develop specific tools, including an isogenic vaginolysin-mutant strain of GV and an in-house 3D vaginal tissue model, which I am currently working on.  Beyond this, we are also interested in investigating the relationship between GV, vaginolysin, and host immune cells, namely neutrophils, the interplay between GV and healthy lactobacilli species within the vaginal epithelium, and how all of these interactions are altered in the presence of statins.

What are your career plans after you complete your Ph.D.?
Immediately upon graduation I plan to secure a postdoctoral research position (possibly through IRACDA). My ultimate career goal is to become an academic research scientist in the field of infectious disease, focusing on clinically relevant pathogens and their specific interactions with the human host. I aim to maintain my current focus on women's health research, but hope to expand this interest to include the study of neglected diseases in the future.

Bharathan PHD student head shot

March 14, 2018:

Navaneetha (Nav) Bharathan is a student in the Human Genetics Ph.D. Program under the guidance of Dr. Amanda Dickinson in the Department of Biology. Nav's dissertation research is aimed at using the frog as a model to understand the role of desmosomes, a cell adhesion junction, in development and disease. Here is what Nav has to say about his dissertation research:

more information...

What were the major aims and outcomes of your dissertation research?
In the Dickinson lab, we use the Xenopus laevis frog model to address questions in developmental biology. My research is focused on the importance of the desmosome in the developing embryo. The desmosome is a cell adhesion junction that is found in the skin and heart and provides these tissues with the ability to withstand the tremendous forces they face in our everyday lives. Described as "rivets" that hold cells together, defects in this junction can lead to devastating diseases where patients are susceptible to skin infections and cardiovascular defects. The broad aims of my research are: 1) To determine the feasibility of the Xenopus model to study desmosomes, 2) To uncover potential roles for desmosomes in the developing embryo, and 3) To determine the role of c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) as a potential regulator of desmosome assembly and adhesion. So far, we have found that the Xenopus embryo is an extremely tractable model for the study of desmosomes. Using morpholino and CRISPR techniques to decrease levels of desmosomal proteins, we have found that loss of function phenotypes in the frog mimic those of mammalian models. Interestingly, we have also discovered a potential role for desmosomes in epidermal morphogenesis. Our research also shows that JNK may have an important function in modulating desmosome adhesion.
 
What was the most challenging part of your project and how did you overcome the challenge?
This is a very under-appreciated facet of research especially for young scientists, but I found scientific writing to be the most challenging part of my training. Writing in a clear, concise way for the reader to understand and appreciate the relevance of my research is something I struggled with initially. However, with the help of my mentor, Dr. Amanda Dickinson, who is an excellent and accomplished scientific writer, I have improved my skills over the years. There is always room for improvement, though, so I try to practice my writing and get feedback from fellow students as well as my partner, Samantha Spencer, who is also enrolled in a Ph.D. program.  
 
What is the next major step for the project?
One of the topics we are interested in is how exactly JNK and other proteins regulate desmosome assembly and adhesion. We also have plans to replicate the results of my research in human skin biopsies or cell culture. By testing this, we will be able to identify the therapeutic potential of JNK for patients with desmosomal diseases.
 
What are your immediate training plans?
I will be starting a postdoctoral position in Dr. Andrew Kowalczyk's lab at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. I am very excited to take my research to the next phase and work with some of the top scientists in the field of cell adhesion.
 
What are your longer-term career plans?
I hope to use my training as a scientist as well as mentorship opportunities provided by my department (Human and Molecular Genetics) and Dr. Dickinson and conduct my own research as an independent investigator. While I am currently interested in developmental biology, it has always been in my interests to eventually explore the possibilities and applications of gene editing to alleviate human suffering.

phd student lauren kyte with mentors damaj and gewirtz

March 1, 2018:

Sarah Lauren Kyte (Lauren), a Ph.D. student under the guidance of Dr. David Gewirtz (right) and Dr. Imad Damaj (left) in the Pharmacology and Toxicology Program, was recently awarded an F31 Predoctoral Fellowship from the National Cancer Institute. Here is what Lauren had to say about her project and training at VCU:

more information...

What are the major goals of your F31 project?
My F31 project is focused on investigating how nicotine may be neuroprotective in a mouse model of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN), a common and painful side effect of cancer chemotherapy, including an anti-tumor drug called paclitaxel. We hypothesize that this property of nicotine involves an anti-inflammatory mechanism downstream of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors expressed in immune cells, such as macrophages. The goal is to determine this mechanism of nicotine at the cellular and preclinical levels in order to ultimately apply our findings to the clinic and improve the quality of life of cancer patients suffering from CIPN.
 
How did you and your mentor work together to bring your F31 experimental plan into focus?
My mentor, Dr. David A. Gewirtz, and I began studying CIPN during our collaboration with Dr. M. Imad Damaj, a fellow principle investigator in the department of Pharmacology and Toxicology here at VCU. His laboratory established the mouse model of CIPN that we use, discovered that nicotine is capable of preventing CIPN, and provided behavioral expertise. Our contribution is in the cancer arm of this project, where we evaluate the possible effects of CIPN treatments on the proliferation or death of cancer cells when given in combination with cancer chemotherapy. Our previous work addressed these questions; therefore, the next step was to investigate how nicotine can hinder the development of CIPN.
 
What will having an F31 award mean for your graduate training?
The F31 award will allow me to continue developing my dissertation project, but most importantly, it will enable me to become an independent research scientist. In addition to providing personal financial support, the grant gives me the freedom to travel to academic conferences where I can share my work, network with fellow scientists, and stay informed of the most recent breakthroughs in both neuroscience and cancer research.
 
What has been the most exciting thing that you have learned about your project so far?
An exciting finding that we have made so far is that nicotine does not enhance the proliferation of cancer cells or interfere with paclitaxel-induced cell death. Despite the fact that these results support further investigation on the use of nicotine as a CIPN therapy, what is most thrilling is that this conclusion is quite controversial in the scientific community, which has challenged us to approach both our project and the scientific literature more critically. This experience has emphasized the importance of our roles as scientists to ensure that the experimental conditions we all use accurately represent the clinical setting, so that we can produce results that are predictive and translatable.
 
What are your career plans after completing your Ph.D.?
I have always had ambitions of playing a role in drug development. My time as a graduate student has allowed me to experience the preclinical contribution to this process and appreciate its importance. However, I find that my interests are more grounded in clinical research. My dream job would be to work for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a pharmacologist, where I would have the opportunity to review, interpret, and evaluate basic science, preclinical, and clinical data regarding the safety and efficacy of drugs, as well as the appropriateness of study designs. It would be an honor to be a part of that process--to see first-hand how research leads to improving the lives of others.

PHD student Kyle Rodino

February 14, 2018:

Kyle Rodino is a Ph.D. student in the Microbiology and Immunology Program being mentored by Dr. Jason Carlyon. Kyle has been very active in his research training and also has been an important student ambassador/recruiter for the BSDP. See what Kyle had to say about his dissertation research project and his career plans:

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What has your experience been like as a doctoral student at VCU?

I have found VCU to be very supportive of non-traditional PhD career paths, challenging students to find their passion and pursue it. This has allowed me to strengthen my research abilities and grow as a scientist, while always looking toward the future and planning for the next step. Encouraging and fostering these student-driven career plans certainly sets VCU apart.

How will you use what you learned in Dr. Carlyon's lab in your new position?

My time in the Carlyon lab has taught me to be a truly independent scientist. This includes identifying an area of interest, formulating an actionable plan, executing novel experiments, continuously evaluating the outcomes, and most importantly being able to articulate those results to a variety of audiences, both scientific and non-scientific. These skills will undoubtedly benefit me as I transition into a clinical lab in the future.

What are your career plans?

In July of 2018 I will begin a two-year Clinical Microbiology Fellowship at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. This program provides training in medical microbiology, focusing on clinical diagnostics and consultation, laboratory management, and laboratory research. Upon completion of the program, I'll be eligible to sit for the American Board of Medical Microbiology exam and ultimately direct a clinical microbiology laboratory.

PHD student Kareem Clark

February 1, 2018:

Kareem Clark recently completed his Ph.D. in Neuroscience under the guidance of Dr. Jeff Dupree in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. See what Kareem had to say about his project, training and career plans below:

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What was your dissertation project about?

The focus of the Dupree lab is on the pathogenic mechanisms underlying Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a debilitating autoimmune disease of the central nervous system. A hallmark pathologic feature of MS is demyelination, in which the insulating sheath (myelin) surrounding neuronal fibers is stripped away, resulting in impaired neuronal impulse conduction. Historically, demyelination is viewed as a primary trigger leading to other types of neuronal damage in MS. My project, however, involved identification and characterization of a previously undescribed form of neuronal injury in MS which we found to occur independently of myelin loss unlike most characterized pathologies associated with the disease. This neuronal injury is the disruption of the axon initial segment (AIS), a protein complex localized to the initial portion of the axon which serves as the "trigger zone" for neuronal firing. My work in MS human tissue, mouse models, and neuronal culture systems revealed AIS damage to be driven instead by oxidative stress induced by the inflammatory environment of MS. Importantly, this inflammatory-driven neuronal damage is reversible upon resolution of the oxidative insult. This work, therefore, not only identifies a previously unappreciated form of neuronal injury in MS, but also reveals promising new therapeutic targets.

What was the most surprising finding from your research?

The most surprising finding came when we attempted to correlate our structural findings with functional measurements in the neurons that had lost AIS protein clustering. Because the AIS serves as the "trigger zone" for neuronal firing, we expected these AIS-disrupted neurons to be unable to fire action potentials. Contrary to this, we found that not only are these neurons capable of firing, they are intrinsically more excitable. More specifically, loss of AIS clustering in the MS model resulted in lower action potential threshold and increased firing rate. This demonstrates that, although not in the way we initially expected, neuronal function is nevertheless altered following AIS disruption in the MS model.

How did your project develop?

The lab had previously identified and investigated the mechanisms underlying disruption of a separate neuronal domain in MS known as the node of Ranvier, an axonal protein complex that forms between myelin segments and allows for efficient action potential propagation along a nerve fiber. Because the node of Ranvier has almost identical composition to the AIS, my project began by investigating the stability of this domain in MS models. Interestingly, unlike the node of Ranvier which is severely disrupted following myelin loss, the AIS remained intact in a demyelinating model of MS. Instead, we detected significant AIS disruption in a separate model of MS in which the inflammatory environment is more closely recapitulated. In order to investigate the underlying mechanism of this inflammatory-induced AIS disruption, the project then moved into a neuronal culture system. Here we found that oxidative stress is capable of driving AIS loss through influx of calcium followed by calpain proteolytic activation. Finally, since the in vitro system demonstrated the importance of calcium regulation at the AIS, we returned to the inflammatory MS model and investigated the stability of the cisternal organelle, a structure that buffers Ca2+ locally at the AIS. Interestingly these organelles were lost in the inflammatory MS model as well as human MS post-mortem tissue, suggesting a potential trigger for the AIS disruption identified previously. Overall, the project began through the identification of a previously undescribed neuronal insult in MS, and developed into investigation of the underlying mechanism.

What is the next major step for the project?

The next major step would be to further investigate the functional consequences of AIS loss in the inflammatory MS model. Because these findings are contrary to what we expected, it is important to understand how the structural changes at the AIS are contributing to the increased excitability in these neurons. Additionally, it will be important to investigate the therapeutic potential for targeting the mechanistic players in this AIS disruption including oxidative stress, calpain-mediated proteolysis, and the Ca2+-regulating cisternal organelle.  

What are your immediate and long-term career plans?

I will soon be starting a postdoctoral position in the lab of Dr. Albert Pan at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute in Roanoke, VA. I am thrilled to be continuing my research career in a lab that will allow me to gain experience in a completely new set of techniques. Ultimately, I hope my combined graduate and postdoctoral training experiences will allow me to transition into an independent investigator and continue my career in academia.

Robin Chan PHD student

January 22, 2018:

Robin Chan, a Ph.D. student in the Neuroscience Program under the guidance of Dr. Edwin van den Oord in the Department of Pharmaceutics, recently defended his dissertation. Here is what Robin had to say about his doctoral training and career plans:

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Why did you choose to enroll in the BSDP at VCU?

This decision was actually the result of a longer process really. Coming out of undergrad I had a strong interest in biomedical research. Admittedly however, up until that point in my education, I had not gained a lot concrete experience. After college I picked up a bit of clinical experience working in my local hospital, but still felt the desire to seek out significant research experience. This is what led me to be attracted to VCU. In researching potential M.S. programs at Virginia-based universities, VCU really was the only school offering truly interdisciplinary graduate programs with strong emphasis on translational research. This is how I came to enroll in the MBG program at VCU/MCV. During my time as a masters student I came to appreciate the diversity of disciplines and depth of expertise that are represented by the faculty and students at VCU, particularly in the fields that interested me: neuroscience, behavioral genetics, and epigenetics. Therefore, the strength of the academic environment plus having active relationships with researchers at VCU made applying to the BSDP highly attractive.

What were the factors that contributed to your success in graduate school?

As I mentioned, the interdisciplinary nature of the graduate programs linked to the BSDP gives students tremendous flexibility to tailor their training experiences to fit both their interests and their training goals. This flexibility allowed me to pursue highly novel and personally motivating projects as a graduate student. Being at an academic medical center like VCU also gave me access to facilities and mentorship from faculty members to actually undertake these non-traditional projects successfully. During my studies I worked with and got advice from nearly every faculty member I encountered at VCU. Being comfortable with and knowing who to ask for help was absolutely indispensable. I was also very lucky to end up working with Karolina Aberg and Edwin van den Oord who were incredibly supportive during my doctoral training and were willing to let me take my projects in new directions.
 
What were the issues you weighed as you opted to pursue a position at VCU?

A major outcome of all the benefits I was afforded as a graduate student at VCU was productivity. During my time with Edwin and Karolina I had to opportunity to work on very large-scale projects during my dissertation research, leading to multiple publications. Because of my deep involvement in these large-scale projects there still remains plenty of work to wrap up and many new cutting-edge follow-up studies that I want to see to completion. By taking a postdoctoral position at the Center for Biomarker Research and Precision Medicine at VCU I saw the opportunity to enjoy to fruits of my efforts as well as continue to obtain critical new skills.

What are your immediate and long-term career goals?

Currently I am working towards improving my skills in advanced data and statistical analysis. At the same time I am expanding upon my dissertation research to perform functional follow-up of large-scale epigenetic association studies via targeted epigenetic editing. In other words, having expertise in both cutting-edge wet lab techniques and big data skills. Having a holistic understanding of large-scale projects -- from the lab bench to analysis -- is fundamental to my long-term goal of being an independent investigator driving big interdisciplinary translational research programs.

katherine sinclair with her mentor Dr. Janina Lewis

January 4, 2018:

Kathryn Sinclair recently completed her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology under the guidance of Dr. Janina Lewis in the Phillips Institute for Oral Health Research at VCU. Just before defending her dissertation, Kathryn gave an oral presentation at the American Society for Microbiology conference, winning first prize in her category. Here is Kathryn in her own words discussing the project she presented, her training and her career plans.

more information...

What is the project at the core of your data presentation?

In the Lewis Lab, we study bacteria involved in periodontal diseases. Many of these are Gram-negative anaerobes that are pathogenic in the oral cavity. We have tested a novel therapeutic, amixicile, on a variety of periodontal bacteria, both commensals and pathogens, to determine whether the drug could be used as a treatment to target only the pathogenic organisms. We have found that amixicile is very selective for anaerobic bacteria and, even at low doses, is able to inhibit their growth in both broth cultures and biofilms. It shows similar efficacy to the selective antibiotic, metronidazole, with much less toxicity. So we hope that amixicile will go through clinical trials to be approved as a better treatment for periodontal diseases than the current antibiotics.

How did you and your mentor develop the project?

It actually started at a Mid-Atlantic Molecular Pathogenesis Meeting at Wintergreen, Virginia. I got to talking with Dr. Paul Hoffman from the University of Virginia on the way to lunch and he was telling me all about this therapeutic that they were testing against Clostridium. I told him about my work with anaerobic organisms, at the time Porphyromonas gingivalis, and we set up a collaboration where I could test amixicile for efficacy in periodontal diseases. Dr. Janina Lewis and I developed the project from there, expanding to multispecies infections and biofilm cultures as well and ended up publishing a paper on the work.

Where would you like to take the project in the future?

We are looking at moving the experiments into host cells, particularly immune response cells, since the immune response plays such a large role in periodontal diseases. We think that if amixicile is able to reduce the amount of Gram-negative anaerobic bacteria in the oral cavity, which tend to be pro-inflammatory, it will reduce the symptoms associated with periodontal diseases, that are often caused by an overactive immune response.

What are your career plans?

After graduation, I'll be working at Virginia BIO to enhance the resources about non-academic careers for graduate students. Following that, I hope to become a research associate at a biotechnology company.

PHD student Pavel Lizhnyak in laboratory

December 15, 2017:

Pavel Lizhnyak was admitted via the BSDP and matriculated into the Neuroscience Graduate Program under the guidance of his mentor, Dr. Andrew Ottens, in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. Pavel was awarded an F31 Individual Training Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in late 2016. Below, Pavel discusses his project and his training, rationale for attending VCU, and offers some advice to prospective doctoral students.

more information...

What is the major long-term goal(s) of your project?
The major goal of this project is to establish the therapeutic potential in treating KCC2-dependent chloride homeostasis following traumatic brain injury or TBI. Additionally, these studies will demonstrate the need to temporally correlate therapy with post-translational proteomic events that may then be targeted for selective biomarker development.  

What is the most rewarding part of your research training?
The most rewarding part of my research training is developing and testing hypotheses with high preclinical relevance that can potentially be translated to humans.

What is the most challenging part of your research training?
The most challenging as well as rewarding part of my research training has been learning, understanding, and developing methodologies to process omic and proteomic datasets.

What has been the most surprising finding so far?
I underappreciated the level of biological complexity of cellular processes and their adaptation in response to injury/insult across time.

What role did you and your mentor play during the development of his project and application?
The idea of KCC2 as a potential therapeutic target was generated by me. The development of the project and application was shaped and guided with my contributions by my mentor.

What advice do you have for prospective doctoral trainees or prospective F31 applicants?
My advice to prospective doctoral trainees is to stay focused and put all of your effort into succeeding in graduate school. Do not aim for low bearing fruit but aim for the top and do everything you can to reach your goals. You will be faced with a lot of subject material in your classes during the first couple years of your studies that will test your limits. You will learn how to balance personal life, studying for classes, running laboratory experiments, and preparing presentations for laboratory, local and national meetings. I recommend for every doctoral trainee to take the time to prepare and submit an F31 application. In the process, you will learn and understand what it takes to write and submit a grant and whether or not it is something you would consider doing during your career. Also keep in mind that the success of funding of an F31 depends on the academic record of the trainee.

Why did you choose to enroll at VCU?
My life's motivation is to research neurological disease in order to better treat and improve the human condition. It was cultivated as I cared for my mother while she was battling end-stage brain cancer. The devastation of my mother's brain disease has driven me to a career aimed at developing therapies and hopefully preventing others from watching loved ones suffer. Virginia Commonwealth University attracted me because of its long history of translational research and a competitive Neuroscience PhD program.

Why did you choose to pursue a PHD in Neuroscience?
I chose to pursue a PhD in Neuroscience with a goal to develop an independent research laboratory.

What are the factors that have contributed (and presumably will continue to contribute) to your progress in graduate school?
I think that being self-driven and self-motivated and having a good work ethic has helped me to succeed in graduate school. I also have very strong support from my wife who was always there during the highs and lows of my graduate school years. My advice for incoming students is to make sure that they establish a good support system of their friends, family or significant others. Equally important is choosing the right mentor who is supportive and cares about your success as a trainee during and after graduate school.

What are your immediate and long-term career goals?
I am currently evaluating career options outside of academia where I can continue to contribute to the scientific field. My long-term goal is to become a science entrepreneur.

Graduate student Kathryn Schwienteck in VCU garden

December 4, 2017:

Kathryn Schwienteck was admitted via the BSDP in 2015. Kathryn matriculated into and is now completing her Ph.D. in Dr. Matthew Banks' laboratory in the Pharmacology and Toxicology Graduate Program at VCU. Kathryn was awarded an F31 Individual Doctoral Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Drug Abuse in mid 2017, which is a terrific achievement. Below, she discusses her project and her doctoral training.

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What is the major long-term goal(s) of your project?

My project aims to study a heroin vaccine on behavioral outcomes of heroin in vivo. Specifically, we are interested in examining whether administration of a heroin vaccine can alter abuse-related effects and antinociceptive effects of heroin.

What is the most rewarding part of your research training?

The most rewarding part of my research training is collecting data and being able to share my results with others. The experiments I conduct take a long time to carry out and so it is quite exciting when I am finally able to add more data points to the set. I also enjoy sharing new findings with my lab mates in our weekly lab meetings.   
 
What is the most challenging part of your research training?

The most challenging part of my research training is staying motivated when experiments aren't working out the way I anticipated. No matter how much I plan an experiment out ahead of time, problems always come up and things don't go accordingly. Days in the lab can be pretty frustrating sometimes.

What has been the most surprising finding from your research project so far?

The most surprising finding so far is that there seem to be differences in the potency of heroin to produce abuse-related effects between female and male subjects. Going into this experiment, we hypothesized we would see similar baseline results in males and female subjects, but that has not been the case so far.
 
What role did you and your mentor play during the development of your project and fellowship application?

I worked very closely with my mentor (Dr. Matthew Banks) during the planning and writing phase of the application. He provided advice on the experimental design and helped me with editing the application. We usually met once a week during this time period so that I could update him on the progress of the application.

What advice do you have for prospective doctoral trainees or prospective F31 applicants?
 
Start working on your F31 early and do not hesitate to seek help from other students who have been funded. Also, obtain feedback from your mentor regarding the planning of the project. Expect to do a lot of editing and spend some time researching how others have been successful in getting funded. There is a lot of helpful information on the internet about how to write an F31.

BSDP student advisory committee meeting with several students

November 21, 2017:

The Student Advisory Committee to the BSDP (Roz Goodson, Hope Wolf, Clare Diester, Ria Fyffe-Freil, Nicole Jimenez and Dana Lapato) provides advice and feedback on a range of topics for enhancing the BSDP. This student committee recently addressed several questions related to choosing a graduate program and how to succeed in graduate school that the students thought would be valuable to prospective graduate applicants.

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What should prospective graduate students consider as they begin thinking about graduate training in the biomedical sciences?
-Make an informed decision about graduate training that considers possible career options after completing your Ph.D.
-Consider the prospective mentors and their research interests as you select your target graduate programs; reach out to prospective mentors at your target institutions if possible.
-Appreciate that each graduate program, mentor and laboratory environment is unique
-Consider the towns/cities/environments in which your target programs are located (e.g. the cost of living, diversity, volunteer and recreational opportunities, urban vs. more rural, etc.).
-Start the application process early; it takes time to craft quality personal statements, organize your letter writers, etc.
-Be engaged and be yourself during interviews; do a focused amount of background reading to help prepare for interviews.
-In follow-up to interviews, contact specific students and faculty members that you met or wanted to meet to ask additional questions.
BSDP student advisory committee meeting 2 students
What were some of the major factors that influenced your decision to enroll in the BSDP at VCU?
-Responsiveness of faculty and staff members made applicants feel "like family".
-"No stuffiness at VCU - just faculty members eager to have engaged students".
-Current students indicated that they "Did not get lost in the system" and "Felt valued".
-Undergraduate research mentors and others recommended VCU based on training interests of prospective students.
-The graduate programs in the BSDP provide a cooperative, collaborative training environment.
-Current students indicated that BSDP faculty mentors are attentive to individualized needs of graduate trainees.
-Ability to explore several research areas before matching with a graduate program and dissertation mentor.
-Availability of a wide range of research resources at VCU (centers, institutes, etc.).
-Very active Career Services office at VCU.
-Richmond as a place to live: affordable, good food scene, close to the beach, D.C. and mountains, lots of outdoor activities, good family environment.

VCU Career Services Bench and Beyond seminar to explore carreers

November 8, 2017:

As a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University, you are on the forefront of research and knowledge. How do you want to put your training to work after you complete your degree? VCU Career Services supports your exploration of scientific career paths, both inside and outside of academia. Career Services is available to all graduate students on both the Monroe Park Campus and the MCV Campus through one-on-one career advising, workshops, networking events, and industry-specialized career fairs each semester.

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Whether you are hoping to find a career in academia or outside of academia, we can help you identify the path that is best for you, and the tools you need to reach those goals. Translating skills acquired in your doctoral program into a digestible resume, cover letter, or simple conversation will be crucial for pursuing careers in academic research, industry research, scientific policy-making, teaching, and many other areas. We are here to help make your career search easier and help you leave VCU as a prepared and highly sought-after professional.

Some of the resources we offer to students include:
  -VCU BEST (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) workshops
  -Career exploration through classes, workshops and one-on-one career advising
  -Professional networking with scientists inside and outside academia
  -Resume, CV, and cover letter development
  -Interview practice
VCU Career Services networking workshop with students
We offer several tools for our doctoral students to expand their knowledge of career resources beyond working with a Career Advisor. Versatile PhD is a tool available on VCU Career Services website that allows graduate students to learn about opportunities outside of academia and see real-life examples of the resumes, job descriptions, and interviews of those who have taken these paths. The Vault is another online tool student can use to watch recorded interviews with professionals in their prospective fields and read guides on what it is really like to work in their future role every day.

Career advising can help graduate students gain a realistic view of what to expect from various courses of study and career paths. Your Career Advisor can also provide essential support and motivation for long term success. VCU Career Services is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday 8 a.m.-7 p.m. for student appointments. Visit us in the University Student Commons, the Hunton Student Center, or stop by online at careers.vcu.edu.

Fulbright scholars Aneel Bhagwani and Javeria Aijaz

October, 2017:

Javeria Aijaz (pictured right) and Aneel Bhagwani (left) are Fulbright scholars pursuing Ph.D. degrees in the School of Medicine at VCU. Javeria is in her 3rd year of training in Human Genetics and Aneel is in his 2nd year of training in Physiology & Biophysics. Their dissertation research mentors are Drs. Gordon Ginder and Laszlo Farkas, respectively. Pakistan is the home country for both students, who were offered Fulbright awards after a rigorous selection process. Javeria and Aneel recently talked with Dr. Grotewiel about their Fulbright awards, how the awards are facilitating their doctoral training, and how being Fulbright scholars ties into their career plans.

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How did you become aware of the Fulbright Foreign Student Program and how did you become a Fulbright scholar?

"The Fulbright Program is very popular in Pakistan" explained Javeria. Aneel added that the Program advertises heavily via newspapers, radio, and other media to help identify prospective applicants, including him.

Although their paths to the U.S. were somewhat different, both Javeria and Aneel submitted rather extensive applications, were interviewed by Fulbright representatives in Islamabad, and ultimately were selected as Fulbright scholars. The Fulbright Program then helped identify graduate programs in the U.S. that fit their research and training interests. Fortunately, VCU was one of the options endorsed by Fulbright, which led to both Javeria and Aneel interviewing with current VCU faculty members via video conference several months before the start of their doctoral training. Both students had very strong applications and were admitted via the BSDP to pursue their Ph.D. degrees.

What were your experiences as you accepted the awards and transitioned to the U.S.?

Although the final local paperwork for Aneel's Fulbright scholarship was completed only days before the start of his anticipated fall semester, he accepted the award and immediately packed for the U.S. Several plane rides and 34 hours later he was standing in the Richmond airport with two suitcases in hand wondering what to do next.

Javeria's experience was, fortunately, not quite as chaotic. She accepted her Fulbright award without any major problems, but her move to the U.S. was delayed about 3 weeks while waiting for the completion of international paperwork. Thus, she was not able to move to Richmond until her courses were well underway.

In the end, Drs. Jan Chlebowski and Hamid Akbarli, along with Mr. Harold Greenwald from the Graduate Education Office in the School of Medicine, made sure that both students were met at the airport, had temporary housing, and--in the case of Aneel--introduced him to American fast food.

Both students quickly engaged in their training, started their coursework, found more permanent housing, and connected with the faculty and students at VCU.

What is the role of the Fulbright Program in your training?

"We check-in with them from time to time", explained Javeria. "Once each semester" awardees provide Fulbright with updates on their training progress.

Both students have an advisor at Fulbright that is "very supportive" says Aneel.

Aneel and Javeria explained that the Fulbright Program provides awardees with various forms of financial support (stipend, books, etc.) and also supports awardee travel to several conferences during their training. Additionally, the Fulbright Program hosts a seminar/orientation during their first semester in the U.S. to help awardees navigate the cultural transition to the U.S.

What are your plans after completing your Ph.D. and how will the Fulbright Program facilitate your career?

Both Javeria and Aneel will return to their home country of Pakistan after completing their doctorates, a key provision of their Fulbright awards.

Javeria plans to pursue a career in medical practice or genetics research in an academic or hospital setting. In either case, she anticipates focusing on the genetics of hematological disorders, a diverse group of diseases that are understudied in Pakistan.

Aneel is interested in pursuing a career in stem cell research and translational medicine, likely within a hospital setting in Pakistan.

Being a Fulbright scholar can facilitate careers in many ways, both students explained. The Fulbright program helps trainees identify permanent professional positions and helps with the cultural transition back to the home countries of trainees, which can be "bigger than the transition to the U.S." says Aneel. Additionally, both students agreed that the prestige of being a Fulbright scholar can help open many doors throughout their respective careers.

We are delighted that Aneel and Javeria are performing their doctoral training at VCU as Fulbright scholars. Please see the website for the Fulbright Foreign Student Program for more information.


Davide Brohawn, Ph.D.

September, 2017:

A year beyond earning his doctorate in Human Genetics in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics at VCU, former BSDP student Dr. David Brohawn reflects on his time in graduate school and his career path.

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Why did you choose to enroll at VCU?


I chose VCU for several reasons. 1) VCU boasted a strong Human Genetics program, 2) From afar, I was impressed by Ken Kendler and his group's work in the area of psychiatric genetics, 3) I was and remain interested in genetic contributions to brain related disorders and that type of research is available at VCU, 4) I really enjoyed the Human Genetics faculty members - In addition to being accomplished, they were kind, easy going, and seemed to genuinely care about their students, and 5) the city of Richmond had an inviting, laid back culture full of different walks of life.

What were the factors that contributed to your success in graduate school?

I'd say the biggest factors were 1) my inherent fascination with genetics which kept me engaged and motivated to learn and work hard, 2) great teachers in the Human Genetics faculty that taught our course material enthusiastically, thereby providing me a good framework for crafting research projects, 3) weekly research seminars throughout graduate school that continually fed my interest in genetics research, and 4) being around other students that were similarly interested and enthusiastic about genetics, which kept me excited throughout my time in the program.

What were the issues you weighed as you opted to pursue a position at VCU after completing your Ph.D. in Human Genetics?

I decided I didn't want to pursue a career in academia, so my interest turned to jobs in the Clinical and Biotech sectors. I care deeply about improving treatments for different human conditions using genetics research. My position at the Molecular Diagnostics Lab at VCU emphasizes using current knowledge about the genetic contributions to different disorders (currently inherited cancer) to offer the best diagnoses and treatments to patients that we can provide today. It is very fulfilling to know my work day in and day out is helping people in need! I also wanted a job that allowed me to both generate and analyze next generation sequencing data, as opposed to choosing one or the other. My position in the Molecular Diagnostics Lab at VCU allows me to do that, so I am happy for that as well. My personal relationships I developed during graduate school here also played a large role in me wanting to find a job locally.

What are your immediate and long-term career goals?

My immediate career goals are to continue gathering experience leveraging next generation sequencing technologies to further our understanding of different diseases and improve treatment options for patients with those diseases.

In the future, I would love to transition over to the Biotech sector, mainly so I can work on the frontline either designing or applying cutting edge genetics research technology to further our understanding of genetic contributions to diseases. At the end of the day, I care most about developing better treatments, but I also love better understanding genetic contributions to biological processes for knowledge alone as well. 


Lesley Shurman head shot

June, 2017:

Lesley Schurman (VCU Pharmacology and Toxicology PhD student under the guidance of Dr. Aron Lichtman) wins the "Pre-Doctoral Presentation Award" at the International Cannabinoid Research Society conference for her poster entitled "Consequences of DAGL-alpha disruption on spatial learning and memory processes in C57BL6/J mice"!

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Here is what Lesley had to say about her project and overall doctoral research experience:

How did you become interested in DAGL-alpha in learning and memory?

DAGL-alpha pharmacological inhibitors as well as genetically altered DAGL-alpha mice have only been available for a few years. Dr. Lichtman has completed seminal work examining how various components of the endocannabinoid system are involved in the regulation of learning and memory, and I was already using inhibitors of endocannabinoid biosynthesis to explore their impact on memory after brain injury for my PhD thesis work. It seemed like a natural question to also ask what the roles of these enzymes were in the normal brain, and we picked DAGL-alpha given its location on neurons. We used the combined opportunity of Dr. Lichtman's collaborative relationship with Dr. Benjamin Cravatt of the SCRIPPS Research Institute, using his DAGL-alpha inhibitor DO34 and DAGL-alpha knock-out mice, as well as having a very talented undergraduate student, Moriah Carper, who was completing a research internship with Dr. Lichtman, to start the work. Moriah initially looked at whether DO34 interfered with the extinction of memory and the work took off from there.

What was the behavioral paradigm you used to assess spatial learning and memory?

The Morris water maze. It was established by Richard G. Morris in 1981 and is one of the most widely used assessments of spatial learning and memory in behavioral neuroscience. The test is composed of a tank filled with opaque water where the animals, we use mice, must find a submerged platform to escape. The mice use shapes on the walls as cues to orient themselves, and normal mice show faster times and slower distances to the submerged platform over repeated trials across several days.

Any thoughts on why some forms of memory are dependent on DAGL-alpha while others seem to be independent of this enzyme?

My first thought would be that structure dictates function! DAGL-alpha may be used differently in the cellular signaling pathways that regulate one type of memory over another, or DAGL-alpha could be differentially present in various areas of the brain used for memory.

Lesley Shurman and her PHD advisor, Aron LichtmanHow did you and your advisor work together on the project?

Collaboratively, as always! The entire endeavor has been a great lesson for me in collaboration. Dr. Lichtman has provided guidance, but also his established relationships with leading scientists have provided us not only with access to the tools to manipulate DAGL-alpha, but also enabled us to look at how DAGL-alpha impacts memory at a cellular level by collaborating with Dr. Qing-Song Liu at the Medical College of Wisconsin to evaluate electrophysiological changes in Long-Term Potentiation.

What was your role on the project?

I put together the experimental design (with guidance from Dr. Lichtman) and mentored two research internship students (Moriah Carper, and Karen Richardson) that contributed to the work. I also completed several of the behavioral assessments, collected tissue samples, and will soon start work on a lipid-lipid extraction process. I'm particularly excited about how the work looks at three different levels of investigation; the whole behaving animal, changes at the cellular level, and also the molecular level.

What's the next step for the research project?

Within the next week or two we will be ready to quantify the molecular correlates of our memory assessments. Specifically, we'll be measuring the levels of endocannabinoids, their precursors and metabolites, in response to our DAGL-alpha manipulations in four different brain areas. We plan to measure a type of diacylglycerol (the substrate for the DAGL-alpha enzyme) that we have not previously quantified, so we've spent some time piloting the lipid extraction process with our Pharmacology and Toxicology Mass Spectrometry core (Justin Poklis). Long term I'd love to use a single-trial learning and memory behavioral test to tease apart how DAGL-alpha impacts acquisition versus consolidation to further understand the importance of this enzyme in specific memory processes. I'm also curious about whether the effects we currently see might be reversible with inhibitors of 2-arachadonyl glycerol (the product of DAGL-alpha) degradation. Finally, I'd love to see if that same reversal would also be affective in mice with age-related performance deficits, as well as measure their DAGL-alpha protein levels. That's a long wish list!