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2021 Participants

Blessing Akobundu

Blessing is currently a 5th year PhD student in the Therapeutic Sciences Graduate Program (TSGP) at Brown University. Her research focuses on understanding the epigenetic role of RNA molecules in the oncogenesis of glioblastoma multiforme.


Vanderbilt Mentor:

Dr. Mary Philip


Thoughts on last year’s summit:

Overall, I enjoyed the symposium. The staff, PIs and students were very welcoming and provided helpful answers to questions that were asked.



Gabriel Ascui

Gabriel a Molecular Biotechnology Engineer from the University of Chile now completing my PhD at the Biomedical Sciences program at UC San Diego. He has worked at several research institutions all related to different aspects of immunology. HE started my career focusing on gastric cancer and the involvement of innate T cells in this disease, but has also explored the role of T cells in autoimmune disease as vitiligo and diabetes.

He is in the 4th year of my PhD studying the role of Mucosal-associated invariant T (MAIT) cells in long-term responses that resemble immunological memory. His lab is completing a CRISPR screen-based strategy to determine which gene program are important for maintaining these long-term changes in MAIT cells after bacterial infections.

His research focuses on lung immune responses against bacterial pathogens, specifically infections which are combated by innate T cells, as MAIT cells or invariant Natural Killer T (iNKT) cells. Innate T cells have been proposed a powerful tool for the future development of off-the-shelf adoptive transfer therapies for cancer and other diseases, due to their donor-unrestricted nature of their antigen-specific response. His lab is currently studying subpopulations of MAIT cells in mice and humans, exploring which of these could confer long-term protection against lung bacterial pathogens.


Vanderbilt Mentor

Dr. Jeff Rathmell


Thoughts on last year’s summit:

The VITA symposium was a great opportunity to connect with other graduate student around the country and learn from their own experiences of what is similar and what different to my own experience and the ones surrounding my own graduate environment. Although challenging to generate engagement during a virtual conference, this works well and got us all connected.




Emily Diaz

Emily is a fifth year graduate student in the lab of Tannishtha Reya at University of California, San Diego. She is currently studying the role of microenvironment interactions between myeloid leukemia and the bone marrow through the application of in vivo imaging and targeted blocking antibodies. My Vanderbilt mentor is Kathy DelGiorno.

Vanderbilt Mentor: 

Dr. Kathy DelGiorno


Thoughts on last year’s summit:

I really enjoyed my experience at last years summit. It gave me a real look into what it’s like to work at different career stages from early investigators to more established investigators and I really appreciated that in particular


Gabriella Lopez

Gabriela Lopez and is a first-generation Afro-Latinx college graduate from The Bronx, NY. She is currently a 5th year PhD candidate at Northwestern University. Her dissertation work focuses on examining in-vivo mesolimbic dopamine circuit activity in response to positive and negative stimuli. A large part of my thesis work has focused on investigating how dopamine signaling related to motivation and behavior for rewards is impaired during chronic pain and how that impairment may influence opiate addiction risk.

Vanderbilt Mentor:

Dr. Christine Konradi

Thought’s on last year’s summit:

Last year’s summit was exciting and informative. I enjoyed presenting my data to faculty, postdocs, and students and appreciated the conversations we had to take my work even further. Even though we did not physically get to visit Vanderbilt, we met a lot of people, and everyone was very welcoming and willing to answer any of our questions. I was particularly impressed by the career advancement resources at Vanderbilt. The ASPIRE resources showcased how Vanderbilt puts effort in helping postdocs achieve their career goals, whether or not in the academic sphere. The Alan Alda Center workshop was also fun and encouraged me to think of ways to communicate my science in new and creative ways. Overall, the summit was very helpful and gave me insight on what things I want to look out for in a future postdoctoral position and institution.


Aurora Washington

Aurora Washington is a native of the Mississippi Delta, specifically the historic Ruleville, MS. Aurora completed high school at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and science where she cultivated her passion for science. Which led her to Tougaloo College where she received her Bachelors of Science in Biology with Honors in 2016. During Aurora’s time at Tougaloo she was a scholar in the Jackson Heart Study and conducted research during academic years and several summers, interning with the Minorities Health and Health Disparities International Research Training program and NASA Rhode Island Space Grant program.

After graduating she joined the Hoffman- Kim lab as a post-baccalaureate scholar in the Neuroscience department at Brown University. In 2017 she matriculated in the Biotechnology PhD program where she is currently investigating environmental toxicants response in both human and rodent 3D neural microtissues; she also studies disease modeling. Aurora is working to characterize the morphology of synaptogenesis via immunohistochemistry in the rodent cortical microtissues as well.

Aurora has worked as a STEM workshop leader for the Leadership Alliance program during the summers of 2019, 2020 & 2021. Extracurricularly Aurora enjoys participating in community outreach with the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council. She has also pioneered the digital media platform Voicing Black Experiences which is a visual audio podcast created to cultivate a space for historically underrepresented people, BIPOC, to voice their experiences in the spaces they traverse. The hope is that by sharing the ways to navigate and thrive in difficult spaces, someone will be inspired, encouraged, comforted and knowledgeable.

Her research, mentoring and social interests include STEM accessibility and communication. She also considers herself an environmentalist and hopes that her work can improve everyone’s quality of life. She often turns to the wisdom of her hometown hero and great aunt Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer who left us with profound and prophetic insights.

​ “Whether you have a Ph.D., or no D, we’re in this bag together. And whether you’re from Morehouse or Nohouse, we’re still in this bag together…” -Fannie Lou Hamer


Vanderbilt Mentor:

Dr. Breann Brown

Thoughts on last year’s summit:

I enjoyed the 2021 VITA symposium. The workshops were engaging and thoughtful. They gave the participants the opportunity to improve skill sets like elevator pitches and oral presentations. I also met stellar peers from other universitites and the faculty and staff were welcoming, informative and supportive.


Inyda Weathers

Indya Weathers is 2nd year PhD student at the University of Chicago in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics department. She is a joint student in the labs of Dr. Demet Arac and Dr. Engin Ozkan currently studying the structure and function of axon guidance proteins.

Axon guidance occurs during development and is the process by which neurons extend axons to reach their target locations and make proper synapses. Membrane bound and extracellular excreted molecules are used as cues that interact with cell surface receptors to produce either attractive or repulsive responses in the extending axons. These combinatorial responses lead neurons to form the proper connections between each other. There are many proteins involved in axon guidance that are well studies, but our lab has discovered novel contributing interactions that have not been previously known.


Through this research, my goal is to uncover a new repertoire of axonal guidance mechanisms, and to remodel current paradigms in the field. I will employ structural approaches including X-ray crystallography, cryo-electron microscopy, and bioinformatics tools to define and characterize these novel interactions together with functional approaches in C. elegans including mutational phenotype assays and live fluorescence microscopy to reveal new roles involved in axon navigation.


Vanderbilt Mentor:

Dr. Kris Burkewitz

Thoughts on last year’s summit:

At the VITA scholar’s symposium, I had a blast meeting other researchers in various fields and learning about their work. I was also grateful to meet the faculty at the university, especially my mentor Dr. Kris Burkewitz. He provided me with great advice on how to navigate life in academia, how to tailor my training to meet my career goals, and how to get involved in things that matter to me in my community. He is also a great resource for me during all the future stages in my PhD and assured me that I could reach out to him for anything in the future. Through this program, I was able to meet new mentors, share my research with leaders in the field, and develop relationships at the university where I could see myself in later stages of my career.


Overall, the symposium was organized very well. I had one-on meetings with the faculty whose life and research I was interested in getting to know and there was plenty of space and time to meet the other students involved. I would love to see this program expand to include more students so that others can get involved in this program and take advantage of the great things to offer at Vanderbilt.


Nadira Yusif Rodriguez

Jazmine Benjamin 

Judith Reyes Ballista

Shi Fang