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G1 Students Share Lab Selections

Posted by on Wednesday, February 24, 2021 in Student Spotlight .

The Vanderbilt MSTP would like to congratulate the G1 class on completing their first two years of medical school and on joining the following laboratories and graduate programs:

StudentGraduate ProgramMentor
Riley BergmanCancer BiologyBen Ho Park, MD, PhD
Xavier BledsoeHuman GeneticsEric Gamazon, PhD
Stephanie CajigasNeuroscienceErin Calipari, PhD
Emily ChuBiomedical EngineeringCynthia Reinhart-King, PhD
Alissa CutroneCell & Developmental BiologyYoungmin Lee, MD, PhD
Jim Goldenring, MD, PhD
Emilie FisherMolecular Pathology & ImmunologyJeff Rathmell, PhD
Simone HerzbergEpidemiologyKatherine Hartmann, MD, PhD
Jonathan Schoenecker, MD, PhD
Zach JonesMolecular Pathology & ImmunologyMariana Byndloss, DVM, PhD
Matthew LobergCancer BiologyVivian Weiss, MD, PhD
Matthew O'NeillHuman GeneticsDan Roden, MD
G. Donald OkoyeMolecular Pathology & ImmunologySebastian Joyce, PhD
Yasminye PettwayMolecular Physiology & BiophysicsAl Powers, MD
Seth ReasonerMicrobe-Host InteractionsMaria Hadjifrangiskou, PhD
John ShelleyBiomedical InformaticsJonathan Mosley, MD, PhD

Here’s what they had to say about choosing their lab:

Riley Bergman: I knew I wanted to join a cancer biology lab because the more I learn about the unique process of tumorigenesis or hear about ideas for exploiting tumor vulnerabilities to guide treatment, the more I want to learn. There are so many questions remaining to be asked and answered in an area of medicine that impacts so many people. It is a truly exciting field to be in as we continue to explore new approaches to personalized medicine. In finding a mentor, I saw that Dr. Park was passionate about making a big impact in breast cancer research for his patients, not afraid to take on big ideas, and really valued helping his trainees grow into independent scientists. I knew I would be both challenged and well supported by a collaborative lab. It was very telling for me to see a lab group that acts more like friends than colleagues, and I couldn’t be more excited to join them.

Xavier Bledsoe: I am delighted to be working with Eric Gamazon in the field of computational genetics. The promise of the human genome is slowly unfolding driven by the development of new clinical and research studies and a rapidly expanding toolbox of analytic methods. My specific interest lies in the intersection of genetic regulation and psychiatric disease. The association of genetic features and disease has provided a foundation for this work. I hope to build upon this knowledge by studying molecular mechanisms responsible for these associations. In doing so, my efforts are aimed at both identifying clinically significant intermediates and building a fuller understanding of normal and abnormal molecular physiology in the brain. 

Stephanie Cajigas: Ever since joining my undergraduate lab, I had an interest in the neural circuitry changes associated with learning and memory. Over the course of those 4 years it gradually progressed towards maladaptive learning, specifically dysregulation in psychiatric disease states such as addiction. I also really enjoyed the methods I worked as an undergraduate such as stereotaxic surgery, viral vector protein expression, and optogenetics, in addition to various behavioral paradigms. These became important deciding factors when applying to MSTP programs, making the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research and Dr. Calipari’s lab a great training environment. After rotating in Dr. Calipari’s lab, I found the lab atmosphere to be overall extremely welcoming, inclusive and conducive to productivity while at the same time light-hearted, which also speaks to Dr. Calipari’s capability to cultivate an excellent scientific team where everyone can learn and grow from each other. 

Emily Chu: My undergraduate research was in creating microfluidics to recapitulate the tumor microenvironment. I am excited now to join the Reinhart-King lab that uses similar technologies to study the effects of mechanical and chemical changes in the extracellular matrix to study cancer progression. While the research area was an important factor in choosing this lab, my interactions with Dr. Reinhart-King and the lab members were equally as important. Dr. Reinhart-King is a leader in cell mechanics and biomaterials, and her dedication to training students made her an appealing mentor to me. Finally, the lab members have a fun sense of camaraderie, and our group chat is filled with memes so clearly I’ve chosen the right lab!

Alissa Cutrone: I joined the Lee lab very much by chance. First being put into contact with Seth Karp, Chair of Surgery, he told me about a PI he just recruited to the university, and that her new techniques would be a good fit for the ambitious questions I wanted to answer. What sealed the deal was that I would not only be involved in the Department of Surgery, specifically the hepatobiliary arm, but also be collaborating with and mentored by the Epithelial Biology group as well. This strong network of scientists, including my primary mentor Jim Goldenring and close collaborator Bob Coffey, make me confident that I will have the support I need for developing a creative and translationally important thesis. Youngmin Lee is an incredible scientist and a mother of three, which provides me with a great mentor for balancing my career and newly found role as a mother.

Emilie Fisher: Though my background is in microbiology, I have always been fascinated by the host side of the host-pathogen paradigm and came into the MSTP knowing I wanted to study immunology for my graduate work. Jeff Rathmell’s lab was actually where I did my first rotation, and I immediately appreciated the substantive science, breadth of techniques and scope, and the friendly, collaborative atmosphere. Though I can’t say I ever aspired to study metabolism (in fact, anything biochemical is quite daunting to me), I have quickly learned the importance of studying how different cells use particular metabolites in studying immunological diseases. I am excited for the challenge of learning about immuno-metabolism knowing I have support from a wonderful mentor and my peers in the lab.

Simone Herzberg: My interest in research stemmed from my love for sports. Since I can remember my two biggest passions have been science and soccer. I am very fortunate now, to be able to combine these passions into my research. I am thrilled to be working with both Dr. Hartmann and Dr. Schoenecker to investigate the health benefits of exercise. Both Dr. Hartmann and Dr. Schoenecker are phenomenal physician scientists and I am honored and excited to get to learn and train with them. 

Zach Jones: My interests have long lied in the interactions between the gut microbiome and the immune system. In undergraduate years, I found myself fascinated with the immunologic interactions that were tangential to my work as a synthetic chemist while focusing on synthetic monomers of bioorthogonally labelled peptidoglycan. This interest led me to seek out my shortcoming in knowledge in the study of the immune system at Vanderbilt. I chose Dr. Mariana Byndloss’ lab to examine the relationship of the gut microbiome and its impact on the immunologic contribution to inflammatory disease such as inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer. Moreover, I chose her lab because she is vigorous and hands-on in both her research and mentorship, she has fostered a diverse group of graduate students in both disciplines and backgrounds, and has created a lab environment where collaborations, contributions of ideas, and friendships are easy to obtain. I’m looking forward to not only studying in depth what is often the crux of pathophysiology, the immune system, but also gaining broad skills and relationships that make graduate study worthwhile.

Matthew Loberg: How can we target heterogeneous populations of rapidly dividing, devious cells that are innate to ourselves, as precisely as possible? That’s the question that has driven my curiosity in cancer biology. I’ve always had an affinity for board and card games that involve some form of logical dilemma. My favorite games are those that are simple at the surface, yet increasingly complex the more you play them and uncover the underlying mechanics of their strategy. As an undergrad, I became fascinated by the molecular puzzle that cancer presents. I saw cancer as a distinct entity composed of heterogenous malignant cells, whose treatment depended on the ability to discover targetable markers of disease aberrantly expressed on cancerous cells. My aim was simple: to discover that which makes various populations of cancer cells distinct from normal cells and figure out how to target those differences. Over the last few years, I have realized that such a conceptual framework to personalized cancer therapy may be too simplistic, ignoring an important component of solid tumors: the supporting cast of stromal cells and immune infiltrate composing the tumor microenvironment. I am thrilled to be joining Vivian Weiss’s lab, where I will be studying the pro-tumorigenic influence of cancer associated fibroblasts in thyroid cancer. Dr. Weiss has been an incredibly welcoming mentor, and I am excited by the translational (yet mechanistic) focus of our lab’s work, which is strengthened by Dr. Weiss’s expertise as an MD/PhD pathologist and the various model systems that our lab employs, from organoids and mouse models to a large cohort of human thyroid samples.

Donald Okoye: My desire to pursue an MD/PhD dual degree came on the heels of the realization of the awe in which I hold the human immune system. My years off after my undergraduate studies were mostly focused on stimulating the immune system in our endless battles against cancer. In so doing, I learned a lot about the human immune system, but even more, I learned that there was yet so much I didn’t know. The immune system can be an incredible ally when facing pathogens or out-of-control self-cells, but it can also be the fuel on the fire that is inflammation in or outside the setting of an invasion. I believe that the path towards properly harnessing the immune system lies in learning exactly what makes certain arms of the innate and adaptive systems tick, and using those triggers to our advantage. Dr. Joyce’s lab allows me to do just that. In our lab, we work on understanding the mechanisms that underlie response to pulmonary Francisella infections. The resulting tularemia often presents in a sepsis-like manner, driven by an over-activation of the immune system in response to an invasion. Consequently, tempering that response seems to improve clinical course in our study animals. So now, I have the privilege of spending the next few years learning about what makes the immune system respond to an outside threat so devastatingly, that it becomes an enemy to itself, and ways in which we can turn that tide to our advantage.

Matthew O’Neill: During my undergrad research and Fulbright year, I cultivated a whole-hearted passion for organic chemistry and its applications to drug discovery. While this venerable field continues to transform nearly every aspect of our lives, the attrition of drugs in clinical trials is a long-standing problem, now best approached from complementary fields. By joining the Roden lab, I hope to establish a foundation in genetics, pharmacology, and cardiology, collectively advancing my goal of developing novel therapeutics. The entire group is extremely kind, iPSC’s and CRISPR are super cool techniques, the broader diversity of research carries high appeal, and the track record of previous trainees is extremely impressive.

Yasminye Pettway: As an undergrad, I became interested in studying diabetes by observing the impact that it had on my own community. One of the many reasons I chose to come to Vanderbilt in the first place was the breadth and depth of exciting research surrounding diabetes and its comorbidities that the institution offers as a whole. I chose to join the Powers and Brissova Research Group specifically for many reasons as well: the supportive lab environment, excellent mentorship and expertise throughout the lab, the variety of new and interesting techniques offered, and the translational nature of the research.

Seth Reasoner: I view infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance as being among the biggest challenges facing our generation of physician-scientists. I wanted to study both the basic biology and clinical implications of these issues. Dr. Hadjifrangiskou serves as the co-director of microVU, a bio-repository for clinical microbiological samples. This allows me to obtain clinical samples and test hypotheses in a translational manner. I appreciated Dr. Hadjifrangiskou’s commitment to mentorship and education.

John Shelley: Before coming to Vanderbilt, most of my research was in the field of outcomes research, using large “real world” data acquired from electronic medical records and health insurance claims to better understand implications of health policy. During this time, I realized that what interested me most about the projects I worked on was not the end-product of our analyses but the process of analysis itself, turning messy data into a clear story. In the ‘-omics’ age, bigger and bigger datasets are available everyday, but making these data relevant to patient care is a difficult task. I joined the Mosley lab because his lab takes on this task using a multi-omics approach, developing tools that are both statistically rigorous and relevant to patient care. In addition, the lab has a great history of collaboration both in and outside of Vanderbilt, and there is a strong sense of mentorship from top to bottom.