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Giving in Action: Unexpected connections

Posted by on Monday, October 5, 2020 in Fall 2020, Giving in Action, Vanderbilt Community .

When Rachana Haliyur, PhD’18, MD’20, graduated from Vanderbilt in May, it represented the culmination of a nearly lifelong path toward becoming a physician-scientist.

As a child, Haliyur’s parents — who were engineers — put a strong emphasis on asking questions and thinking critically. They also provided early exposure to science and technology. By the time she entered high school, Haliyur was interested in a career in medicine and research; as an undergraduate, she solidified her plan to pursue an MD/PhD degree.

When she began looking at programs, Haliyur said Vanderbilt wasn’t on her radar at first.

“I became really impressed with Vanderbilt’s caliber and leadership,” she said. “It was such a nurturing, collaborative environment and the best place for me to get the training I was looking for.”

Haliyur was accepted to the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) in the School of Medicine. She completed her first two years of medical school, then spent four years earning her PhD while studying diabetes under the mentorship of Marcela Brissova, PhD, research professor of Medicine and Alvin Powers, MD, the Joe C. Davis Professor of Biomedical Science and director of the Vanderbilt Diabetes Center. She then returned for her final two years of medical school, during which she became interested in ophthalmology.

In addition to the financial support she received through the MSTP, Haliyur was also a recipient of the Barbara R. and Glenn H. Merz Scholarship for MD/PhD students. Established by Barbara Rosser Merz and Glenn Merz in 2010, the scholarship reflects their commitment to educating physician-scientists, as well as their belief that excellent medical research and practice can meet human needs, relieve suffering and provide hope.

It’s a conviction that Haliyur shares with the Merzes. Upon meeting them for the first time last year, she realized she also shared another, unexpected connection with the couple.

Barbara and Glenn first met at a support group for families at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where Barbara’s husband and Glenn’s wife had each received a lung transplant. After

both of their spouses died, Barbara and Glenn found comfort in each other, realizing they each understood the loss the other had endured. Slowly, their friendship grew into romance, and they eventually got married.

During the first year of her PhD training at Vanderbilt, Haliyur’s father was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive cancer and passed away two months later. A few years after that, Haliyur’s mother ended up marrying a close family friend whose wife had died of breast cancer.

“It was a very challenging time, but I recognized the power of companionship and how they overcame their losses together,” Haliyur recalls. “When I met the Merzes I was able to share that story with them. It’s another reason the scholarship meant a lot to me.”

Her father’s sudden, fatal diagnosis that left him with no treatment options also fueled her continued passion for research. The Merz Scholarship provided extra support and motivation to meet the challenges of her chosen profession.

“I believe the best outcomes of research are defined by asking the right questions,” she said. “I’m most interested in performing research that can have direct clinical impact, which aligns with the mission of this scholarship. I’m so grateful to the Merzes for their support, the message they are championing, and their passion for both medicine and research.”

Haliyur is continuing her medical education as an ophthalmology resident at the University of Michigan and plans to pursue a career as both a clinician and basic scientist dedicated to advancing care and treatment solutions for people with difficult eye conditions.

In addition to meeting Haliyur, the Merzes have enjoyed the opportunity to meet with each student who receives their scholarship.

“Since starting our fund, we have felt good knowing we are helping students follow their dreams,” Rosser Merz said. “We know all of them will make a mark in their chosen fields.”

– by Sydnie Hochstein



  • Murali Timmaraju

    October 8th, 2020

    Keep up the great great dedication to your profession Rachana and a big thanks to the Merzes foundation that have recognized your commitment and hard work. Best Wishes

  • Somashekar Srikantia

    October 8th, 2020

    Rachana an example of great dedication to ones profession Keep it up Rachana.Also appreciate the Merzes foundation for recognizing Rachana dedication and hard work. Good luck to you Rachana in all your endeavors.