January 31, 2022
The Impact of Research at the UK College of Medicine
Urim Geleta is only into her senior year of her undergraduate degree, yet she has already played a key role in neuroscience research at UK.
By participating in the UK’s inaugural African American Research Training Scholars (AARTS) program, Geleta collaborated with Joe Springer, PhD, professor of neuroscience. She actively participated in a study of biological sex factors and traumatic brain injury, which led her to have her name on a publication before she even started a doctorate in research. She also presented her findings at a neuroscience symposium hosted by the UK Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center (SCoBIRC).
To Geleta, it’s crazy to think she almost didn’t apply to the AARTS program. She said she initially felt unqualified. Looking at all that she has achieved since completing the program, her mentor Dr. Springer is thankful Geleta changed her mind. Her potential shined through her outside-the-box thinking and her inherent ability to analyze results.
“She came up with a possible interpretation that I had not even thought of,” Dr. Springer said. “Right then, you knew that she got it. She understands both technically and methodologically, but she also understands the science in such a way that she’s able to synthesize an answer. That’s something that I’ve only seen when I’m dealing with graduate students.”
Geleta’s success embodies what Dr. Springer and fellow AARTS Program Committee members (Warren Alilain, PhD; Mark Prendergast, PhD; and Zelneva Madison) hoped to accomplish with the initiative. It also demonstrates the impact the College of Medicine strives to make in research education.
The earlier that students are exposed to the possibilities of research, the earlier they can build interest, expand their research expertise, and network with colleagues to collaborate on cutting-edge projects. And the mentorship gained through initiatives such as the AARTS program can establish longstanding connections.
Mentorship is what made all the difference for Brittany Rice, PhD. Before she arrived at the UK College of Medicine, she assumed research was limited to studying animal models. Then she connected with Kevin Pearson, PhD, director of inclusive research initiatives and professor of pharmacology and nutritional sciences, and she was introduced to other possibilities that better aligned with her career goals. Dr. Pearson welcomed her into his lab, equipped her with the skillsets necessary to advance in science, and supported her co-curricular activities – all of which ultimately led to her current postdoc position.
“All these people were heavily invested in me,” she said. “They checked on me. They understood the plight of what it is like to be underrepresented.”
Now, Dr. Rice is a postdoctoral fellow at UK Markey Cancer Center, paving the way for future researchers. She helped write an American Cancer Society grant application for UK’s Markey Science Training in Research, Oncology, Networking, and professional Growth (STRONG) Scholar’s program in the spring of 2021. Her work helps UK provide career and professional development for college sophomores, juniors, and seniors interested in cancer research who come from historically underserved or underrepresented ethnic and racial backgrounds.
“I just really see how excellent of a mentor Brittany is with peers, women in STEM, and diverse trainees in STEM,” Dr. Pearson said. “She’s a light at the end of the tunnel for so many people, and we’re lucky she’s staying on here at UK.”
Erin Oakley, PhD, Markey’s cancer education coordinator, said opportunities are endless for trainees at the College of Medicine thanks to its focus on expanded mentorship, enhanced training, and the multitude of career options available through research.
In 2003, she was an aspiring graduate student with a traditional career goal for someone with her training – to earn a doctorate and run a research laboratory. Now, while still in research – just not quite how she planned – part of her job involves helping enhance the pipeline by working with learners from kindergarten to high school, partnering with local schools to provide tours of UK research facilities and organize hands-on activities in the laboratory. She also supports the training of undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs by coordinating career development and mentoring opportunities at the cancer center.
“Research is such a learning experience in creative thinking and problem solving,” Dr. Oakley said. “I love my job because I get to watch trainees grow and discover skills they didn’t even realize they had.”
The success of UK’s learners is vital for the future of health research in the Commonwealth. Kentuckians face the burden of many diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, and more. As research at UK expands, diversifies, and increases its bandwidth, Kentuckians benefit.
After completing the AARTS program, Geleta has a broader idea of what she can accomplish through a research career. She continues to work with Dr. Springer and feels more confident in her ability to fulfill a longstanding goal – to obtain an MD/PhD.
“I love being challenged here, and Dr. Springer and the team are very supportive in helping me understand the material and asking questions that I should be asking,” Geleta said. “By the end you can see your thought process changing, and you understand the way science is done in a different dimension.
“The more you get to know it, the more you understand the magic behind it.”
Dr. Rice is currently working on the ARISE T32 grant where she is developing measures to evaluate the effectiveness of current and future cancer education and research training programs. This goes along with Dr. Rice’s ultimate dream of maximizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in science and medicine.
“Here I am today doing something that I never thought I would be given the platform to do,” she said.