Jerika Durham is a PhD candidate in the department of toxicology and cancer biology. Durham, who grew up in eastern Kentucky, is not only the first person in her family to pursue such a degree, but the first to attend college at all. 

As a first-generation student, Durham faced many obstacles, like financial insecurity and imposter syndrome, but she was determined to make a career for herself in medicine. Her interest was piqued at a young age after being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease. “I knew I wanted to do something in medicine or science because there was no cause or cure for what I had—that was my biggest reason for wanting to go to college,” said Durham. 

Durham studied public health during her undergraduate tenure, earning a Bachelor of Science from the University of Kentucky. Reflecting on her situation, she shared “I struggled in my earlier math classes; I had to rely on the bus for transportation, which ended its route as early as 6 p.m. some days, so I couldn’t stay late to study or make it to office hours. It impacted me academically, I think, more than my peers.” 

In addition to coming from lower-income households, first-generation students often incur more college debt than non-first-gen students. Durham, like many first-generation students, had to rely on loans to make ends meet. After beginning the Master of Science in Medical Sciences program at the UK College of Medicine, she was able to use loan money to purchase a car, allowing her to study later and see a noticeable shift in her grades. 

With support from her peers and a tenacious knack for learning, Durham has finally found her stride. Durham also credits her mentors, Bernhard Hennig, PhD, and Kate Zaytseva, PhD, for their unwavering support throughout her academic journey. 

Under the guidance of Dr. Zaysteva, who serves as a member and project leader of the University of Kentucky Superfund Research Center, Durham is currently researching environmental toxins and their potential impacts on colon cancer. 

Now, three years into her PhD program, Durham has traveled to several conferences to present her research, including the Society of Toxicology annual meeting and the John P. Wyatt Environment and Health Symposium. Without departmental support, she says that experience would not have been affordable as a first-generation student. 

Durham is still figuring out her next steps after completing her doctoral degree, but her ambitions include attending medical school or launching a career in industry. Either way, she intends to stay in Kentucky with hopes of expanding her research to explore the prevalence of colon cancer in the Commonwealth and Kentucky-specific toxins that may be a factor. 

Durham laments that the feeling of imposter syndrome may never fade completely, but she said the support of her fellow students has made a tremendous difference. “In our department, the other students have become a tertiary family. You don’t feel like an imposter because you’re all looking out for each other—there’s no competition, just support,” she said. 

Durham is paying that support forward too. For the last two years, she has been mentoring a local high school senior studying in the lab. Though most of their time together is spent learning to run PCR tests or plating cells for an assay, they also regularly discuss college applications and potential career opportunities in medicine and science. 

“Jerika has great mentoring skills and has been instrumental in helping her mentee to successfully compete in science fair and earn second place in the poster competition,” shared Dr. Zaysteva. “I am very proud of her being persistent in overcoming multiple challenges and striving to achieve her goals.”