Daniel Chavarria, Ph.D. – June 2024 Newsletter Feature

Daniel Chavarria is a postdoc in Dr. Ethan Lippmann's lab at Vanderbilt University in the department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering where he focuses on how to create high-fidelity neurovascular in vitro models of the neurovasculature to study the effects of type 2 diabetes on Alzheimer’s disease development. Daniel's current research stems from his childhood experiences where his grandparents unfortunately suffered from multiple diseases including type 2 diabetes, asthma, stroke, cardiomegaly, and Alzheimer’s disease. With his current work, he hopes to create the next generation of neurovascular models to help him answer some of the proposed hypotheses on how type 2 diabetes drives Alzheimer's disease development. Prior to his postdoctoral role, he studied at the University of Texas at Austin a few hours from his hometown(s) known as sister cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, México. He describes the area as a dynamic metropolis that is contained between two mountain ranges. He often reminisces growing up with the hot dry summers of the Chihuahuan desert, that reached temperatures above 100o C, eating burritos, and drinking his uncle’s famous raspas (a form of shave iced, usually mixed with milk-based syrups) with his family. He would also listen to the rich sounds of the accordion from the Norteño music while visiting the local open-air markets within the area. 

Read more about Daniel in our Postdoc Features.

Postdoc Features

  • Daniel Chavarria, Ph.D. - June 2024 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Daniel Chavarria, Ph.D.

    I grew up in the sister cities of Ciudad Juárez, México and El Paso, Texas, one of the largest international border communities in the Western hemisphere. This dynamic metro area is contained between two mountains ranges. At the north we have the Franklin Mountains and to the south the Sierra de Juárez, the twin cities are bisected by the Rio Grande, locally known in Ciudad Juárez as the Rio Bravo. I remember the hot dry summers of the Chihuahuan desert, reaching temperatures above 100o C, eating burritos, and drinking my uncle’s famous raspas (a form of shave iced, usually mixed with milk-based syrups) with my family. Listening to the rich sounds of the accordion from the Norteño music while visiting the local open-air markets. The harsh climate of the Chihuahuan desert is tough, and in a very biased manner I think it makes even tougher people.

    My two professional role models are my dad, a mechanical engineer, and my aunt, a medical doctor. My dad instilled in me a sense of curiosity for building and fixing any kind of mechanical device. My dad would always tell my siblings and I that we needed to have “chispa”, which nowadays I interpret as initiative and critical thinking. There are pictures of me as child “fixing” a loose screw in one of our kitchen chairs, early signs of my interest in engineering. My aunt, on the other hand, instilled me in a sense of service for those in need. As a medical doctor, my aunt took care of both of my grandparents who suffered from multiple diseases including type 2 diabetes, asthma, stroke, cardiomegaly, and Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, during the height of the cartel violence at the Mexican-American border, my aunt aided families of kidnapping victims in recovering their loved ones. These were tough times for my family and I, but nonetheless they formed the foundation for my personality and my career.

    I was fortunate enough, thanks to my dad’s foresight, to attend Mission Early College High School. At the age of 17, I graduated with my Associated Degree in Arts. A year later I graduated with my high school diploma, talk about a confusing timeline. I then enrolled at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and had the honor to be awarded a BUILDING SCHOLARS scholarship, a prestigious NIH initiative aimed at training the next generation of biomedical researchers in the U.S. Southwest region. I had several research experiences at UTEP as a BUILD scholar, but none quite changed my life as my summer research experience at the University of Texas at Austin, working for Dr. Aaron Baker. It was here that I fell in love with the world of Biomedical Engineering (BME). I spent the summer researching the effects of cyclic mechanical strain (fancy words for stretching cells) and its effects on breast cancer cell behavior. I made my first scientific discovery in which we found that very specific strain patterns induced quiescence and therefore chemoresistance in breast cancer cells. I was blown away to know that I had aided my graduate mentor in making such a fascinating discovery.

    After graduating from UTEP with my B.S. in Biological Sciences, I enrolled in the graduate program at the University of Texas at Austin to pursue a Ph.D. in BME. I was co-advised by Dr. Aaron Baker and Dr. Andrew Dunn. I spent the next six years of my life working on a variety of projects. I was able to significantly contribute and finish our work on the effects of cyclic mechanical strain on breast cancer cell behavior (Spencer, 2021). I also worked on installing cranial windows in mice so we can study how cortical microvasculature changes over time utilizing advanced imaging modalities such as Speckle imaging and two-photon microscopy. My main thesis work focused on developing a high-throughput blood brain barrier in vitro model that incorporated shear stress to mimic the hemodynamic effects of blood flow and improved the predictive power of our model for drug discovery (Chavarria, 2023). I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the University of Texas at Austin but when it came to my research, I always felt like a fish out of water as I had become interested in the field of neurovascular biology and engineering.

    Luckily, I joined Dr. Ethan Lippmann’s lab in the department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Vanderbilt University for my postdoc. I have to say, nearing my one-year employment anniversary, my time at Vanderbilt University has been phenomenal. I am thankful to not only work in such a collaborative laboratory but also a collaborative institution. My research focus has slightly shifted since graduating with my Ph.D. I am still interested in developing devices that incorporate biophysical forces such as strain and shear stress in vitro for mechanobiological studies. However, now I want to create high-fidelity neurovascular in vitro models of the neurovasculature to study the effects of type 2 diabetes on Alzheimer’s disease development. Using the latest advancement in microfluidics, stem cell biology, and genetic engineering I plan to create the next generation of neurovascular models to help me answer some of the proposed hypotheses on how type 2 diabetes drives Alzheimer's disease development.

    For those still reading, I know I have only superficially touched upon my research interests. I opted to focus on my upbringing and my experiences. I am a firm believer that to understand a person you must understand their background. My research interests as a postdoc are deeply influenced by my early childhood experiences, witnessing the physical toll type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease took on my grandparents and the emotional toll it took on my family members. I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to work at Vanderbilt while conducting research in a topic that is so personal to myself. I hope my work one day significantly contributes to our understanding of these diseases and the development of future cures.

  • Taseer Ahmad, Pharm. D., Ph.D. - May 2024 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Taseer Ahmad, Pharm. D., Ph.D.

    I grew up in a village in the north of Pakistan, surrounded by beautiful mountains where we speak the language “Pushto.” Since childhood, I wanted to become a physician. So, even after putting in my best efforts, I was unable to get admission to the medical school in Pakistan.  But it is important to have a plan B in life. In my case, plan B mostly works for me. So, I started my career as a pharmacist and chose Pharm.D. In my Master's studies, I studied Pharmacology as a subject of interest; this subject is shared by both Pharm.D and Medical students. Then, I tried tirelessly to get admission to one of the top 200 universities globally, but again, I revisited my Plan B and secured PhD admission in my native country. During PhD (Pharmacology) study, I was lucky to visit the Queen’s Medical Center, University of Nottingham, UK, through a short-term exchange program.  The dream came true when I joined Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), one of the best Medical Schools in the US, as a postdoc research fellow.

    The main objective of my career is to apply and upgrade my professional skills and experience in cardiovascular pharmacology. I want to use my scientific knowledge and communication skills to help in the development of novel therapeutics and to improve patients' lives. Before I discuss my research journey, I want to share that I taught basic Pharm.D subjects in Pharmaceutical Institutions of Pakistan to Pharm.D and Masters’ students for almost eight years. Currently, I am on study leave from the College of Pharmacy, University of Sargodha, Pakistan. So, I  strived to balance both teaching and basic research in the last few years, which I also want to continue in the future.

    My research area is Cardiovascular Pharmacology. For the last decade, I have been working on different techniques related to cardiovascular pathophysiology in animal models. In my early career, I worked on isolated rabbit hearts, and also learned how to measure non-invasive blood pressure using tail-cuff apparatus in animal models. Under the supervision of Dr Alamgeer, an Associate Professor in Pakistan, I learned the basic techniques in cardiovascular Pharmacology and published several articles in reputed journals. Then, I joined Prof. Dr. Abdul Jabbar Shah (Ex-Postdoc Fellow, Medical College of Wisconsin, US) laboratory in Pakistan. In Dr. Shah’s Lab I learned how to measure invasive BP in rat models, ECG analysis during myocardial infarction, and vascular reactivity in isolated rat aortic rings. In addition, during my PhD, I completed a six-month fellowship program under the supervision of Dr. Richard Roberts, Associate Professor, University of Nottingham, UK. In Dr. Richard’s lab, our study focused on the effect of some selected natural compounds on the porcine coronary artery.

    After graduating in 2022, I joined Dr. Kirabo Lab as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in December 2022, a recognised expert in salt-sensitive blood pressure and its immune-linked mechanism(s).  Dr. Kirabo Lab at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) is undoubtedly one of the best places I could ever dream of joining as a postdoctoral research fellow. My postdoc project provides me with new conceptual and technical training in cardiovascular-related disorders, particularly the role of monocytes in inflammation and salt-sensitivity of blood pressure. This will help me achieve my long-term goals to become a successful independent scientist. My training has thus far provided me with extensive basic science knowledge and technical skills and career development opportunities, including literature analysis, public speaking, responsible conduct of research, and career development. In Dr. Kirabo’s Lab I am working on multiple projects; the leading project is to study the role of Activated Protein-1 (FOS-JUN) complex in salt-sensitive blood pressure. Recently, we have published four articles in prestigious journals, and a few are under review.

    In addition to my research activities, I co-chair the career development committee at Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association (VPA). We have arranged different activities related to career development for Postdoc fellows, including a monthly Monday motivation letter and workshop on mentorship. The OPA board, along with the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association (VPA), are excellently keeping the postdoc community connected through the Annual VPA symposium and organising workshops. I am also a member of professional organisations such as the American Heart Association (AHA), the American Physiological Society (APS), and the European Society of Cardiology (ESC). During the last year of my stay at Vanderbilt, I was lucky to attend and present my research at the conferences organised by APS and AHA. The AHA awarded me a prestigious “Young Investigator Travel Award” to attend Hypertension Session 2023. I am also grateful to The Vascular Biology & Hypertension (VB&H), University of Alabama at Birmingham, for the “Travel Award” to attend the symposium in April 2023. I will credit my PI, Dr. Kirabo, for encouraging me and supporting me in attending these conferences, which just opened my mind to new horizons of thoughts in the field of medical research, specifically immune-mediated salt-sensitivity of blood pressure. Overall, I am grateful that I got the chance to work with all the amazing people who share a similar passion for biomedical research.

    In my free time, I like to spend time with my family and friends, participate in volunteer activities, play cricket and football, hike, make tea (Chai), and cook different Pakistani-style food.

  • Laura Carter-Stone, Ph.D. - April 2024 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Laura Carter-Stone, Ph.D.

    When I first started teaching—first kindergarteners, then high schoolers, then undergraduates and master’s students—I made a lot of mistakes. To my master’s students, I gave so much feedback on their midsemester projects that a few students groaned to see it. To my undergraduates, I gave rambling lectures heavy with undefined abstract terms while also trying way too hard to be cool. Although many of us are supported in becoming stronger researchers, many instructors, like me, benefit from support in becoming stronger teachers.

    After earning my PhD in Teaching and Learning with a specialization in Language, Literacy, and Culture from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, I entered my current role as a Postdoctoral Scholar in AdvancED’s Office of Educational Development and Design (the former Center for Teaching). The heart of my work involves supporting Vanderbilt’s talented faculty, graduate student, and postdoctoral instructors to become even more powerful university teachers. We work together to make their teaching more equitable, which means “teaching to transgress” (hooks, 1994) against injustices in higher education and society that inhibit student learning. I often support instructors in adopting active learning strategies that invite all students to participate, and with designing assignments and assessments that invite students to leverage their interests and strengths. Some highlights from my work with Vanderbilt faculty include exploring “culturally sustaining” (Paris, 2012) teaching practices with Peabody faculty prior to their departure to work with the American University of Iraq-Baghdad, and collaborating with VUMC instructors to help their undergraduates analyze, apply, and participate in medical research.

    Along with consulting with instructors one-on-one, I design and facilitate several of AdvancED’s teaching workshops. With my doctoral advisor Dr. Kevin Leander from Teaching and Learning and Dr. Thomas Clements from Biological Sciences, I’m hosting an upcoming workshop that draws on my own research investigating what teachers might learn from dramatic improvisers, artists who work as a group to spontaneously create improvised theater (“improv”). Anyone from the Vanderbilt community is welcome to join us for the Improvisational Teaching Workshop on April 17th  (rescheduled from March 27th). In this workshop, we’ll explore how improv might help make classrooms more democratic, cooperative, and alive (learn more and register here). I’ve also facilitated faculty workshops with my AdvancED colleagues Dr. Boni Yraguen and Dr. Marcy Pedzwater on designing collaborative projects and crafting writing assignments with the problems and possibilities of Generative AI in mind.

    I love growing my knowledge of effective teaching across the disciplines while working with Vanderbilt’s brilliant PhD student and postdoc instructors. I teach a section of the Certificate in College Teaching Practicum, through which participants design a portion of a class and plan, teach, and reflect on a lesson. To name just a few examples among many: Alexander Tripp, a PhD candidate in Political Science, is applying equitable and inclusive teaching practices explored in the Practicum to prepare an undergraduate statistics course alongside Jennifer Barnes, another PhD candidate in Political Science. To structure engaging student discussions around issues of race, gender, and higher education, among other topics, Sociology PhD candidate Whitney Frierson adapts a variety of research-supported active learning strategies including think-pair-shares and minute papers. Pharmacology PhD candidate Christopher Hansen’s highly participatory (and hilarious!) approach to normalizing student risk-taking through interactive lecturing in his course “From Concept to Clinic: How Drugs Are Made,” in which students “develop” a drug to treat a disease of their choice, has raised my expectations about the impactful and humanizing sorts of learning possible in online environments. Through the Practicum, many graduate student and postdoc instructors design ambitious learning experiences to engage their students in complex scholarly and societal problems. Alex Becker, a PhD student in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, is guiding his students through the process of conducting their own independent research projects. This semester, Mechanical Engineering PhD candidate Margarita (“Maggie”) Orlova designed a unit through which students analyze the thermodynamics behind global warming.

    A true joy of my work involves collaborating with my fellow postdocs, including many in the Collaborative Humanities Postdoctoral Program, to apply principles of backwards design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) to their undergraduate courses. These teacher-scholars craft creative public humanities projects to involve their students in global scholarly, civic, and activist discourses. Students in Dr. Lidiana de Moraes’s “Music is Power” select songs championing feminist discourses for a collaborative class playlist and analyze the songs in relation to their cultural, historical, and sociopolitical contexts. In “Gendered Lives,” Dr. Lara Lookabaugh’s students train an intersectional, critical lens on their lived experiences by engaging in daily journaling exercises to generate meaningful research questions. I’ve also collaborated with Vanderbilt postdocs to design and implement equity-oriented modes of assessing student learning, like the thoughtful processes through which Dr. Peter Chesney guides his students through co-creating rubrics to evaluate and revise their writing in his first-year writing seminar “When L.A. Glowed.”   

    Through my postdoc, I’ve learned so much from the innovative ways these and other Vanderbilt instructors stimulate powerful student learning, insights I hope to translate into future teaching and learning scholarship and educational development. While I’m sad to leave Nashville after my six years at Vanderbilt, I’m excited to leverage what I’ve learned through my collaborations with Vanderbilt’s amazing instructors in my future role as an Instructional Consultant at the University of Kentucky’s Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching!

  • Helen Makhdoumian, Ph.D. - March 2024 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Helen Makhdoumian, Ph.D.

    Walk by the Robert Penn Warren Humanities Center (RPW) on a sunny afternoon, and you’ll likely see a group of people eating at one of the tables outside and having a lively conversation. Odds are good it’ll be a group of Collaborative Humanities Postdoctoral Program Fellows who have found each other for an impromptu lunch. There are 13 CHPP Fellows, soon to grow with another cohort. We hold PhDs in different humanities disciplines: History, English, and Art History to name a few. At Vanderbilt, each of us is affiliated with either a department or center. English is my home department. I say that “C” in CHPP should really stand for “Club” since many of us end up at the same events on campus. The best part is when we inadvertently sit next to each other and introduce ourselves: “I am also a CHPP Fellow, but in the Department of...” One of us might then say, “And rounding out the CHPP group, I’m…” That is until another one of us arrives. And so the process of identification by relation continues. These and innumerable other moments with fellow CHPP Fellows have made me smile.

    You’ll also hear us identify with one of three research clusters: Global, Environmental, or Urban Humanities. I am part of the Global Humanities research cluster. While each group member works in a different discipline and on different topics, we come together to discuss the implications of the global movements of people, goods, and ideas as well as issues of dislocation, belonging, and citizenship. This year, the Global Humanities research cluster is organizing events around the theme “A World Without Borders.” When we think about transcending borders, we mean imposed geopolitical borders and perceived borders between knowledge making and sharing. Keep your eyes open for our big event in April. A panel of artists, scholars, and community members will discuss what rupturing, pushing against, and navigating within and across borders means to them.

    My own research? My book manuscript is my main project. I bring together Armenia, Palestine, and Native North America in a sustained scholarly frame. To that end, I examine how fiction and nonfiction writers from each of these groups reflect on memories of displacement, dispossession, and violence. In doing so, I open an expansive discussion of the global politics of indigeneity and diaspora that, following the authors, offers insight into the iterative experience of trauma, from living through ongoing settler colonial violence, to ethnic civil wars, or both. I make my interventions as a literary studies scholar. Histories of mass atrocities such as indigenous genocide in the United States, the Armenian genocide of 1915, or the Nakba of 1948 do the important work of revealing the devastating facts of who did what, when, and where. My work shows how the dispossessed and removed find a way to speak after all. Put differently, it is about how Armenian, Palestinian, American Indian, and First Nations authors get the afterword through their literary production. Authors I study do not occupy the position of survivor in their communities’ respective events of territorial removal but that of the inheritor of memories and observer of the ripples, reverberations, and remains of history. I treat them as theorists who write from that latter position of witnessing. To read Armenian, Palestinian, American Indian, and First Nations authors together is not simply to reflect on how the United States has shaped these memories, but moreover to attend to an even vaster transnational frame, including France, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, Ethiopia, and Uganda, among other locations. American literature, then, is worlded through these authors’ words on removal memory.

    I’m also enjoying getting to know students. Currently, I am teaching a first-year writing seminar, “The Repair Work of Righting and Writing.” Next Fall, I’ll teach a Native American literature course on the contemporary multi-narrative novel in the United States and Canada. Next Spring, I’ll teach an Anglophone literature class on Middle Eastern and North African authors who use the themes of curses, fortunes, and destinies to address weightier issues.

  • Katherine Ankenbauer, Ph.D. – February 2024 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Katherine Ankenbauer, Ph.D.

    Curiosity has always gotten the better of me. As a child, my curiosity had to be quite a difficult quality as I was always getting into SOMETHING. At home? It was my mother’s bathroom cabinet where I proceeded to put lotion in my hair, thinking it was mousse. At school? Instead of taking a nap, I would always sneak around opening cabinets to see what was inside. I guess it came as no surprise that I became a scientist as I always wanted to explore, learn new things, and discover the answers to my many, MANY questions.

    It just so happened that many of the questions I had growing up had to do with cancer. What exactly is cancer? How does cancer form? How do we get rid of cancer? These questions stemmed from my family history of cancer, a disease that impacted at least 4 of my family members, including my grandpa, who was treated here at Vanderbilt! This had a formative impact on me growing up. I HATED cancer – it had launched a personal attack against my family, and I wanted to do something about it. This naturally led me into the world of cancer research where I ended up going to the University of Alabama at Birmingham and joining the lab of Dr. Susan Bellis where I did my Ph.D. in cell biology. During graduate school, I studied how cancer cells utilize sugars – specifically, sialic acids – to reprogram their behavior to become more malignant. I focused how glycosylation of a receptor tyrosine kinase, EGFR, impacts its downstream signaling, localization and fate. While reading more about EGFR, I came across a paper about EGFR in pancreatic cancer that piqued my interest in pancreatic cancer formation.

    After graduate school, I knew that wanted to return to Nashville to be with my family and it just so happened that a lab here on campus, Dr. Kathy DelGiorno’s lab, studied pancreatic cancer formation! I joined the DelGiorno lab back in August 2023 where I have been studying the early events in pancreatic cancer formation. Specifically, I study a process called acinar to ductal metaplasia (ADM) which describes the process by which digestive enzyme-secreting acinar cells in the pancreas will transdifferentiate into another differentiated cell type in the pancreas known as ductal cells. This is a restorative program that occurs in response to pancreatic injury through pancreatitis, chronic inflammation of the pancreas. Our lab found that during this process, acinar cells do not just transdifferentiate into ductal cells, but also other cell types known as tuft cells, a type of chemosensory cell, as well as enteroendocrine cells, which typically secrete hormones that aid in digestion and nutrient absorption. With my project, I’m trying to understand what drives acinar cells to transdifferentiate into these cell types during ADM. We’ve identified a molecule that is a potential driver of this heterogeneity, and my project is focused on studying this by using organoid models which I’ve developed over the past 4 months. Stay tuned for more information as the project unfolds!

    I’ve only been here for 5 months at the time of this publication, but so far, I’ve found the Vanderbilt community to be very welcoming and collaborative – an excellent environment to do science in! I’ve been extremely grateful for all of the resources available on campus to support my training and professional development such as the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association (VPA) and the Biomedical Research Education and Training office (BRET). I grew up in the Nashville-area, so it’s fantastic to be back in my hometown around my family members and friends. In my free time, I enjoy reading, volunteering, baking, gardening, and drinking/making coffee.

  • Kanchana Devanathan, Ph.D. – January 2024 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Kanchana Devanathan, Ph.D.

    “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them”, I am quoting the famous quote by Walt Disney here because I have always been a dreamer. Ever since childhood, I dreamt of becoming someone who can cure people’s sickness. I always thought that only a clinician can do that since I grew up in a family of clinicians with medical degrees in different specializations.

    Little did I know that I could be someone who can help clinicians in creating better healthcare system. Yes, I chose to earn a degree in Biomedical Engineering and now my dream is turning into reality. My journey started in the southern part of India where I was just an average small-town girl aspiring to be someone who could help people in getting better healthcare.

    After high school, I read about Biomedical Engineering online and wanted to pursue that as a degree. During higher studies, I had the opportunity to interact with multiple clinicians which gave me a unique perspective of healthcare. My doctoral thesis focused only on a specific aspect in Image processing but once I graduated, it felt like I could do more. I had this feeling that I was still missing something, that is the exposure to the world-class research.

    Vanderbilt university undoubtedly is the best place that I could ever dream of in joining as a postdoctoral research fellow. I have recently moved to USA from India, and the Vanderbilt International Student & Scholar Services (ISSS) have extended their support and guidance in every step of the process. I feel really blessed that I have the most amazing colleagues and staff who made this transition a smooth one.

    The Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA) orientation has helped me to meet and interact with fellow postdocs who have joined at the same time. The OPA board along with Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association (VPA) are doing an excellent job in keeping the post doc community connected. They also enable the postdocs gain more research insights by organizing workshop, speak-easy seminars and Annual VPA symposium.

    I am currently working as postdoc at the Vanderbilt Biophotonics Center (VBC) where our team collaborates with researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) to develop optical diagnostic and treatment modalities. A post-doctoral researcher is always expected to have confined research life but in Vanderbilt it is more like a holistic experience of professional development, training and research.

    The research community here is growing stronger everyday with more Interdisciplinary and International research collaborations. I am glad that I had the courage to follow my passion at Vanderbilt which has given me ocean of opportunities to gain experience as a professional. Overall, I am grateful that I got the chance to work with all the amazing people who share similar passion in Biomedical research.

  • Kaylin Hill, Ph.D. – December 2023 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Kaylin Hill, Ph.D.

    Hello everyone! I am a current research assistant professor in the Psychology and Human Development department. I first joined the Vanderbilt community as a NIH T32 post-doctoral fellow under the mentorship of Drs. Autumn Kujawa and Kathryn Humphreys. With their support and guidance, and the incredible resources and support offered at Vanderbilt, I attained an NIMH K23 award this past summer. My research uses multiple methods to examine affective processes across the lifespan and within families, particularly as related to mood psychopathology.

    My passion for supporting others has led me to pursue research questions related to better understanding depression, how its presentation may differ across developmental periods, and how we can strive for early identification and intervention. Depression is among the most common and costly mental health disorders, and the ultimate aim of my work is to reduce the tremendous burden of the disorder on individuals and families. My research pursues this aim by seeking answers to unresolved questions with a broad methodological toolkit, leveraging expertise in affective neuroscience and developmental psychopathology.

    My academic journey started at Butler University, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in art and psychology. My experiences at Butler—in the classroom and community—furthered my passion for service and interest in emotion functioning and mood disorders. I then pursued my doctoral degree in clinical psychology at Purdue University under the mentorship of Dr. Dan Foti, where I gained expertise in psychophysiological methods to pursue these questions. After clinical internship at the University of Notre Dame, I was thrilled to continue my efforts to examine processes related to risk for mood psychopathology across the lifespan under the mentorship of experts in developmental neuroscience and psychopathology. Through my postdoctoral training at Vanderbilt University, I had the opportunity to grow immensely in my understanding of developmental psychopathology, family processes, and infant and early childhood mental health.

    My current research focuses on shared affect experiences in caregivers and their young children. Longstanding research suggests that early developmental contexts, particularly between caregiver and child, play a large role in early neural development, and a growing number of studies demonstrate that shared affect may be a key component to these contexts. I am currently pursuing multiple measurement methods to better capture these shared affect moments in caregiver–child pairs as well as how the neural functioning of caregivers and children may impact, and be impacted by, these experiences. I am incredibly excited to contribute to this literature, with an eye toward translational implications of this work, to ultimately reduce the burden of mood psychopathology on individuals and families. I have enjoyed my time here at Vanderbilt immensely, and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn and contribute in this community.

  • Jane Miller, Ph.D. – November 2023 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Jane Miller, Ph.D.

    Ever since I can remember, I have always been curious about what other people were thinking, but it was not until a couple months ago that I realized that curiosity set me up perfectly to become a psychologist. My academic journey began my senior spring semester at Union College when my undergraduate psychology advisor looked at me and said “hey have you ever considered grad school?”. I went on to join Dr. Paul Windschitl’s Judgment, Decision, and Social Comparison lab in the Department Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Iowa. During my time as a member of that lab, I became an expert in how people make, interpret, and communicate judgments under uncertainty and risk. Most of my research examine the various factors that contribute to the accuracy (and bias) in the different types of judgments we make about ourselves and our future. For example, how does the different comparative information you surround yourself with predict the level of healthy behaviors you engage in? That’s one of the many questions I examined during my time at Iowa.

    My dissertation work, titled “The Optimism Gap: Lay Prescriptions for Characterizing, Estimating, and Communicating about Uncertainty” was composed of three papers that examined how the scientific and colloquial definitions of uncertainty differ, and how that has large implications for how scientists communicate to the public. I showed how different ways of asking people their recommended levels of optimism can have a dramatic influence on whether people seem to support having optimistically-biased expectations for uncertain events. For example, in one paper about how people conceptualize uncertainty about COVID-19, I found that people desire for other people, including government officials to be pessimistic and overprepare for the worst—even if that means closing schools. In the third paper of my dissertation, I examined the influence of social forecasts in the domain of climate uncertainty, namely uncertainty about severe storms.

    Although I enjoyed doing COVID-19 and other health-related uncertainty experiments, over the past couple of years I have been adapting my research to align with my personal beliefs that scientists of all types should collaborating across scientific areas to understand more about the realities of climate change and the ever-increasing influence of the environment on day-to-day life. When looking for a postdoctoral position, I specifically sought a program that would allow me to contribute my scientific expertise to this goal.

    The ability to further my research into the climate domain is why I chose to work for the Climate Change Research Network here at Vanderbilt. As a member of both the Climate Change Research Network and the Energy, Environment, and Land Use Group at Vanderbilt Law, I am around some of the top researchers and lawyers all doing work on how people adapt to climate change. Thanks to the resources provided by Sally Shallenberger Brown EELU Program Fund, I am able to work under Professor Michael Vandenbergh, Dr. Mark Cohen, and Dr. Jonathan Gilligan on several lines of social and behavioral climate-related research. Being able to work jointly with Owen and Vanderbilt Law has allowed me to hit the ground running with getting new lines of research off the ground here at Vanderbilt.

    I am pleasantly surprised by how much I am enjoying Nashville—I especially love how dog-friendly it is here. When I’m not working, I’m almost always hanging out with my dog Marty. I also enjoy taking both film and digital photographs (mostly of Marty) as well as going for hikes and exploring Tennessee (also with Marty!)

  • Karin Steffen, Ph.D. – November 2023 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Karin Steffen, Ph.D.

    I’m a biologist, a molecular geneticist or bioinformatician. But overarchingly, all my research has linked back to evolution. There are two patterns that emerged in my academic career path so far. One, I’ve always consciously chosen engaging and supportive mentors and PIs. Their passion for their field and teaching about it has captivated me and made for numerous wonderful research experiences in fantastic, supportive work environments. And two, at the same time, in terms of topics, I seem to gravitate towards topics I naïvely think aren’t as interesting, already solved, or too complicated to begin with. That’s of course before I start working on them –then I realize the opposite is true. Some readers might see a connection between the two tenets, and I would be inclined the agree with that.

    After a uneventful B.Sc in biology in Germany, I moved to Sweden for an exchange semester –ultimately staying 12 years and leaving with a PhD. (In the European education system, a separate master’s degree is typically a requirement to be admitted to doctoral studies.) During my M.Sc. studies at Uppsala University, I worked on several projects in plant systematics and also social amoebae. Did you know that some gourds repeatedly floated from central Asia all the way to Australia to establish new lineages there? Or that slime molds can be both unicellular amoebae and a multicellular organism with defined cell fate? Being able to peak into many different study systems really sparked my curiosity. For my PhD, I moved from botany to zoology studying sponges, a group of mainly marine animals among the earliest sisters to all other animals. My research included several different ‘-omics’ approaches such as genomics, transcriptomics, metabolomics as well as dabbling into microbiome work and natural product chemistry. It’s kind of like looking at the same organisms from a global/population level to the organisms and its individual molecules. Sponges are quite different from the typical concept of an animals you might have. This is easily illustrated by for instance their bodies not having a bilateral symmetry or the fact that they don’t have any organs and hardly any true tissue. They are so enigmatic that even telling if they’re alive or dead after transferring a specimen to an aquarium can be a challenge. So, while I was able to contribute some results, there’s still plenty to discover.

    For my postdoc here at Vanderbilt in the US, I once again changed everything yet adhered to my principles. At the Rokas lab, I switched to mycology, a new branch on the tree of life. I’m interested in understanding the evolution of pathogenicity in fungi, by comparing opportunistic pathogens to their non-pathogenic sister species. It’s tough starting in a new field, feeling like you can’t catch up with all past research while also keeping up with the new research. But this position allows me to draw from the skills I build in previous career stages, challenges me to learn about another idiosyncratic group of organisms and allows me to work collaboratively on a whole new level. Moreover, I’m thoroughly enjoying the research community in evolution at Vanderbilt fostered by the Evolutionary Studies Initiative here. I’m thankful for this opportunity, it is enriching to experience different countries, cultures, people, and labs.

  • Douglas DeMoulin, Ph.D. – October 2023 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Douglas DeMoulin, Ph.D.

    My journey started at Murray State University where I received my BS and MS in Occupational Safety and Health. Following in my father’s footsteps, I wanted to pursue a Ph.D and focus my research efforts on the health and well-being of firefighters. I always had a passion researching firefighters, and when I pursued my Ph.D in the Occupational Injury Prevention program at the University of Minnesota, I had the opportunity to work alongside my mentor, Dr. Hyun Kim, researching mental health in firefighters. These opportunities inspired me to investigate an emerging mental health condition, referred to as moral injury. This condition is highly researched among military veterans and the measurement scales recently became available to screen for moral injury; however, no measurement scale was available for firefighters.

    My dissertation titled “Moral Injury: A Statewide Assessment on the Burden, Risk, and Protective Factors among Minnesota Firefighters” focused on developing a moral injury scale specifically for firefighters and assess the potential risk and protective factors of moral injury. In my dedication section of my dissertation, I wrote: “This research is dedicated to all firefighters who devote everything to their community and put themselves in harm’s way to save lives by sacrificing their time with family and their personal well-being. The sacrifices you make and the stress you endure constantly are not unnoticed. My professional career and future research hereafter will be dedicated to support the health and well-being of firefighters and other first responders.” This is not limited to just mental health but includes the personal well-being of cardiac-related issues and cancer as a result of their sacrifice. What led to the development of my interest in cancer research involves the unprecedented mortality rates of cancer and cardiac arrest in the fire service, an occupation at high-risk of cardiac-related cases as a result of exposure to toxic environments. One of the major yet unique challenges in the fire service compared to other occupations is identifying the toxic chemicals attributable to adverse health. In most occupations, the chemical(s) are known; however, in the fire service, each building contains hundreds of unknown chemicals and when under extreme temperatures, alters the molecular structure to more complex derivatives that can potentially yield more toxic characteristics than the parent chemical. Additionally, firefighters respond to hazardous materials events (mostly on large scales), whether traversed by tanker trucks, rail carts, or stored in industrial-sized vessels, firefighters are exposed to immediately dangerous to life or health environments.

    This is why I chose to do my postdoctoral studies in the Molecular and Genetic Epidemiology of Cancer (MAGEC) program at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC). I was interested in the MAGEC training program because of the success the program has demonstrated, the support provided for post-doctoral fellows, and the resources available to achieve their career goals. The MAGEC program provides post-doctoral fellows with reputable mentors who are pioneers in their field of study. The success of MAGEC’s training program is demonstrated through the achievements of prior MAGEC fellows and placement at tenure-track positions. Currently, I have been involved in investigating occupational benzene exposure among Chinese men in the Shanghai Men’s Health Study and also collaborated with VUMC researchers and Pfizer representatives assessing psychosocial factors and cancer survivorship. It is an honor to have this opportunity and to work alongside my mentors: Drs. Xiao-Ou Shu, Loren Lipworth, and Wei Zheng here at VUMC.

  • Juliet Nyanamba, Ph.D. – September 2023 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Juliet Nyanamba, Ph.D.

    I think of life as a canvas, initially blank, full of endless possibilities, and over time, together with the people around us, we get to paint a masterpiece. Some paint strokes are also added by environmental factors, experiences, and things beyond our control. As a developmental scientist, I’ve always been curious about influences during critical periods (especially early childhood through adolescence) in people’s lives and how these impact their developmental trajectories. This curiosity began as an emerging adult while I helped take care of my nephew in his early years. As any psychology undergraduate would, I tested many of the developmental psychology concepts I had learned in class on this fascinating little human (e.g., the marshmallow experiment on delayed gratification). I was mostly intrigued by his curiosity and motivation in the early years, how quickly he learned to speak, and how his mind went from processing concrete ideas to abstract concepts. His learning in these early years could be likened to random strokes on a canvas, exploring different media and tools while building a masterpiece. Unfortunately, I also saw how later on, structured learning and the rigorous demands of the education system took away the joy and dimmed the spark in his eye. Learning shifted from joyous exploration to structured, rote, and a performance done to fulfill external expectations.

    Observing this trend in numerous other children compelled me to create interventions that supported learners’ curiosity, motivation, and well-being. Pursuing my MSc in Developmental Psychology, in Scotland, I was immersed in a preschool that used a play-based curriculum, was very child-centered, and offered choices from a very early age. Moreover, the teachers were very nurturing with their students and the school provided a lot of parent empowerment programs that promoted positive parent-child relationships. Coming to America for a Ph.D. in Developmental Science cemented my observation that the social environment greatly impacts learners’ motivation, persistence, and well-being. My research therefore centered around the impact that key social influencers, such as parents, teachers, and mentors, have on development. I learned to take a systemic perspective in studying development and particularly mental health outcomes.

    More recently, in my postdoc experience, I have explored the impact of macro-systems in the cultural and historical context on youths’ development. As part of Dr. Velma McBride Murry’s Center for Advancing Racial-Ethnic Equity (CARE) for Families lab, I am exploring the impact of cultural stressors (e.g., discrimination, family stress) on African Immigrant youths’ development within a family context. Moreover, I look at cultural assets, resilience, and resistance factors that promote positive development despite adversity. In a secondary role, I work as a director of operations and community engagement core member in the Southeast Collaborative for Innovative and Equitable Solutions to Chronic Disease Disparities. Noting that mental health outcomes are intricately linked to physical health outcomes, this role is helping me build an interdisciplinary perspective as I explore the impact of cultural stressors on cardio metabolic health outcomes. As a Vanderbilt postdoc, I enjoy being surrounded by scholars who take a community-engaged perspective and use their research to empower communities. I am often reminded that “anything about a community, without the community, is not for the community” and this has greatly shifted my approach to research. My masterpiece is far from complete and I look forward to more collaborations that will enrich my professional journey.

    Outside my professional realm, you will find me painting, hiking, playing pickle ball with friends, or supporting my favorite middle school and high school soccer teams (Valor Collegiate Academies) where my husband coaches.

  • Victoria (Tor) Nasci, Ph.D. – August 2023 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Tor Nasci, Ph.D.

    When asked what I wanted to be as a child I would always say a “heart doctor” though I never really understood what that could entail. Through my little sister’s health struggles in her early years, I developed a secondary interest in the kidneys. As I moved through my education, I learned how intertwined the cardiovascular and renal systems were and this furthered my interest in both the heart and the kidney. While completing my bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at Marquette University I took an experimental physiology class and fell in love with research. The timing was perfect as I was realizing I did not want to go to medical school and be in a patient forward job but was not sure what I wanted to do instead. After Graduation I worked as a research technician in the Cardiovascular Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). I learned more about research and what a career in research could entail then decided to pursue my PhD in Physiology at MCW.

    During my graduate studies I worked in the lab of Dr. Alison Kriegel. Her research is focused on understanding molecular mechanisms of cardio-renal syndrome type 4 where primary chronic kidney disease leads to cardiovascular disease. This lab was perfect for me as it naturally combined research on the heart and kidney my two lifelong interests. My thesis work focused on understanding how microRNA 21 impacts cardiac energetics and thus function following a 5/6th reduction in kidney mass to simulate chronic kidney disease. Furthermore, my work looked at the effect of peritoneal dialysis in this model to evaluate how dialysis itself impacts cardiac health and whether dialysis is capable of clearing circulating microRNA’s that while small typically circulate in microvesicles too large to pass through dialysis pores. While a student at MCW I was awarded an American Heart Association pre-doctoral fellowship, presented at numerous national conferences, and ultimately won the Friends of MCW Outstanding Dissertation Award.

    Following the completion of my PhD in November of 2021 I moved to Nashville and joined the lab of Dr. Eman Gohar in the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension as a postdoctoral research fellow. While at VUMC my research has shifted from a focus on the heart with the kidney as a secondary interest to now a focus on the kidney with a secondary interest in the heart. Our lab is interested in mechanisms of sex differences in the prevalence of kidney disease and hypertension. In particular our lab is interested in the role of the G-protein coupled estrogen receptor 1 (GPER1) in the kidney. My project is twofold. First, I am interested in the signaling mechanisms downstream from GPER1 that may impact natriuretic mechanisms, hypertension, and kidney damage. For this project I am utilizing a collecting duct specific KO of GPER1 to evaluate how GPER1 impacts endothelin-1 (ET-1), Epithelial Sodium channel (ENaC), and aldosterone signaling. My second interest is upstream of GPER1. Evidence suggests that this estrogen receptor (GPER1) is involved in sodium regulation in the kidney. I am therefore, exploring the possibility that the kidneys may be capable of producing estrogen locally to activate GPER1 in response to salt fluctuations sensed by the kidney. Preliminary evidence indeed suggests that the kidneys are capable of extragonadal estrogen production and for this project I will evaluate potential sex differences in this production that may impact sex differences in natriuresis, kidney disease, and hypertension. Since joining VUMC I have continued to present my work at national conferences and have received the American Heart Association Kidney Council New Investigator Travel Award, and most recently the American Physiological Society Renal Section Postdoctoral Excellence in Research Award.

    In addition to my research, I am active in service both nationally and locally. Nationally I serve on the American Physiological Society Animal Care and Experimentation Committee and recently, I was appointed to the American Heart Association Kidneys in Cardiovascular Disease Nominating Committee. Here at VUMC I serve on the Nephrology Faculty and Fellows Wellness Committee, the P.R.I.D.E employee resource group social committee, and this past year served on the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association (VPA) as the Advocacy and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee Chair. This year for the VPA I will be serving as the President. I am excited to continue working with the VPA to rollout initiatives that can help better the postdoc community both professionally and personally. It is my goal to work with my fellow board members this year to better engage the postdoc community and create more comradery and interactive opportunities.

    In my free time I like to tend my garden, go hiking with my dog, and go fishing and kayaking. I also play slow-pitch softball with the Nashville Blast in the Metro Nashville Softball Association league. In addition, I enjoy cooking and baking. I have been learning the art of smoking meats, and I enjoy cooking the traditional New Mexican cuisine I grew up with.

  • Siru Liu, Ph.D. – July 2023 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Siru Liu, Ph.D.

    I was born and raised in Chengdu, China—a large city known for its pandas, a chill attitude towards life, spicy cuisine, tea culture, and folk music. In high school, I got involved in biomedical informatics research at West China Hospital, where I witnessed the transformative power of information technology in improving work efficiency. I also saw firsthand how immature tool design in electronic health records (EHR) could significantly impact healthcare professionals’ performance, especially considering the demanding workload in Chinese hospitals.

    During my college years, I initially focused on studying statistics but gradually became captivated by the potential of computers and artificial intelligence (AI) to solve real-life problems. This led me to begin formal research in clinical decision support (CDS) at Harvard in 2016 under the guidance of Dr. Adam Wright, an esteemed expert in the field. I worked on a project detecting failures in CDS and gained valuable training in machine learning and natural language processing using healthcare data.

    Driven by my passion for CDS, I pursued a Ph.D. in Biomedical Informatics at the University of Utah School of Medicine. Upon completing my doctoral work in 3.5 years, I recognized the importance of leveraging data-driven methods in CDS development and management. To further enhance my skills in CDS management, I returned to Dr. Adam Wright’s lab at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. I also actively engaged in career development activities such as ASPIRE on the Road, the Annual Career Symposium, the ASPIRE Networking Pacing Module, and Grant Pacing Workshops.

    In 2022, I was honored to receive the NLM K99/R00 grant, which includes two years of mentored training and two years of independent research. It provides me with the remarkable opportunity to apply novel explainable AI (XAI) approaches to address the pressing issue of alert fatigue—a challenge encountered by many hospitals, including VUMC. My research aims to improve the logic of alerts and suppress unhelpful alerts. Through this work, I strive to develop a standards-based taxonomy of features affecting user response to alerts, a data-driven process for generating suggestions to enhance alerts, and expert-validated suggestions. Another direction of my research is focused on using large language models to improve CDS. In a recent study, I used ChatGPT to generate suggestions to improve alert logic, and the results were promising. Out of the 20 top-rated suggestions, nine were generated by ChatGPT.

    Beyond my professional pursuits, I find joy in exploring nature, science, and art. Recently, I have been spending quality time with my 5-month-old Blenheim Cavapoo puppy named Culry. She is incredibly intelligent, friendly, and calm, bringing boundless happiness to my life. I also enjoy reading, cooking new recipes, making cocktails, and hiking. The most recent dishes I cooked were Volcano Ribs, street food from Bangkok, and Marc Forgione’s Bang Bang Shrimp in Lao Spicy & Sour Sauce with a glass of osmanthus-infused gin.

    Overall, I am grateful for the opportunities that have shaped my journey and excited to improve the efficiency and quality of healthcare using AI.

  • Katie Young, Ph.D. – June 2023 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Katie Young, Ph.D.

    When I was in preschool, I was sent home with a teacher report labeling me as a “happy, busy, and curious” student. While that combination of words seems to describe a handful of a four-year-old, I would say the phrase still does an excellent job of capturing my personality and the drive which propelled me into the field of biomedical engineering (BME). As a senior in high school considering different undergraduate majors, I stumbled across a university webpage describing their BME department. I was enthralled – “Math plus science plus problem solving plus helping other people!? Sign me up!” The field is multidisciplinary by nature, using an engineering mindset and toolbelt to solve biological problems and create solutions to help improve human health and healthcare. Through formative experiences and guiding mentors during my time as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, a graduate student in a joint program at Georgia Tech and Emory University, and now as a postdoc in the Vanderbilt BME department in the lab of Cynthia Reinhart-King, I can proudly add “mechanobiologist” to my “happy, busy, curious” list.

    While it makes sense to most people that the mechanical properties of materials, such as how stiff or soft something is, is important for tasks like construction, product design, and even baking (another love of mine), some people don’t realize how important the mechanical properties of cells and their surrounding tissues are. Cell and tissue stiffness can be used as a biomarker for many healthy and disease states and plays an important role in several biological processes, such as wound healing, stem cell differentiation, immune function, tissue development, cell death processes, and cancer. Interestingly, while the extracellular matrix in a tumor often stiffens during disease progression, cancer cells themselves usually become softer, allowing them to squeeze out of their primary tumors and spread throughout the body, or metastasize. Previous studies of cell stiffness have been limited to observing cell mechanics as an effect of rather than as a potential driving force of metastasis. To test this question of causality, I am using a microfluidic device to sort cells by their stiffness, creating subpopulations of soft and stiff cells that I will use to study the role of cell mechanics in each of the steps of the metastatic cascade in a mouse breast cancer model. If we could establish a causal link between cell stiffness and metastatic potential, the direct modulation of cell mechanics could constitute a therapeutic strategy to slow or stop the metastatic spread of cancer cells.

    Being a postdoc in the Reinhart-King lab has given me the opportunity to test these new scientific hypotheses and learn new skills that I will need to one day set up my own research lab studying the role mechanics play in the metastatic spread of cancer. This season of further training has also allowed me to continue to develop and teach curriculum I wrote during my time in graduate school about a topic I am also passionate about – cancer racial health disparities. Systemic racism has resulted in differences in healthcare access, lived environments, diet, and stress levels between different racial and ethnic groups which has led to a direct effect on cancer incidence and morbidity. I have developed a workshop series to help others incorporate the lens of health disparities into their work and daily lives and I am working with the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching to grow this content into a full course before I enter the faculty job market. Everything about my time as a postdoc here at Vanderbilt has gotten me really excited about being a professor who promotes equity and creates an inclusive lab and classroom environment for students from all backgrounds.

    When I am not staying happy, busy, and curious in lab and in the classroom, I have had the absolute joy of getting to know and mentor students in Vanderbilt’s Next Steps program for students with intellectual disabilities through the international Christian organization, Young Life. I also love biking, baking, books and Broadway musicals! This summer I will be spending a week riding my bike across the state of Iowa, probably singing show tunes across most of the state.

  • Matthew Plishka, Ph.D. – May 2023 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Matthew Plishka, Ph.D.

    Every year, over 100 billion bananas are consumed globally. In 2021, the average American ate 26.87 pounds of bananas a year, or roughly 100 bananas. Bananas are everywhere. The vast majority of those bananas, especially in the United States, are Cavendish bananas, which since the 1950s has been the nearly ubiquitous commercial banana variety. But this was not always the case. From the late-nineteenth century, when bananas started to become a household staple, through the first half of the twentieth-century, nearly all commercially sold bananas were of the Gros Michel variety. Millions of those came from Jamaica. While Central and South American countries are today the predominant banana exporters, during the era of the Gros Michel, Jamaica was the world’s leading banana exporter. But the ubiquity of the Gros Michel, and of Jamaica as a banana exporter, came crashing down due to a soil-based fungus known as Panama Disease. My research explores this multispecies story of the history of Panama Disease in colonial Jamaica.

    I’ve been writing about the Jamaican banana industry for nearly ten years. My undergraduate thesis examined the birth and development of the industry, looking at how Afro-Jamaican small farmers spearheaded the rise of the industry before it was co-opted by the Boston Fruit Company, the precursor to the United Fruit Company. My master’s thesis at the University of Chicago examined the first decade of the twentieth century, when a number of sugar planters in Jamaica, frustrated at the attention the banana industry had begun receiving by the British colonial office, began demanding annexation to the United States in the hopes that the U.S. would help revitalize the declining sugar industry. My dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh turned the focus to the spread of Panama Disease upon its discovery in Jamaica in 1911, how it turned Jamaica from the world’s leading banana exporter to an afterthought in the global banana trade, and how it affected the livelihoods of those who relied on the banana trade for much of their income.

    In my dissertation and my work in progress manuscript, Battling Banana Blight: A Multispecies History of Jamaica’s Long Green Revolution, I approach the topic of Panama Disease through a multispecies perspective, exploring how an assemblage of people, plants, and microbes shaped this period in Jamaica’s history. Instead of focusing solely on the response of Jamaican growers and government officials to the disease, a multispecies approach means highlighting the role of pathogens and plants. It was the fungus’ ability to survive on boots, cutlasses, and remains of plants and move across the island with these items as well as its ability to easily infect and spread to Gros Michel banana plants that set the parameters within which Jamaicans could respond. For the plants, it was the susceptibility of banana plants, the ease at which they could blow over from wind, and their asexual reproduction that further facilitated disease spread and made the job of containment much more difficult. Rather than looking at nature and the environment as one homogenous unit, a multispecies approach helps to highlight the distinct parts of nature that humans are interacting with and within.

    This year, I have had the pleasure of being part of the inaugural class of the NEH Collaborative Human Postdoctoral Program at Vanderbilt. I, along with eight other wonderful postdocs positioned across the Humanities, have had the opportunity to continue our research, develop new courses, and create new seminars through the Robert Penn Warren Center. The Environmental Humanities seminar that I co-convene along with Eric Moses Gurevitch and James Pilgrim brings together graduate students, postdocs, and faculty around environment-focused research talks, invited speakers, book discussions, and film screenings. With the launch of the Climate Studies major and a series of hires of faculty who focus on the environment, it is an incredibly generative time to be researching, discussing, and teaching the Environmental Humanities at Vanderbilt.

    When I’m not writing about bananas and teaching, you can find me doing whatever my dog, Otter, wants me to do. Except if he wants me to eat a banana. I don’t like the taste.

  • Bhawik Jain, Ph.D. – April 2023 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Bhawik Jain, Ph.D.

    I grew up in a small town in the northwestern part of India which is surrounded by beautiful hills where we speak mostly regional languages and Hindi. I still remember that during my childhood I always wondered how small living organisms evolved into complex human beings and never thought that one day I would be investigating these questions. To pursue education, I have to migrate to different parts of India which helped me to explore the diversity of the beautiful country.

    For my graduate studies, I joined ACTREC, Navi Mumbai, my work focused on identifying the factors controlling the size and shape of cellular organelles. Altered organelle size and shape lead to improper cellular function. Metabolism and/or signaling likely get affected by organelle size and shape. The idea of organelle-directed medicine to cure diseased cells in which reprogramming organelle size and shape can result in reprogramming cellular state or behaviour. I was interested in studying the process that controls and maintains the size and shape of intracellular organelles, such as the Golgi apparatus and Nucleus. We found that organelle size is critical for function and alteration can lead to cancer and neurological disorders. Another aspect of my research work involves membrane trafficking which plays an essential role in the viability and growth of the cells. Our group made an interesting discovery to identify the COPI vesicle arrival sites on the ER membrane which are known as ER arrival sites. This discovery made me more interested in membrane trafficking, and I decided to continue my work in this exciting field.

    My current research at Vanderbilt in Todd Graham’s lab focused on lipid flippases.  The organization and composition of lipids within a cellular membrane direct their function. An important property of the plasma membrane is the asymmetric distribution of lipids on different sides of the bilayer. Flippases, translocate lipids from the exofacial- to the cytofacial side of the bilayer, and thus are the principal determinants of membrane asymmetry. Mutations within human flippases genes elicit cholestasis, metabolic disease, neurological dysfunction, and blood disorders. We discovered the Cryo-EM structure and transport mechanism of the yeast lipid flippases in collaboration with Dr.Huilin Li’s Group at Van Andel Institute. Currently, I am trying to understand the structure/function relationships for the P4 ATPase protein family. In the long term, studies like these may help us understand the mechanism of various diseases. Humans express 14 members of the P4 ATPase family, and defects in these proteins are linked to severe neurological diseases, liver disease, immune deficiency, and metabolic disease; a human flippase is specifically linked to a new and rare neurodevelopmental disorder. These structure/function studies are helping us understand the human health consequences of variants in these proteins.

    I’ve been fortunate to have communities of colleagues and resources across both the university and the medical center. At the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral symposium, I got to meet with the cohort of postdocs, a multidisciplinary group of scholars from different fields. It has been super interesting to hear from fellow postdocs about their projects and ideas. The BRET office also has great resources through BRET Career Development ASPIRE Program which organizes several workshops for academic as well as industry careers for postdocs which is very useful for research, skills-building, and professional development.

    The best thing about science is that it is a continuous learning curve, no matter what stage of your career you are at. I believe that science is involved in every activity of our routine life. Although it involves lots of failures and frustrations, it helps you to understand the different phases of life. My journey taught me lots of things, which helped me to evolve as a better human being. I feel a scientific career involves many small victories. We should enjoy it and look forward to another exciting day to explore.

    Outside of the lab, I spend my time with my lovely family and friends exploring vibrant Nashville city. I also enjoy playing cricket and trying new recipes in the kitchen.

  • Jeanne Ishimwe, Ph.D. – March 2023 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Jeanne Ishimwe, Ph.D.

    I was born and lived in Rwanda for the first 17 years of my life before moving to the United States to pursue a college education. For most of my childhood, I suffered from chronic bronchitis but had limited access to proper medication. As a result, my family turned to food and herbal concoctions to manage my illness. I eventually outgrew the disease in my teenage years but have continued to be intrigued by the power of food as medicine. This fascination would later turn into a scientific endeavor in my undergraduate education as a chemistry major through subjects including analytical and medicinal chemistry. This interest led me to pursue a PhD in Experimental Therapeutics and Pharmacology, the beginning of my research pursuit in the cardiovascular disease space. My work there focused on understanding the cause and testing potential new treatment options for preeclampsia, a type of high blood pressure that develops specifically in pregnant women. We know that many detrimental effects of cardiovascular disease can be mitigated by lifestyle changes including a healthy diet and exercise. My research interests and fascination with the therapeutic power of food finally collided when I learned about the microbiome. I began studying the interplay between the gut microbiome and dietary elements in health and cardiovascular disease.

    I started my postdoctoral training at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in January 2021 in Dr. Annet Kirabo’s laboratory. I am building on my doctoral work to understand the interaction between excess dietary salt and the gut microbiome in the genesis of hypertension. My current research is focused on combining metagenomics, metabolomics, and preclinical pharmacology to identify novel biomarkers and therapies for hypertension. I am investigating the role of secondary bile acids in human salt-sensitive hypertension and their signaling through the Farnesoid X receptor using pharmacological and genetic approaches in rodents. The salt sensitivity trait affects women more than men regardless of age, but the reasons remain unknown. I am concurrently investigating potential players in sexual dimorphism in the pathophysiology of salt-sensitive hypertension. I am part of a team of stellar and passionate scientists which has been incredible both for my productivity and morale. This institution has been an exceptional training environment for me in particular because of its collaborative nature, and the ability to participate in bed-to-bench side impactful science.

    My science story does not begin with “I knew I wanted to be a scientist since I was a little girl” simply because growing up in Rwanda, I never knew it was a career option. I have had the pleasure of investigating exciting topics like the benefits of turmeric in hypertension, and the power of ketogenic interventions to treat hypertensive disorders. These always make great conversation starters. My favorite thus far is sharing that I study poop to learn about health and disease, except maybe at the dinner table. I am deeply grateful to my science mentors for their excellent guidance in identifying and pursuing scientific questions that are funded through my predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships by the American Heart Association. I have had career development opportunities beyond my wildest dreams and do not doubt that it was because of so many amazing mentors and colleagues who championed for me in and outside the laboratory. I am passionate about paying it forward through peer mentoring, sharing my passion for science with those with limited exposure, and advocating for the improvement of the academic training experience. Accordingly, I have enjoyed outreach activities exposing students to science and teaching them about potential career options in science especially those from underrepresented communities including the American Physiological Society’s Physiology Understanding Week. Here, I receive regular career development opportunities including getting to participate in the 2022 ASPIRE on the Road program. I am a member of the Vanderbilt Postdoc Association executive board and the symposium planning committee.  I am also currently serving on the Trainee Advocacy Committee for the American Heart Association Council on Hypertension.

    I spend my time outside of the laboratory mostly keeping up with family and friends across continents. I also enjoy hiking; traveling and seeing museums, art galleries, and botanical gardens; and exploring new cuisines.

  • Aaron Stauffer, Ph.D. – February 2023 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Rev. Aaron Stauffer, Ph.D.

    After a months-long intentional process of planning, recruiting, and gathering congregants to listen to one another about their core values and most pressing community issues, the church invited our local council member to hear what we discovered about our congregation and community. We had come a long way. As a member institution of the local Gamaliel affiliate, Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH), the congregation I attended had recently finished a listening campaign and was preparing to present its findings to the council member. So, when the pastor at our largely white Protestant church invited the congregation to the meeting, I was surprised to hear him say rather definitively, “Now, this is not a political meeting.” I could not believe my ears. “Why did you put it that way?” I later asked him. We were clear on what issues we wanted to present and more importantly, we were clear on why those values were so central to our faith. We had built relational power and we wanted to act. We wanted the council member to know we were paying attention. The pastor said in response that some in the congregation were worried that the council member might get the impression we were telling people to vote for a specific party. “That’s partisanship,” I said, “not politics.” More than that, politics is about the goods we hold in common and our life together — Christian faith is deeply concerned about that.

    Christians and people of faith are often without clear responses for why it is important for them to bring their fundamental faith commitments to democratic politics. More than this, people of faith are without adequate resources to help them build an alternative political and economic reality — a reality that truly lives into the meaning of political, economic, and religious democracy. Stories like this are at the heart of my work at Vanderbilt Divinity School as the Louisville Institute Postdoctoral fellow, working with the Wendland-Cook Program.

    The Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice is an interdisciplinary program at Vanderbilt Divinity School. We focus on issues of justice that arise at the intersection of religion, economics, and ecology in an intersectional perspective. The program’s mission is to develop resources and opportunities for students, scholars, clergy, and activists to envision and create a more just and sustainable world. One way we do that is through a program called Solidarity Circles, virtual peer networks of faith leaders, clergy, organizers, and alternative media influencers who are engaged in the solidarity economy and its multiple connections to faith. Each year we work with dozens of faith communities across the country and globe to help them develop specific programs focused on the solidarity economy.

    I am from a small, rural town in Kansas where I grew up attending church often, not because my family was particularly religious or pious — but because that was the center of community. For me and my family, the connections between church, politics, economics, and social life were always clear. Churches were community centers, soup kitchens, education spaces, hosts for public forums — they can be powerful institutions to help create the cooperative commonwealth. When I left small town Kansas for college I brought with me my deep concern for building deeper democratic culture. After college, I honed those skills as an organizer with the Industrial Area Foundations (IAF) in San Antonio, Texas, but found that I wanted a deeper theological vocabulary to help Christians and people of faith see how their religious life could help them build deeper democratic power. So, I went to seminary at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, where I eventually completed my PhD in theology and ethics, specializing in social ethics.

    During my time in New York, I became the executive director of Religions for Peace USA, a national interfaith organization that led an anti-Islamophobia program here in the Southeast. That work put me in touch with diverse communities fighting anti-Muslim bigotry and white Christian nationalism. I built relationships and friendships for life that connect me with communities of struggle at the intersection of race, religion, and economic democracy. These sorts of relationships personalize racial, religious and economic struggles and help me connect them to my own reasons for prizing democracy in its various forms. It’s the people that keep you in the fight, struggling for deeper democracy, pressing for more rigorous analysis of what we’re collectively up against, and energizing me in constructing a beloved community comprised of political, economic, and religious democracy.

  • Kortney Melancon, Ph.D. – January 2023 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Kortney Melancon, Ph.D.

    When most people think of the periodic table, they remember a large poster hanging toward the front of a lecture hall. They might imagine a looming, asymmetric expanse of symbols that remained relevant from year one to year four. Even though this massive chart on the wall integrates other fields of science such as biology and physics, the connection between those disciplines was not immediately apparent. Most will remember this table with feelings of fascination, curiosity, and loathing. Reading the periodic table by its own set of grammatical rules reveals a whole series of new stories and laws of periodic assembly, all governed by electrons. I was a first-generation, non-traditional college student when I had my first encounter with chemistry. I could not have been more apprehensive, but I swiftly became captivated with how atoms fill their inner, low-energy levels as full as possible with their own electrons, then shed, steal, or share electrons in their outermost shell to achieve stability. Electrons not only constitute the organization of the periodic table, but their distribution also affects the behavior and reactivity of molecules.

    In organic chemistry, we used chalk to push electrons around until they appeared precisely where we needed them. During the second year of my bachelor’s degree, I found myself in Dr. Todd Hudnall’s laboratory, pushing these electrons around in real-time, using molecules as building blocks for other molecules. The rules of organic chemistry that were merely arrows on a chalkboard were being applied to synthesize small and wonderfully complex ligands. I was enamored. I eventually found myself staying up late and getting out of bed before dawn to solve the complexities of chemical synthesis. Even though my destiny eluded me, I felt like I belonged for the very first time. Four years later, I was entering my first year of graduate school with the hopes of integrating the computational sciences with my knowledge of chemistry to study chemical processes and predict the properties of molecules. My Ph.D. work with Dr. Thomas Cundari focused on exploring computational methods to describe the electronic structure and reactivity of small molecule catalysts. This experience led into an internship with a pharmaceutical company, where I employed computational methods to study small molecule modulators of the Keap1-Nrf pathway for the prevention and treatment of oxidative stress-related diseases and conditions. This work elucidated the interactions of small molecules with proteins and opened my eyes to the intimate relationship between chemistry and drug discovery.

    The shift from graduate school to a postdoctoral appointment afforded advancement as a computational chemist in the world of drug discovery. In January of 2021, I had the privilege of joining Jens Meiler’s laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University. I work alongside experimental collaborators using computational tools in the Rosetta molecular modeling suite to aid in ion channel drug discovery. My time in the Meiler Lab continues to be an incredible opportunity to explore the chemical space of protein-protein and protein-ligand interactions and how these interactions are all based on pushing electrons. This position has been an immensely rewarding endeavor and has been enriched by the supportive and multidisciplinary network here at Vanderbilt University.

    When I think of the periodic table today, I see an amalgamation of scientific disciplines. I imagine parts moving independently yet in concert with one another, moving towards a similar goal: developing drug therapies that treat human disease. To be a chemist is to be ubiquitous and subtly pervasive in the sciences. In the specialization that I have chosen, it is necessary to keep in mind that advances can only come about if these disciplines fuse into a continuum, encompassing all necessary steps in creating a new drug therapy.

    When I’m not in the lab, you can find me exploring all that Tennessee has to offer, mostly in the form of camping, hiking, or attending live music shows.

  • Loic Fort, Ph.D. – December 2022 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Loic Fort, Ph.D. 

    Some people are driven from a very young age toward a specific career path; it can be related to the education they received, their parents’ jobs, or the heroes they used to admire. However, nothing destined me to become a scientist. When thinking about the roots of my scientific passion, it is difficult to pinpoint when my interest first began. I grew up as the youngest child of a non-scientific family of four in Lyon, France, which is the second largest French city after Paris. Lyon is considered to be the French food capital and, interestingly, my passion for food is likely what led me to pursue a scientific path.

    As a kid, I remember always following my parents to the fresh market, talking to local farmers and learning about the quality of their products. At home, I was fascinated by the sight of my parents running the kitchen, the coordination between them, like a synchronized duo dance, the exactitude and rigor of their movements, and the precision of the cooking time for different types of meat or shellfish. I became involved in this captivating daily scene and was now in the perfect place to experience the multitude of flavors combinations, and to understand the fine balanced chemistry between the sourness, sweetness, saltiness and bitterness of each ingredient. As in science, the first try was rarely successful, but with optimization, the recipe would almost always turn out to be a unique result. During high school, my scientific interest took over my passion of cooking, but I also realized that they were very similar: Protocols replaced recipes, and both were challenging me to think outside the box.

    I was lucky enough to combine these two passions with my wanderlust. Each step of my education was obtained from a different country: France (BSc), Canada (MSc), United Kingdom (PhD) and now the United States for my postdoctoral training. My PhD work spent with Laura Machesky (Beatson Institute for Cancer Research – Glasgow, UK) focused on characterizing a protein of unknown function. With no published literature on that protein, it was a challenging project, but it opened the possibility to use a broad range of methods and technics, from crystallography, to in silico analysis, to cell biology and various mouse models. With our functional characterization and as a first author of this research, I had the privilege to rename this protein (CYRI-B), a once in the lifetime opportunity for a scientist!

    I joined Ian Macara lab (Cell and Developmental Biology department – CDB) in the summer 2018. In the lab, I build my scientific niche to interrogate pathways regulating cardiac differentiation during development. Specifically, during their journey to become cardiac cells, I unexpectedly found that a small population of stem cells die and release factors to promote differentiation of the surviving population. With this project recently published, I have started focusing on alternative pathways promoting cardiac cell commitment. I am currently looking at the role of mechanical stress during differentiation and investigate how cell tension affects early differentiation. I am hoping this project will resonate to other developmental biologists as I go on the job market for a tenure tracked faculty position within the next year.

    The shift of research field between grad school and my postdoc was a perfect opportunity to create a supportive network across the School of Medicine Basic Sciences. As a way to give back to the Vanderbilt community, I volunteered to TA for the Program of Developmental Biology bootcamp in 2019. This year, I am involved as a facilitator for the 1st year IGP block and I joined the DEI committee for CDB in order to make academia a more welcoming place. My love of science is reflected through my involvement in academia as an early-career reviewer for eLife and my strong involvement on PubPeer, in order to promote more transparent and ethical research.

    If not in the lab, you will find me running around campus, training to break my PB at the next half marathon. In 2019, I started climbing so if you are looking for a climbing partner, feel free to contact me. Finally, with all these physical activities, I am always interested to try out new places to eat/drink. The gastronomic scene in Nashville has exploded over the last 4 years. While I try to stay away from touristy places, my few favorites include Bastion, Pelican & Pig, 5th and Taylor, Le Loup, Slow Hand coffee, and of course, Once Upon a time in France, as a delicate Proust’s madeleine of my parent’s cooking.

  • Michelle Perdomo, Ph.D. – November 2022 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Michelle Perdomo, Ph.D. 

    Like many kids that grew up with immigrant parents in the US, the first language I learned was not English. By the time I started grade school, I had some working knowledge of English, but I was still placed in an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) program.

    Language, and particularly the differences and similarities between languages, continued to interest s me for the rest of my life. Our family moved around, and I attended schools in New York and Florida, leading to linguistically diverse classroom settings. When I started working at the age of 16, my place of employment included an international exchange program, where I met coworkers from all over the world, many of which became lifelong friends. We spent most of our idle time teaching each other useful and some not-so-useful phrases in our respective dominant languages.

    Despite my interest in language, I spent my first two years in undergrad as a chemistry major. Things took a turn, though, when I took an Intro to Linguistics course as an elective. It had never occurred to me that I could study language from a scientific perspective, and I was so hooked on the course that I inevitably changed my major. From there on, I joined a behavioral language lab as an undergrad research assistant. As I started exploring the possibilities of behavioral research, I became drawn to psycholinguistics – the study of the mind and its role in language processing. My focus included bilingualism and second language acquisition, particularly related to the ways in which exposure to language affects a bilingual person’s ability to comprehend and produce language. I ultimately received a PhD in Linguistics at the University of Florida, as well as a Second Language Acquisition and Teaching certificate.

    My role at Vanderbilt is two-fold. My initial role as a postdoc began in September 2019. I have been working with a group of remarkable collaborators to put together a project that entails examining the effects of exposure to text on websites and the effect of that exposure on grammatical processing of difficult sentences. This approach takes into account an person’s individualized experience reading content online. In Fall 2021, I received a Diversity Supplement with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), allowing me to extend this project to include bilingual adolescents in Nashville schools. This endeavor is particularly exciting as there are a myriad of factors that affect development in the adolescent years, yet little is known about these effects or how they also interact within different types of bilinguals.

    My other role at Vanderbilt is as a Language Teaching Specialist for the English Language Center (ELC). I have taught courses such as Academic Speaking, Communication for International TAs, as well as Academic Communication for Postdocs. These teaching opportunities allow me to directly work with the needs of language learners and help to scaffold their academic English development. The best part of teaching is being able to include bits of psycholinguistic research to explain linguistic phenomena in a way that my students may have not considered beforehand. In addition to teaching, and with the help of some colleagues at the ELC, I have established LATTE (LAnguage Talk and Topics Exchange), a discussion group that meets every week to share research or materials from different realms of language research.

    In my free time, I enjoy spending time at home with my husband and cats, Rudy and Keiko, tending to my houseplants, going to live music shows, and lifting weights.

  • Benjamin Gold, Ph.D. – October 2022 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Benjamin Gold, Ph.D.

    Music has always been very important to me. I learned how to read with a sing-along book, and have relied on music to help me process and express my emotions for as long as I can remember. When I learned that scientists were harnessing music to help people with neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, I knew I wanted to be involved.

    I started studying neuroscience and music theory, bringing papers on music therapy into my classes as much as my professors would allow. I learned that musical therapies tended to work better when patients enjoyed the music, but that there wasn’t much scientific understanding of why that was. Then, just as I was finishing my bachelor’s degree, a new paper came out linking the emotional power of musical pleasure to dopamine release in the neural reward circuit. Three years later, I started my PhD with the main investigators behind that paper, exploring how music was able to tap into this deep-seated system. In a nutshell, we found that the human reward system was highly sensitive to musical expectations and surprise, and especially intermediately surprising music that wasn’t too boring or too chaotic for the listener.

    This research raised a lot of new questions. I was especially interested in better understanding how the brain learned about ongoing music (and other stimuli) to develop new expectations in real time. Our finding of neural reward responses to intermediate surprise seemed to be closely related to theories that related optimal learning, focus, and pleasure to intermediate challenges – but none of these theories had explained how the brain transitions from an “unoptimized” to a “flow”-like state. I was also curious about how these neural phenomena related to the prominent effects that arousing stimuli like music can have on the rest of the body, like increasing heart rates or decreasing skin temperature. These interests led me to Dr. Catie Chang and her expertise in dynamic analyses and brain-body interactions. I was also excited to join Vanderbilt’s collaborative environment, take advantage of its resources for multidisciplinary research and career development, and of course enjoy Nashville’s thriving music scene.

    I started my postdoc in October 2019, with big plans for an exciting new experiment. But just as I started drafting my IRB application, COVID-19 stopped me in my tracks. So I looked for existing datasets to study, and learned a lot about dynamic analyses and neural phenomena. I also learned more about Dr. Chang’s research on vigilance and its effects on physiological systems including the brain, heart, and lungs. Eventually, I started a new project on how brain-body interactions change with natural fluctuations in vigilance, which has led to some eye-opening insights on how the brain functions and how to interpret brain imaging analyses in that context. We submitted a manuscript on this work to a journal this month, and I’m very excited to branch into this new field and hear back from reviewers.

    Meanwhile, my exploration of Nashville was also put on hold for a while, but I’ve enjoyed getting to know this city while I’ve had the chance. I love the food, music, and nearby nature. I’ve also gotten involved in local politics and policymaking, where I’ve met a great community of smart and motivated people working hard to make their neighbors’ lives better. So if I’m not in the lab, you can probably find me in an independent East Nashville café, at the State Capitol, or crunching data at a nearby think tank.

  • Samuel Shepherd, Ph.D. – September 2022 Postdoc Feature

    Written by Sam Shepherd, Ph.D.

    Symmetry occurs everywhere in the natural world, from the atomic structures of different materials, to the spherical shapes of stars and planets, to the bilateral symmetry present in many animals. I study group theory, which is the mathematical language that describes symmetry in all its myriad forms. After completing my PhD at the University of Oxford, I am now one year into my postdoc here at Vanderbilt, and I have had a great time so far. I am grateful for the support I have received from colleagues and mentors within the math department, as well as from the wider Vanderbilt community.

    To get some insight into group theory and my research, let’s focus on a particular example. Take the standard square tiling of the plane (i.e. an infinite grid) and consider the symmetries of the plane that preserve this tiling. Any two symmetries can be combined to produce a third symmetry, e.g. if you translate one square to the left and then translate five squares to the right, the overall effect is translating four squares to the right. Or if you rotate 90° about a vertex and then translate one square to the right, the overall effect is rotating 90° about a different point (draw a diagram to figure out what point!). A group of symmetries is a collection of symmetries together with the information about how pairs of symmetries combine. The square tiling of the plane has many different groups of symmetries, e.g. the group of all symmetries, the group of translations, or the group of left-right translations.

    A group of symmetries can be studied from two different viewpoints. On one hand you can study its geometry, e.g. you can classify the symmetries of the square tiling of the plane as translations, rotations, reflections and glide reflections. On the other hand you can study its algebra, where you forget what each symmetry looks like and you just consider how pairs of symmetries combine together – which can be recorded using a multiplication table. There is no direct correspondence between geometry and algebra, in fact groups of symmetries of different shapes can have the same algebra, e.g. the group of rotations of the cube has an identical multiplication table to the group of all symmetries of the tetrahedron!

    In my research I study the interactions between geometry and algebra for a wide variety of different groups of symmetries. For instance, some shapes are rigid in the sense that all of their groups of symmetries have “similar algebra” (this can be made more precise but requires more technical language). One of my current projects centers around investigating this rigidity for a wide class of shapes. This project is joint with Alex Margolis (Vanderbilt University), Emily Stark (Wesleyan University) and Daniel Woodhouse (University of Oxford).

    In my free time I like going cycling or hiking, and going to sports events.

  • Ash Gillis, Ph.D. – August 2022 Postdoc Feature

    Written by Ash Gillis, Ph.D. (they/them)

    The summer after I finished high school, my family took a trip to Alaska that changed my life trajectory. We took a helicopter to the Mendenhall Glacier and when we arrived, a tour guide said as an aside “yeah, you know, every summer we come here and the ice retreats further and further.” Growing up in a politically conservative area of Florida, climate change wasn’t talked about. Or if it was, conversations were steeped in denial and dismissiveness. Being on that glacier felt like waking up to a new purpose I was compelled to pursue.

    Yet, I had already planned to study psychology in college and understand why people do bad things. So, at the University of South Florida, I stuck with psychology and took environmental courses as electives, not totally knowing where this would take me. I worked as a psychology research assistant in a few different labs. I studied the impact of pre-trial publicity on jury decision-making, risk perceptions in substance abuse, the psychobiology of cannabis in people with schizophrenia. I found it all fascinating but none of it called to me. It wasn’t until my professor in a course on climate change pulled me aside one day after class that I had an aha moment. He found it interesting that I took his class as a psychology major and told me that there are, in fact, psychologists who study climate change. We talked about how climate change is more than an environmental problem, it’s an existential threat to life as we know it. And like all problems caused by human behavior, it takes changes in human behavior to solve them. Astounded by what he shared with me, I immediately began scouring the internet for people doing this research. I knew then that I wanted to pursue graduate studies in environmental psychology.

    Because I finished college in three years, I could use leftover scholarship money for a master’s program but only if I stayed in Florida. Finding potential environmental psychology mentors at universities in Florida with terminal psychology masters programs was not exactly easy, especially nine years ago. But, ultimately, I found the perfect fit with Dr. Heather Truelove at the University of North Florida. There, I completed my master’s thesis on human perception of pro-environmental behavior, which was later published in the high-impact journal Global Environmental Change.

    After finishing my master’s, I pursued my PhD in social psychology at Penn State University with Dr. Janet Swim, an exceptionally established leader in the field of environmental psychology. While there, I obtained a five-year fellowship with the public botanical garden Mt. Cuba Center where I developed, implemented, and evaluated a community-based program to encourage environmentally sustainable behavior such as planting native plants. This was one of my most rewarding life experiences. I had several other projects during my PhD and one of them involved writing a critical review of a new book called Beyond Politics: The Private Governance Response to Climate Change by two Vanderbilt Professors: Michael Vandenbergh (David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair in the Law School and Director of the Climate Change Research Network) and Dr. Jonathan Gilligan (Associate Professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences and of Civil & Environmental Engineering). I already had a strong interest in starting research on how to communicate about climate change in ways that reduce political polarization, so after Dr. Swim and I published our review in Nature Climate Change, I pursued side projects related specifically to the role of the private sector in mitigating climate change. I subsequently published a paper on this subject in Energy Research and Social Science. When Professor Vandenbergh, Dr. Gilligan, and fellow Vanderbilt professor Dr. Mark Cohen (Justin Potter Professor of American Competitive Enterprise at Owen Graduate School of Management and Professor of Law) were recruiting for a new social science postdoc, I immediately threw my hat in the ring.

    Now, I’m finishing up my first year as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow here at Vanderbilt working with a stellar interdisciplinary team on a host of projects related to the political depolarization of climate change. I feel fortunate to work with people who immensely value diversity of thought and the role of behavioral sciences in combatting climate change. Fostering new ideas and sharing our work with others in the Law School, Owen, and Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences has been especially fruitful and fun.

    I’ve been thoroughly enjoying living in Nashville. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community and trans person specifically, I wasn’t sure how comfortable or safe it would feel. I was immediately welcomed by LGBTQ+ faculty, staff, and students at Vanderbilt and have quickly made many wonderful friends I hope to keep for years to come. Outside of work I enjoy hiking, playing classical piano, jamming on guitar, going to concerts, and woodworking. I’m always on the lookout for exceptional vegetarian food.

  • Isidora Miranda, Ph.D. – July 2022 Postdoc Feature

    Written by Isidora Miranda, Ph.D.

    Preparing to move to Nashville in August 2020 was both nerve-wracking and thrilling for me. I was excited to move to Nashville, to be around a famed music scene, and to teach at a place like the Blair School. On the other hand, the pandemic had created a great deal of uncertainty, and I was unsure of what life in the American South would be like. As someone who grew up in the Philippines, my conception of the United States before coming to the cornfields and dairy lands of the Midwest to pursue graduate school was primarily informed by coastal influences.

    I moved to the United States in 2010 to pursue an M.M. in Violin Performance and Musicology at Western Illinois University and then a doctorate in Musicology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I had performed in quartets and orchestras at WIU and in the Philippines, and performance was a big part of my life. As a doctoral student, I continued to play in klezmer and Brazilian forró bands. As I became more acquainted with musics from around the world, I found my intellectual questions returning to the Philippines. In 2020, I completed a dissertation on the Philippine musical and theatrical stage during the U.S. colonial period in the first half of the twentieth century. I am now writing a book on the Tagalog sarsuwela, an operatic form that traces its legacies to music all over the world including Spain, a former colonizer of the Philippines. In this book project, I argue that the history of the sarsuwela provides a lens into debates about nationalism, imperialism, and the question of vernacularization in the Philippines and beyond.

    I was excited to take this experience in teaching and research to Vanderbilt. In my first semester here, I was able to teach a Freshman Seminar in Music, Identity, and Diversity. I was thrilled to be in the classroom with sharp and inquisitive students. We explored the roots and routes of particular musics, discussed how to think about our listening practices, and pondered how music might help us understand and navigate both history and the present.

    During my two years as a postdoc at Vanderbilt, I have benefited from an array of opportunities. I have been able to engage with world-class faculty who have graciously mentored me. I have taught four different courses at the School of Music, ranging from small seminars to large lectures. I have attended and presented at over half a dozen conferences around the world. I have even had the opportunity to learn a new instrument, the Daf, an Iranian and Kurdish frame drum that is also popular in other parts of the Middle East. These opportunities have all helped me grow as a teacher and as a researcher. I have also enjoyed building connections in the Nashville community with my family. Nashville has been an amazing place for me to pursue my research passions and my personal ones as well. In my free time, I enjoy exploring local parks with my son and husband and taking care of my indoor plant babies. I have not yet given up on growing a garden on the rocky soil of our backyard.

    These last two years have been such a rewarding postdoc experience for me at Vanderbilt. This past year I published a peer-reviewed article on the Filipina diva, Atang de la Rama with the Journal of Musicological Research. I have also recently been named a fellow for the American Council of Learned Societies for the 2023-24 academic year, which will allow me to continue working on my book. And what I am most excited about is that upon the completion of my postdoc, I will be joining the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University as an Assistant Professor of the Practice in Musicology and Ethnomusicology. I am so excited to continue my career here and I am grateful for the opportunities that the Academic Pathways Postdoctoral Fellowship and the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs have provided.

  • Daniel Fehrenbach Ph.D. – June 2022 Postdoc Feature

    Written by Daniel Fehrenbach, Ph.D.

    When we think about the most common ways people get sick, things like the most recent COVID-19 pandemic are quick to jump to the top of our list. We may also think about all the different types of cancer that have affected our friends and loved ones. But it turns out, for the past 100 years or so, heart disease has been the leading cause of mortality in the United States and across the world. Large epidemiological studies have shown that the number one risk factor for developing heart disease is elevated blood pressure, which we call hypertension. According to the latest guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, 46% of Americans are hypertensive which means that 1 out of every 2 people that end up reading this are probably hypertensive. With such a high prevalence and risk for contributing to not only cardiovascular but other chronic diseases, developing novel treatment strategies is critical.

    In my graduate studies at the Medical College of Wisconsin, my work focused on a specific type of hypertension where increased salt in our diet leads to increased blood pressure. We saw that alongside elevated blood pressure, there is an activation of immune cells which can cause damage to various organs in our bodies, specifically our kidneys. When I moved to Vanderbilt, I continued my work exploring immune activation in the context of hypertension under my mentor Dr. Meena Madhur in the department of Clinical Pharmacology. My current studies are exploring new strategies to shift the inflammatory balance to not only lower blood pressure but importantly protect our organs from the associated damage.

    When I started my postdoc, I was lucky to be on the Immunological Mechanisms of Disease Training Program (T32) led by Drs. Jeff Rathmell and Amy Major. This group of enthusiastic grad students and postdocs provided amazing feedback as my projects developed and offered continued support in my career development. I eventually was awarded an American Heart Association Postdoctoral Fellowship to study the role of an enzyme called ROCK2 in immune activation and vascular dysfunction in hypertension. I have been able to present updates from these studies at the AHA Council on Hypertension and Experimental Biology meetings. I am excited for where these studies are going and thankful for all the support from my mentors and lab mates.

    In addition to my work in the lab, I have enjoyed being a member of the Vanderbilt Postdoc Association executive board where we have been working to create new initiatives to support and enhance the postdoc experience here at Vanderbilt. I also work on the Trainee Advisory Committee for the American Physiological Society and represent trainees studying topics related to Water and Electrolyte Homeostasis. I truly enjoy being able to interact with scientists from so many backgrounds, areas of research, and locations around the country. I am constantly amazed by the dedication and passion of my colleagues which inspires me to always pick the pipette back up when an experiment fails.

    Outside of work, I like to explore new places, hike with friends, and spend way too much time attempting new bread recipes. If anyone has any recommendations for restaurants or pubs in town, shoot them my way!

  • Markie Sneed, Ph.D., APRN, FNP-BC – May 2022 Postdoc Feature

    Written by Markie Sneed, Ph.D., APRN, FNP-BC

    During high school, my father underwent an emergent triple Coronary Artery Bypass Graft (CABG) surgery at the age of 51, yet it wasn’t until three years later during my sophomore year of college when my paternal grandfather passed away suddenly from an ischemic stroke, that my life’s purpose shifted. I decided to dedicate my life to improving the health of others which resulted in me obtaining two health-science bachelor’s degrees within a 5 ½ year time span: 1) a 4-year degree in nutrition science from the University of Tennessee, where I gained in-depth, evidence-based knowledge and clinical expertise about diet’s role in disease management and prevention, and 2) an accelerated, second degree in nursing science from Samford University where I studied and applied evidence-based, medical knowledge to promote health and provide holistic care for patients with illness and disability.

    My interest in cardiovascular disease prevention resulted in me becoming a cardiac nurse, where I had the opportunity to work in the cardiovascular intensive care unit, the cardiovascular step-down unit, and the in-patient cardiac rehabilitation unit. There, I experience both the acute recovery and post-recovery rehabilitation process of cardiac care for patients that had suffered a major and most often “preventable” cardiac event. During my three years in bedside nursing, I found it paradoxical that patients who had undergone a major coronary operation received intensive lifestyle coaching after having a major coronary event instead of receiving prevention treatments earlier in their care plan. While I felt my dual experience in nutrition and nursing provided me with a unique opportunity to educate patients and their families about health promotion and disease prevention strategies in a holistic manner, I knew I needed to advance my nursing career to truly confront disease prevention head-on. I decided to continue my education and training by becoming a family nurse practitioner with the capacity to diagnose, treat, and prevent chronic disease in adults and children.

    It was during my first few years of practice as a nurse practitioner that I noticed a recurrent condition among many of my overweight and obese patients known as prediabetes, that to date, affects 1 in 3 (i.e., 88 million) adults in the United States. During my practice, I was all too aware of the fact that healthcare providers and patients often have limited knowledge and resources available to holistically prevent and manage diet-related conditions. I knew more must be done to address obesity, diabetes, and its co-conditions. It was 4 years into my career as a nurse practitioner that I decided to transition from clinical practice into research to study diabetes and obesity prevention.

    In 2017, I went on to obtain my Ph.D. in Nursing from the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB) where I was awarded the Blazer Fellowship through the UAB Graduate School and the Graduate Teaching Fellowship through the UAB School of Nursing. During my 4 years at UAB, I was able to merge my nursing training with that of nutrition science by working with leading experts at UAB’s NIH-funded Nutrition Obesity Research Center. For my dissertation, I used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to explore the association between added sugar consumption and prediabetes risk in adults.

    In 2021, I joined Vanderbilt University as a postdoctoral research fellow within the School of Nursing and was awarded an AHRQ T32 funded fellowship through the Vanderbilt Patient/pRactice Outcomes Research in Effectiveness and Systems Science (PROgRESS) Training Program (PI: Dr. Christianne Roumie). At Vanderbilt, I am part of an interdisciplinary mentoring team guided by the direction of my primary mentor Dr. William Heerman, MD, MPH, in the Department of Pediatrics at VUMC and my co-mentor Dr. Mariann Piano PhD, RN, FAAN, FAHA at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing. My research focuses on the development and implementation of family-based dietary lifestyle interventions for prediabetes management in overweight and obese adults that also addresses multi-generational solutions for type 2 diabetes prevention in their at-risk children.”

    My first year at Vanderbilt has been so enriching! Having a dual connection with the School of Nursing and VUMC has provided me with numerous opportunities to support my research and stay engaged within the greater VU and VUMC community. I have had various opportunities to support my training through participation in VUSN and VUMC-sponsored events, and research opportunities provided by VICTR (i.e., Community Engagement Studio and Specific Aims Studio) and the Vanderbilt Edge for Scholars. I am also a member of the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association (VPA) where I serve fellow postdocs in my role as Treasurer. Some of my most exciting discussions have come from networking with fellow VPA members and postdoctoral scholars around campus through VPA and the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA)-sponsored events. A program I have been working on with fellow VPA members, in an effort to continue the VPA tradition of postdoc connection, is the first-ever VPA Talk series “Speak Easy” (starting this month) where postdocs can discuss their research in a fun, and casual venue both on and (soon to be) off-campus. I look forward to hearing what other postdocs at VU are doing as we make “Speak Easy” a Vanderbilt postdoc tradition! During my time at Vanderbilt, I have come to realize that there are literally “thousands” of resources available to support post-docs in any stage of their training and/or career. I am extremely grateful for all the support Vanderbilt, including the BRET office and OPA, provide postdocs!

    During my time away from work, I enjoy spending time with my 3-year-old daughter and husband. Together, we like visiting our family, going to local farmer’s markets on weekends, and going camping in our refurbished 1978 Airstream.

  • Jhanvi Sharma, Ph.D. – April 2022 Postdoc Feature

    Written by Jhanvi Sharma, Ph.D. 

    Around mid-March of 2020, a pandemic was declared due to COVID19. This pandemic affected lives of billions of people, including international students and scholars, in an unprecedented way. I was no different; my first postdoc position got pushed back by several months due to lockdowns and institutional hiring freezes. In late October 2020, I was finally able to start my postdoc journey at VUMC, a world-class medical center.  Trained as a biomaterialist and protein chemist, I based my decision of choosing a research lab that aligned with my background, suited my interest in engineering biomaterials for immune modulation with a translational research focus, and held a good publication record. I secured a postdoc position in an immunology lab at VUMC, where my postdoctoral assignment was on the identification of protective CD8+ T cell epitopes for developing a protein-based vaccine delivery platform to design next-generation vaccines for infectious diseases. The project was of immense interest and importance to me, as it allowed me to apply my previously acquired skills to engineer a biomaterial for the target purposes while also developing new skills to elucidate the molecular insights regarding antigen presentation. I believed such insights could be leveraged in the battle against other infectious agents such as COVID19. As I continued research work, I expanded my skills in immunology by performing immunoassays and in vivo studies to assess the immunogenicity of in silico identified immunodominant peptide epitopes in transgenic animal models. Though I valued this opportunity, I found myself questioning whether I had found my own true place in the Vanderbilt community. After discussing this with my mentors at the time, I began to seek out a new research environment. About a year after, I switched to Prof. Brunger’s lab in BME at VU where I felt the research program and lab ethos could support me in both my postdoctoral endeavors and long-term goal of obtaining a position in the gene and cell therapy industry.

    My research in the current lab involves co-engineering cells and biomaterials to understand and control cell function for regenerative engineering. I leverage my expertise in molecular biology, protein chemistry, and biochemistry to program biomaterials with chimeric proteins and recognition motifs engineered by the lab. I am engaged in learning new skills such as cellular engineering and gene circuit design while honing my skills in cell culture. My future plan is that, in collaboration with Prof. Brunger, I will develop an independent research project bringing together these components to govern cellular responses to native and synthetic cues. I have been here for three months now and, so far, the experience has been what I had wished for in terms of mentorship, resources and opportunities, and I hope that my path continues along this trajectory. I have observed that BME offers excellent resources, state-of-the-art equipment and potential collaborative opportunities within both VU and VUMC labs. Importantly, the modern design of Engineering and Sciences Building (ESB) which houses our research group, facilitates easy exchange of ideas, resources and technologies, thus accelerating the pace of our efforts.

    Overall, I have had a delightful experience pursuing postdoctoral training at Vanderbilt as it offers not only infrastructure for outstanding research but also access to many groups that support personal well-being and professional excellence of the postdoc community via several on-campus programs. ASPIRE is one such program run by the BRET office; weekly series of seminars held under the program provide a slew of information on career enrichment strategies and networking, which by the way, has been reported as the single most important factor in obtaining a job after postdoctoral training. I have taken advantage of some of these seminars in the past, and I look forward to attending many more. In addition, I often attend Employee Affinity Group (EAG) meetings that are organized in a relaxed setting to encourage interaction amongst postdocs, faculty and staff with an aim to foster an inclusive community. In an effort to begin networking, I am currently serving as a member of the Vanderbilt Postdoc Association planning committee for the upcoming postdoc symposium (October 2022).

    Last, but not least, excellent IT staff and a wonderful team of medical doctors at Vanderbilt Hospital ensure that I continue to function uninterrupted in a happy and healthy manner, both professionally and personally. I would like to thank the Vanderbilt community for bestowing me with a rewarding postdoc experience so far, and I welcome prospective postdocs or anyone who is interested in knowing more about the campus and its functioning.

    Outside of work, I video chat back home quite frequently; I hang out with my super awesome friends and explore Nashville, which is a very dynamic place and I feel lucky to be here. Sometimes I cook new recipes, while other times I don on an artist’s apron and paint.

  • Harry Barbee, Ph.D. – March 2022 Postdoc Feature

    Written by: Harry Barbee, Ph.D. 

    My postdoctoral appointment at Vanderbilt University has been transformative. I arrived at Vanderbilt in 2020 after preparing and being awarded a Diversity Supplement Award, the first-ever awarded on the basis of sexual and gender minority status at the National Institutes of Health. This award has allowed me to analyze novel data from the Vanderbilt University Social Networks, Aging, and Policy Study, a panel study of middle-age and older LGBTQ+ adults living in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. The goal of this project, which is led by the fabulous Dr. Tara McKay, is to understand connections among LGBTQ+ people’s life experiences, social networks, political environment, and health. As a queer person who has lived in the U.S. South my entire life, I am proud to work on projects that have potential to improve the lives of LGBTQ+ people—a community to which I proudly belong.

    Over the past one-and-a-half years, I have pursued a research agenda that investigates why LGBTQ+ people—especially in mid- and later life—endure health disparities relative to the broader population. As an illustration, one of my projects analyzes LGBTQ+ adults’ sexual behaviors during an early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as strategies they used to avoid exposure to the virus. I had the opportunity to present this research at the 2021 Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association Symposium where I was voted one of the top presenters by my fellow postdocs. Another group of projects that I lead examines how LGBTQ+ people’s subjective perceptions and experiences of aging—what aging scholars call “subjective aging”—affect health behaviors and outcomes. In 2021, I was named a Butler-Williams Scholar by the National Institute on Aging to develop this research and receive training in grant writing. Moving forward, I plan to analyze how LGBTQ+ people’s views of aging affect not only their mental and physical health but also their biological aging via DNA methylation.

    Working in the LGBT Policy Lab at Vanderbilt University has been the greatest and most rewarding part of my postdoctoral appointment. The LGBT Policy Lab is a center comprising health policy researchers, sociologists, economists, political scientists, and faculty from the medical, education, and law schools. We conduct research on LGBTQ+ people and make the results known to policy experts and to the community. As a member of the LGBT Policy Lab, I have collaborated on projects that directly speak to ongoing policy debates in the United States. For example, I recently published an article in JAMA-Pediatrics that demonstrated how state laws denying transgender youth access to rights and services such as gender-affirming care could have devastating health consequences for this population. I collaborated on this project with the fantastic Dr. Gilbert Gonzales and all-star undergraduate student Cameron Deal. Collaborations like this are common in the LGBT Policy Lab. The faculty who run the Lab, including Dr. Kitt Carpenter, Dr. Tara McKay, Dr. Gilbert Gonzales, and Dr. Kirsty Clark, are not just brilliant scholars, they are also dedicated mentors who care deeply about the growth of their students and postdocs. We are truly a family in the LGBT Policy Lab.

    I am confident that the experiences I have had at Vanderbilt are preparing me for a bright future as an independent researcher. Vanderbilt has given me so many resources that have enriched my personal and professional life: outstanding mentors, state of the art facilities, and countless opportunities to improve my research, writing, and teaching skills. I look forward to the next stage of my career—whatever that may be—and putting to good use all that I have gained here at Vanderbilt.

  • Laura E. Henkhaus, Ph.D. – February 2022 Newsletter Feature

    Written by Laura, E. Henkhaus, Ph.D. 

    Photo by David Sprague

    As a postdoctoral scholar jointly at the Data Science Institute at Vanderbilt University and the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, I’ve been fortunate to have communities of colleagues and resources across both the university and the medical center. At the Data Science Institute, I entered with the first cohort of postdocs, a multidisciplinary group of scholars from anthropology, astronomy, biomedical engineering, computer science, political science, and myself from health economics and policy. It has been super interesting to hear from my fellow Data Science Institute postdocs about their applications meanwhile building our data science skills and research portfolios. The Data Science Institute has great resources through workshops, other events, the multidisciplinary community of scholars, and research funds for postdoctoral scholars to use for research, skills-building, and professional development.

    Meanwhile, I’ve also had an appointment in the Department of Health Policy, where I conduct research relating to maternal and child wellbeing in collaboration with fellow colleagues at Vanderbilt’s Policies for Action Hub funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I was recruited onto the team to lead the portfolio on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which our state partners asked us to include as a focus within a larger project on better supporting needs of Tennessee children. I have appreciated presenting to our state partners at TennCare (Tennessee’s Medicaid program), the Tennessee Department of Health, and the Tennessee Department of Education to solicit their feedback on our work and to help inform state programming. I developed an administrative data algorithm to identify ACEs including childhood maltreatment and peer violence, foster care placement, maternal mental illness, maternal substance use disorder, and abuse of the mother in Medicaid data. The algorithm uses information recorded in routinely collected health insurance claims data and is a tool for researchers and public health professionals to monitor ACEs, to measure impacts of programs and policies on preventing ACEs or supporting well-being of children with ACEs, and to study ACEs and development of health conditions, for example. What was most meaningful was presenting to the state agencies and hearing from them: is it true that ACE levels are this high across the state and can we start weekly meetings to discuss? I’m glad to have had receptive partners from our state agencies to inform our work as actionable research to support programming for children in Tennessee.

  • Maxime Chevee, Ph.D. – January 2022 Newsletter Feature

    Written by: Maxime Chevee, Ph.D. 

    My great-grandma, a Latin teacher in Paris in the 1930’s, had a painful tooth so she went to see a dentist. There, she noticed a book on the dentist’s desk: Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness by Henri Bergson. Impressed, she looked up to notice the dentist.

    Growing up in a small town in France, I always found the story of how my great-grandparents met endearing. One summer listening to my grandma retell the story, I couldn’t help but wonder: do we have free will? Was it inevitable that they meet on that day? These questions would lead me to many great books and conversations, and to a career in neuroscience focused on decision making and action control research.

    Through college, I slowly developed my interests in neurobiology. These interests lead me to work as a research tech at Columbia and then to graduate school at Johns Hopkins where I worked in the Brown lab on sensorimotor processing. These experiences were life changing and I will forever be grateful to the people who took the time and care to train me. In June 2020, I defended my thesis virtually and moved to Nashville to join the lab of Dr. Erin Calipari for my postdoctoral training. As part of the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research, the lab focuses on understanding the brain circuits that control our actions and the processes that lead those circuits to malfunction.

    My goal is to determine the function of dopamine in the context of habits. Habitual, automatic behaviors allow us to perform routine actions without wasting time and energy on decision-making. However, they also sustain unhealthy behaviors that can degenerate into pathological conditions and ultimately, addiction. The circuit mechanisms that lead us to persevere in our habits despite the absence of rewards are not known and have been the focus of my research for the last 18 months.

    Vanderbilt has provided a very welcoming environment in which I feel at home. When I ran into immigration issues caused by pandemic-related delays, my PI, HR and the international office did everything they could to support me through the process. I am also a member of the Vanderbilt Postdoc Association, which I joined as a way to meet fellow postdocs and get involved with the Vanderbilt community. It has been a rewarding experience that I would highly recommend for anyone interested in understanding the inner workings of a university. It made me realize how many dedicated people work tirelessly to support us and allow us to conduct the best research possible.  So, I will take advantage of this platform to say thank you!

    In my free time, I like to rock climb with my lab mates, I try and fail to make French baguettes at home, I run, and I explore Nashville with my wife. Moving to a new place during the pandemic was a bit challenging at first but I have slowly gotten to know the city and have enjoyed living here.

    I love what I do, from thought-provoking conversations with colleagues, writing grants, mentoring exceptional undergrads or simply staring at a neuron flicker on my computer monitor, postdoc life has been good to me.  I feel incredibly lucky to be able to wake up every day to think about how the brain works and about how habits control (or not) our decisions, our actions and our lives. Although I like to remind myself not everything is as it seems – My great-grandpa never actually read Bergson. A patient had left the book on his desk by mistake.

  • Neelima Wagley, Ph.D. – December 2021 Newsletter Feature

    Written by: Neelima Wagley, Ph.D.

    Nepali, English, and Swiss-German were a few of the several languages spoken in my family home in Kathmandu. Growing up, I’d watch Tom and Jerry cartoons dubbed in Hindi. In school, it was strictly English except during Nepali class. On holidays, there was no shortage of Swiss sing-a-longs to go around. In the neighborhood, Newari, the language of the indigenous Newar people, filled the town square and local shops. More than 120 languages are spoken in Nepal, where I was born and raised for the first eight years of my life. Little did I know that this multilingual upbringing would be the foundation to my educational pursuits and inspire me to become a developmental neuroscientist studying language in the brain.

    Twenty-two years have passed since my family immigrated to the United States and I continue to be fascinated by the human capacity for language. Currently, I am a third-year postdoctoral research scholar in the Department of Psychology and Human Development in the Peabody College.

    My interest in research started at Michigan State University where I learned about the field of cognitive science as a second-year undergraduate student. There, I joined a music cognition lab as a research assistant and was introduced to brain imaging for the first time. During the summer months, I participated in research opportunity programs which gave me the confidence to apply to graduate school. I went on to receive my PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of Michigan. My work focused on understanding how bilingual language experiences support children’s language and reading comprehension skills, using behavioral and brain imaging methodology. One of my dissertation findings provides evidence that bilingual development in the home should be viewed as a resource to be encouraged and used to support children’s academic achievements.

    I joined the Brain Development Laboratory (BDL) at Vanderbilt led by Dr. James R. Booth in fall of 2019. Expanding on my interests in the neural mechanisms underlying language comprehension, my first project in the BDL took a longitudinal approach to examine the relations between semantic and syntactic skills in children from age 6- to 7.5-years-old. Prior to beginning the data analyses for this project, I pre-registered the study’s hypotheses and analytical plan through Open Science Framework. Promoting and contributing to open science practices has been one of the valuable skills I have gained during my postdoc tenure at Vanderbilt. In collaboration with Dr. Booth and a graduate student, I have co-authored the lab’s first registered report manuscript and learned about the process of sharing neuroimaging datasets on a public repository.

    I find many aspects of my postdoc experience to be highly rewarding. Designing a novel experimental task and collecting my first ever fMRI data at the Vanderbilt University Institute of Imaging Science has been a constructive learning experience. I am a member of the Vanderbilt Postdoc Association symposium planning committee and have helped put together the last two symposiums, one virtual and one in-person. Perhaps the most rewarding experience has been the opportunity to mentor undergraduate research assistants and guide them in developing independent research projects. I am currently mentoring an honors thesis student who I have worked with for the past four semesters. Relatedly, I am a member of the Nepalese in Neuroscience group, an international group of undergraduate, graduate, postdoc, and faculty scholars from Nepal pursuing neuroscience work through mentorship and community engagement.

    Access to a variety of Vanderbilt resources has greatly supported my academic and professional accomplishments. The Peabody postdoc writing group allows me to connect with postdocs within my discipline and work towards reaching weekly writing goals in an informal and relaxed setting. This has helped me balance writing with other research demands. I have also participated in a Vanderbilt Edge for Scholars grant writing workshop and since have submitted two grant applications, both of which have been funded. This year, I received the National Institutes of Health Loan Repayment Program (NIHLRP) award to help pay off my undergraduate student loans. In collaboration with my mentor, I was also awarded a Diversity Supplement under the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). This project investigates the neural basis of literacy in deaf and hard of hearing children. Specifically, my project aims to investigate the contributions of American Sign Language (ASL) and English linguistic skills to reading achievement in individuals who acquire both spoken and signed language. I am in the data collection phase of this project. As part of my training award, I have had the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of language and literacy in children with hearing loss by engaging with scholars in the Hearing and Speech Sciences program and the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center. I am also taking an introductory ASL course.

    Current theoretical models of literacy acquisition are largely based on monolingual and hearing populations and do not adequately represent the variability of different groups of learners. This has direct implications for the education and development of diverse students across this country. Throughout my research career, I am motivated to examine children’s cross-linguistic experiences and its influences on brain development for language and reading acquisition.

    Outside of the lab, I enjoy spending time with my dog Pooka, watching the GBBO, and trying to teach my husband Nepali while he teaches me Mandarin.

  • Inga Saknite, Ph.D. – November 2021 Newsletter Feature

    Written by: Inga Saknite, Ph.D. 

    As I write this column on my last official workday at Vanderbilt and in the United States, I am feeling immensely grateful for all the amazing and life-changing experiences that I have had here during my four years as a postdoctoral research fellow. Thanks to the continuous support of my wonderful mentors, colleagues, and access to a wide variety of Vanderbilt resources, I have grown on both professional and personal level beyond what I ever imagined. I also cannot help but feel a bit of sadness – I am leaving a place that I have come to call home, a place where I feel like I belong. I will greatly miss my mentors, mentees, and colleagues at the Vanderbilt Dermatology Translational Research Clinic (VDTRC), the Department of Dermatology, Vanderbilt Biophotonics Center, and the Stem Cell Transplant clinic. I am hoping that many of them will become future collaborators as I transition to a new position back home, at the University of Latvia.

    I grew up in Latvia, a beautiful country of 2 million people in Northern Europe. My mom is an MD hospitalist at the largest hospital in the region. Inspired by her kindness, dedication, and genuine care for her patients, early on in my life I developed interest in finding ways to help people. With a formal background is Physics, I have dedicated the first 15 years of my research career to developing and applying light-based technologies for improving patient care. My path to Vanderbilt begun shortly after receiving my PhD from the University of Latvia. I attended a small European networking event in France, where I met Dr. Eric Tkaczyk who had just founded the Vanderbilt Dermatology Translational Research Clinic and was in search of his first research fellow. Little did I know then, almost 5 years ago, that I had just met most inspiring person who would become my mentor, role model, and friend, and change my career trajectory forever.

    Among various interesting projects that I have had the chance to work on here at Vanderbilt, starting a new field of bedside confocal videomicroscopy has been the most exciting one. Through a reflectance confocal microscope, I noninvasively studied individual leukocytes moving in the upper microvessels of human skin. It truly is as amazing as it sounds, and I have spent hours “secretly spying” on my own leukocytes. Our report on direct visualization of individual cell motion in skin capillaries culminated in August 2020 cover article in the journal Microcirculation. Unexpectedly and beyond our initial hypothesis, we associated increased leukocyte adhesion and rolling with increased rates of relapse of a hematologic malignancy in patients after a stem cell transplant. In 60 patients, our bedside videomicroscopy biomarker was many-fold more predictive of patient relapse and survival than the best reported clinically available predictors. Working hand-in-hand with Dr. Tkaczyk and our hematology mentor Dr. Michael Byrne in this collaborative and interdisciplinary environment has been an adventure of a lifetime. Even in my wildest dreams I could not have imagined that light-based technologies – my field and passion – could potentially help patients with a systemic non-dermatologic disease. Through this project and local, national, and international collaborations, Dr. Tkaczyk has taught me most of what I know about translational research and how to effectively communicate science with the world including clinicians, patients, and colleagues.

    Throughout my training, I was fortunate to have access to exceptional resources that Vanderbilt offers. I learned survival analysis and statistical programming in R thanks to great feedback at weekly Biostatistics Clinics and many discussions with biostatisticians. With the help of VICTR grant writing studios, I learned to deliver my research in a more compelling way and subsequently submitted several grants. To participate at the Annual Symposiums organized by the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association, I learned to deliver my results in a 4-minute lightning talk, the final one earning the Best Talk award. In my four years of training, I gave 7 invited talks at international meetings on 3 continents. I am grateful to Dr. Tkaczyk and all my mentees who have taught me how to be a better mentor and leader. I was humbled to receive the inaugural Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Mentor of the Year award in 2021.

    Every life-altering moment I have experienced has been propelled by a person. My mom, my mentors, people who believe in me enough to push me out of my comfort zone and beyond what I think I can achieve, and those who genuinely want me to grow as a scientist and as a person. I will always be grateful to Vanderbilt for this incredible journey. Although I look forward to returning home to my own family and country, it is almost unimaginable and bittersweet that I soon have to leave. A part of me will always be here, with my new family at Vanderbilt.