On a recent afternoon in the lab of Kevin Janes, PhD, Cimona Hinton, PhD, familiarizes herself with a new piece of equipment: the EVOS M7000 fluorescence microscope. Tissue-sample slides placed on its stage reveal vivid, color-coded images of tumors treated at the UVA Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“You can stain two to three different antibodies, then erase, restain, erase and restain,” says Dr. Janes, John Marshall Money Professor of Biomedical Engineering. “Ultimately, you can create a 15- to 20-color composite image of different proteins.”
Dr. Hinton, a Professor of Biological Science at Georgia’s Clark Atlanta University, researching the effects of cannabinoids on tumor cell movement and metastasis, is already clicking around fast, and is sold.
“We’ll be able to use this device to look at the relationship between our receptors of interest in breast and prostate cancer tissues,” Dr. Hinton explains. “After manipulating our receptors and attaching fluorescent probes to them, we can use it to determine if those receptors are physically associated. It will speed up the way we process and analyze our tissue samples.”
Dr. Hinton is among visiting faculty hosted this summer through the Cancer Center’s Short-Term Research Initiative for Visiting Educators (STRIVE) program, which pairs researchers from minority-serving institutions with a Cancer Center faculty member for 4-6 weeks of collaborative research and engagement with other UVA faculty and students. In its second year, STRIVE has expanded to host a total of six researchers, and for the first time, participants from institutions outside Virginia.
The program’s goals and potential benefits – immediate and long-term – are numerous. STRIVE first pursues diversity, equity and inclusion at UVA and more broadly in cancer education, research, prevention and treatment. Immediate benefits include professional networking and new opportunities for collaborative, interdisciplinary research. For visiting faculty and their home institutions, UVA’s resources can unlock access to research paradigms, equipment, funding and student training opportunities. In turn, UVA hosts hope to create new collaborations with faculty and institutions that might not otherwise have a connection to the University.
STRIVE was established by Amy Bouton, PhD, Professor of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology and the Cancer Center’s inaugural Associate Director for Training and Education, who plans to step down Oct. 1 after nearly 10 years in the position. Bouton collaborated with Cancer Center Associate Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Marquita Taylor, PhD, MPH, MBA, on this year’s session, which is funded by the Cancer Center and supplemented by UVA’s Systems Analysis of Stress-adapted Cancer Organelles Center (SASCO), a U54 Center of the NCI-sponsored Cancer Systems Biology Consortium where Dr. Janes serves as co-director.
“I’m enthusiastic about STRIVE because it’s a win-win,” Dr. Bouton says. “Ultimately, I would like UVA to be the leader in this model of collaboration between cancer centers, HBCU’s and other minority-serving institutions. We’re in a great position because we’re doing this in a programmatic, dedicated way. If we can keep building it, I’m optimistic more faculty and students from these schools will really want to come here.”
Tracy M. Downs, MD, FACS, Professor of Urology and UVA Health’s Chief Diversity and Community Engagement Officer, shares Bouton’s optimism and credits her with STRIVE’s early success.
“STRIVE and programs like it are critical to achieving equity in cancer research, prevention, detection and treatment,” Downs says. “Building programs like this, however, is not easy. It requires establishing relationships at institutions around the country, and demonstrating that the effort is research-focused while supporting our broader commitment to DEI. The contributions of our host faculty, combined with Amy’s professional network and positive word-of-mouth from STRIVE’s first year, have set the program on a course for growth.”
Mohamed Noufal, PhD, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at Hampton University and Director of its Quantum Materials Laboratory, is working in the lab of Alexander (Sasha) Klibanov, PhD, Associate Professor with primary appointment in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine (Department of Medicine), and joint/courtesy appointments in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Radiology and Medical Imaging. Together, they are investigating the promise of magnetically-guided, iron-core, gold-shell nanoparticles for targeted cancer drug delivery.
“The benefits of the STRIVE program are clear and multiple,” Klibanov says. “First of all, it is the right thing to do. Second, bringing together people with complementary research expertise and experience will bring new ideas and approaches, and move forward research for all of us. Third, this will be a good start of a collaboration.”
After two decades in administrative roles focused on pursuing diversity in the STEM fields, Ruth Washington, PhD, Professor of Biology at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee, was drawn to STRIVE as she jump-starts her research career. Dr. Washington is a molecular and cell biologist by training. With a research focus on the role of pericytes in cancer, Dr. Washington is working in the lab of Drew Dudley, PhD, Professor of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology, alongside PhD candidate Caroline Riedstra, who conducts complementary research into melanoma’s metastasis to the brain.
Washington says she will return to the classroom not only with increased cancer research expertise, but with enough knowledge in single-cell RNA sequencing to spawn research projects for multiple students.
“Together, this will help me shape a research environment at my college related to cancer biology, which is very attractive to students,” Dr. Washington says. “This can translate into increased recruitment and retention of our students, and ultimately to increasing racial and ethnic diversity in STEM.”
In the lab of Yuh-Hwa Wang, PhD, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, she and visiting faculty member Herman Fennell II, PhD, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Hampton University, are investigating how non-cytotoxic doses and long treatments of the chemotherapy drug etoposide (topoisomerase II inhibitor) contribute to increased double-stranded DNA breaks, rearrangements and gene translocations causing secondary cancers such as acute myeloid leukemia.
“I will be implementing double-strand break mapping in my research at Hampton University,” Dr. Fennell says. “I plan to bring undergraduate students next year to gain vital research experience in their pursuit of graduate school and see UVA as an option. One of my former students, Nadia Holness is currently a PhD student in the UVA graduate program and is excelling. Hopefully, it’s going to be a long-term relationship.”
In addition to promoting collaborative research projects, STRIVE convenes visiting, host and affiliate UVA faculty, students, and administrators for focus-group lunches where visiting faculty share perspectives on research and priorities for cultural change. One recent lunch was facilitated by Sarah Ewald, PhD, Associate Professor of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology and Associate Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Carter Immunology Center.
Ewald is also Holness’ advisor. Together, they are recipients of a Gilliam Fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for student leadership potential and faculty commitment to inclusion. Dr. Ewald was eager to learn from the visiting faculty about how the School of Medicine can do to better to support its graduate students.
Dr. Fennell said that he has seen a number of former students from Hampton go on to UVA, which he believes deserves high marks for an inclusive environment. Other students, however, went to other schools and reported feelings of anxiety and marginalization, he said.
Dr. Fennell and his fellow STRIVE colleagues say graduate schools can support students by explicitly acknowledging systemic racism, and by connecting new arrivals with fellow students “who look like them.” If faculty composition does not allow pairing students with advisors and mentors of similar backgrounds, then those mentor roles must be filled by faculty who are sensitive to students’ circumstances and needs.
“Funding is important,” Dr. Washington said, “but it is not as important as being welcoming.”
Dr. Bouton and her colleagues hope to expand STRIVE next year, while at the same time inviting students from visiting faculty’s host institutions to participate in the summer research internship program at UVA. They will take a step in that direction this fall, when Dr. Hinton’s PhD student comes to Dr. Janes’ lab to conduct research.
In the meantime, Dr. Hinton says she’ll encourage peers to apply to STRIVE.
“If nothing else – even if our research doesn’t pan out – I’m forever grateful for the relationships I formed, the peer mentorship that I received, and the knowledge I’ve gained in systems biology,”
Dr. Hinton says. “It’s helped me on a personal level before the research even started.”
That also is how Dr. Janes defines success.
“These types of programs are a very long game. What they can do is open communication channels and relationships that solidify and grow over time, and lead to something that’s really synergistic,” Dr. Janes says. “This year we just wanted Cimona to come here, have a phenomenal time refining her research idea, and then go tell everybody how great UVA is as a place to do scientific research. That is success from our standpoint.”
STRIVE’s 2023 visiting and host faculty are:
- Herman Fennell II, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences, Hampton University; hosted by Yuh-Hwa Wang, PhD, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
- Cimona Hinton, PhD, Professor of Biological Sciences and the Center for Cancer Research and Therapeutic Development, Clark Atlanta University; hosted by Kevin Janes, PhD, John Marshall Money Professor of Biomedical Engineering
- Mohamed Noufal, PhD, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Director of the Quantum Materials Laboratory, Hampton University; hosted by Alexander (Sasha) Klibanov, PhD, Associate Professor with primary appointment in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine (Department of Medicine), and joint/courtesy appointments in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Radiology and Medical Imaging
- Vincent Nziko, PhD, Assistant Professor, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Virginia State University; hosted by John Bushweller, PhD, Professor of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics
- Alice Walker, PhD, Lecturer, Department of Biological Sciences, Clark Atlanta University; hosted by Marty Mayo, PhD Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
- Ruth Washington, PhD, Professor of Biology, LeMoyne-Owen College; hosted by Drew Dudley, PhD, Professor of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology