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Student Research Highlights

Congratulations to our five MD/PhD graduates on Match Day

On March 22, 2017, Match Day was a busy day for our MD/PhD Graduates.  Two matched in Radiation Oncology, and one each for Family Medicine, General Surgery and Child Neurology.

From L to R: Daniel Vanderbilt, Courtney Pilkerton, Sriganesh Sharma, Linda Nguyen, and March Farrugia.

Meet Kristina Marinak

Graduate student in Dr. Elena Pugacheva’s Lab

Kristina Marinak is a shining example of leadership during her career in graduate school.  She is currently a graduate student in Dr. Elena Pugachevas’s lab in the WVU Cancer Institute.  Her research is focused on Aurora-A Kinase, a mitotic kinase and well characterized proto-oncogene that normally localizes in the cytoplasm at the centrosomes and is crucial for chromosome separation and spindle formation.  Aurora-A is often overexpressed in various cancers including breast cancer.  Her lab discovered that Aurora-A localizes to the nucleus, specifically in cancer metastasis and it is enriched in the metastases of triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) – a particularly challenging type of malignancy.  The objective of the Pugacheva team is to define the role and targets of nuclear Aurora-A in TNBC metastasis in an effort to develop novel therapeutics. 

During the summer of 2016 Kristina served on the Metastasis Research Society’s Early Career Leadership Council.  This council consists of postdoctoral researchers and graduate students with goals that include organizing webinars, networking and professional development opportunities and hosting a satellite meeting for young investigators.  As part of her position on the Early Career Leadership Council she was invited to attend the international conference in China this past September.  “This was a big deal for me personally and scientifically” said Kristina. The trip represented her first opportunity to travel outside of the US where she represented WVU in this exciting capacity.  She presented a poster describing her study entitled “The role of nuclear Aurora-A Kinase in Triple Negative Breast Cancer Metastasis” and networked with numerous other young scientists.  She thanks her mentor, Dr. Elena Pugacheva, for encouraging her to apply for this council position and for giving her continuous support.  Kristina credits Dr. Pugacheva with “constantly thinking about our future careers and what would benefit us now. She encourages us to apply for awards, funding opportunities, conferences and any leadership positions she thinks will benefit us.”

Kristina’s future goal that she feels most strongly about is being able to contribute to the community.  She says “being in the cancer research field gives the satisfaction that we are trying to make a difference in people’s lives”. Kristina notes the importance of being involved in opportunities to increase awareness of understanding metastatic disease and its consequences, especially in areas with significant health disparities.  She hopes to decipher the process of tumor metastasis and to develop novel therapeutics followed by preclinical and clinical evaluation. 

Keep up the good work Kristina!

Congratulations Magda Rivera-Dillon

Magda is currently a graduate student in the Masters of Science in Health Sciences program.  She is performing her Independent Study work with an Autism Support Group for teens with high functioning autism through the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental disabilities (LEND) grant and the WVU Center for Excellence in Disabilities (CED).  Magda is pursuing her Masters of Science in the Health Sciences program to gain a solid foundation to help move forward in her graduate study.  After her Masters, she plans to go into Medical School, or possibly going into a Physician Assistant program. 

Dual recognition came when she was certified in the LEND (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities) program. The LEND initiative is a national level training program to develop future leaders in the Health care fields using mentors and focusing on cultural awareness, clinical experience, and particularly autism support mechanisms.  She also accepted a fellowship in the Diversity and Disabilities Fellowship program.  This program is a new, national level fellowship mechanism that was created by the WVU CED (Centers for Excellence in Disabilities) in January of 2016.  Currently, there are 28 fellows nationwide who work to increase knowledge of disability services and support while increasing the diversity of leadership across multiple fields.  It’s the synergy and collaboration of both programs that Magda enjoys the most.

Magda was previously a mechanical engineer in a federal program for 20 years. She began a career transition and states that this has been the perfect opportunity for career transition.  To begin, she volunteered at Monongalia General Hospital and earned her LPN degree.  This sparked her interest further and she began to expand her knowledge and training in the Health Sciences.   It was a perfect fit especially for someone with a diverse background to transition to a health sciences career. 

In her spare time she enjoys supporting the LIGHT program.  This program offers free supply kits with syringes to those with need while addressing a public health concern of re-use of needles while preventing transmission of Hepatitis C and HIV.  She also helps in counseling, offering  referrals into treatment, helping those  applying for Medicare, addition services, and getting those in need on to the right path for a better, healthier future. 

Congratulations Magda!



Congratulations Audrey Jajosky

Audrey Jajosky recently graduated in May with the MD/PhD degree and has accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at Oregon Health and Sciences University, Portland.  She will be working in the lab of Dr. Bernie Fox for two years before beginning her residency training.  Dr. Fox is an outstanding anti-melanoma immune-cell engineer affiliated with OHSU and the Earle A. Chiles Cancer Research Institute.  Audrey says, “finding the perfect mentor was challenging and that she is extremely optimistic that anti-melanoma immunotherapies will save the lives of patients with even highly evolved metastatic disease. And that she is grateful for the support that she has received.  Mountaineers go first!”   Audrey received her research training with the Cancer Cell Biology Graduate Program in the Health Sciences Center.  Her mentor was Dr. Laura Gibson.

Congratulations Evan DeVallance

Evan DeVallance, a Graduate student in Exercise Physiology in the Biomedical Sciences Program, was recently awarded a pre-doctoral fellowship from the American Heart Association for his project titled "Effect of MetS on PVAT and its regulation of nitric oxide and aortic reactivity".  The priority score on his proposal was 1.59 which is considered excellent. 

Evan's mentor is Dr. Paul Chantler.

Congratulations Evan!

Fantastic work from Health Outcomes Research Graduate Students at WVU

Parul Agarwal won the best podium presentation award for her paper, “Health Care Expenditures Associated with Persistent Emergency Department Use: A Multi-state Analysis of Medicaid Beneficiaries,” with Co-authors Tom Bias and Usha Sambamoorthi.

In addition, Ebtihag Alenzi was a poster award finalist.  

A total of 80 podium presentations and about 600 posters were presented.  Our students and faculty had a total of nine presentations at the meeting. Three best paper awards were given for podium presentations.  The meeting was attended by about 3600 members from all over the world and consisted of academic, industry, and clinical research organization researchers.  
The WVU ISPOR Student Chapter received the Outstanding Student Chapter Award out of some 50+ US and 40+ international graduate student chapters. The ISPOR chapter application was developed by Doug Thornton, Chapter President and his team of officers, and advised by Dr. Usha Sambamoorthi.
Doug Thornton also received a Distinguished Service Award for service to the Society.

Congratulations and keep up the good work!


Meet Bryan Gall

Bryan Gall

Lab of David Siderovski, PhD

Physiology and Pharmacology

Bryan just successfully passed his dissertation defense last month and will stay with WVU until this summer.  The last year of his graduate school career was certainly a whirlwind.  He was recently invited to present his work to the upcoming ASPET (American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics) Translational & Clinical Pharmacology Executive Board meeting as an ideal example of programmatic success.  

His research was recently published in the NATURE group journal Genes & Immunity.  He also recently won first place in ASPET's Young Investigator Platform Session for his oral presentation. 

Bryan's research focuses on understanding the role that a protein called "G protein signaling modulator 3" (GPSM3) plays in the development of Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). In particular he is focused on why mice without this protein, and humans with mutations in this protein appear to be protected from arthritis. Bryan explains "we know this protein is involved in the recruitment of inflammatory cells to tissues in RA, and loss of this protein prevents this recruitment. However, the reason this mutation in humans is protective was not fully understood. We are the first to show that mutations in a protein called G protein signaling modulator 3 (GPSM3) decrease the amount of its expression in inflammatory white blood cells." 

David Siderovski, Bryan's advisor, explains the significance of his discovery:

"Bryan Gall has identified the reason why a particular gene mutation, seen in approximately 20% of the population, can protect someone from developing rheumatoid arthritis: this gene variation decreases production of a protein called GPSM3 that normally supports the movement of harmful white blood cells into joint tissue."

This breakthrough in the understanding of this protein could potentially lead to better therapeutic  targets and treatments for sufferers of RA.  With better treatments and medications to treat RA, the goal is to reduce the unwarranted, and sometimes unpleasant, side effects that these medications currently bring.

Bryan recently accepted a postdoctoral position at Oregon Health and Science University's Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute where he hopes to transition his knowledge of inflammation into vaccine research. 

Outside of the lab, Bryan enjoys running, hiking and biking along with reading and cooking. 




Meet Tanya Dilan

Tanya Dilan

Dr. Visvanathan Ramamurthy's Lab in the Ophthalmology Department

Biochemistry PhD Program

Tanya currently studies the retina which is a layer of tissue in the back of your eye that is involved in converting light into a neural signal.  The retina is comprised of compartmentalized "light-sensing" cells termed photoreceptors.  The outer segment of (OS) of these neurons is completely shed every 10 days therefore protein synthesis and protein transport to the OS are crucial for proper photoreceptor function.  She is studying the protein called Bardet-Biedl Syndrome -8.  It is a protein that is part of a larger multimeric complex called the BBSome.  The BBSome is thought to be involved in protein transport.  Mutations is Bbs8 lead to vision loss as well as a host of other symptoms such as renal problems, obesity and cognitive impairment. 

Her goal is to better understand the mechanistic role that Bbs8 plays in photoreceptor cell death.

Tanya is originally from Puerto Rica and she did her Bachelors in Industrial Microbiology at the University of Puerto Rico.  She would eventually like to help establish a small biotech/science incubator in Puerto Rico but first she needs to obtain the necessary scientific and business experience in order to accomplish her goals. 

In her spare time she likes to play guitar and recently got into playing bongos and harmonica.  "Harmonica is by far the hardest one to learn at the moment" says Dilan. 

Tanya just won a National Eye Institute travel award to attend the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) national conference in May at which she is also presenting her research. 

Congratulations Tanya and keep up the good work!