PhD Future Plans and Mentor Statements

Fall 2020

Jacob Tyler Andring

After graduation, I plan to find employment in the pharmaceutical industry. I’d like to thank the McKenna lab, my friends and my family.

Mentor statement from Dr. Robert McKenna

Jacob started his research studies at UF, looking at and designing drugs that inhibit the well-studied zinc metalloenzyme carbonic anhydrase, towards the treatment of triple negative cancer. In addition to these studies, he unraveled a mystery that carbonic anhydrase also binds copper and functions as a nitrite reductase, producing nitric oxide as a product. This “new” research has widespread implications in the field of heart disease, as targeting copper carbonic anhydrase may provide a new pathway for the treatment of heart failure, heart attacks and pulmonary arterial hypertension. Furthermore, he has opened the field to more research of other metal substitutions on the catalytic mechanism of this enzyme. 

Simply put, Jacob was a superb student. He was the recipient of the UF College of Medicine Council of Academic Chairs Scholarship in the Advancement to Candidacy competition in 2019, and followed that accomplishment by being the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department Boyce Award recipient and Medical Guild Research Competition Silver Medalist in 2020. During his four years in our program, he published 17 peer-reviewed papers and several other draft manuscripts are on my desk. I consider Jacob one of the best students I have had the privilege to teach, but more importantly, we have become good friends. 

Josephine Michelle Brown

After graduation, I am taking a postdoctoral position at the UF Diabetes Institute.

Mentor statement from Dr. Laurence Morel

Josephine conducted research to understand how the processing of an amino acid, tryptophan, is involved in the development of an autoimmune disease, lupus.

Tryptophan comes from food and is processed into metabolites that play an important role in many aspects of the body. Lupus patients present an altered processing of tryptophan into these metabolites that is associated with disease manifestations. 

Using a mouse model of the disease, Josephine conducted experiments to determine the origins of these alterations. She discovered that the gut microbes associated with lupus are the major determinants of the alterations in tryptophan processing. Moreover, she found that increasing the amount of tryptophan in the diet worsened disease, while a very low tryptophan diet was protective in mice. Finally, she showed that tryptophan and one of its by-products can directly activate the immune cells that are involved in lupus. 

Her work provides a better understanding of the relationships between the amount of tryptophan in the diet, gut microbes and the development of lupus.

Bayli DiVita Dean

Bayli DeVita Dean and Catherine Flores pose for a photo in front of a research poster.

My plan post-graduation is to stay in the lab of Catherine Flores, PhD, as a postdoc.

Mentor statement from Dr. Catherine Flores

Bayli investigated the efficacy and mechanism of combinatorial immuno-oncology therapeutics to treat fatal tumors. She has defined the impact intracranial gliomas have on the way that patient bone marrow reconstitutes immune cells and the immune system. She determined that brain tumors alter and skew cell fate differentiation outcomes of in human and murine systems. 

Ying Li

After graduation, I will be taking a postdoctoral position in the Stabler lab for one semester. After that, I will seek a postdoctoral position at another institute. Inspirational quote: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Mentor statement from Dr. Cheryl Stabler Anderson

Ying’s doctoral dissertation was focused on improving cellular transplantation therapies for Type 1 diabetes mellitus (T1D). T1D is an autoimmune disease leading to high blood glucose and severe long-term complications, which globally affects millions of people. While insulin injections decrease the lethality of the disease, the body is unable to achieve physiological blood glucose control. The transplantation of insulin-producing cells provides a potential cure to T1D; however, patients typically reject the foreign cells, even when placed on anti-rejection therapy. To decrease rejection and improve transplantation outcomes, researchers have explored the encapsulation of cells within polymers, which should prevent the direct attack of immune cells. While successful results have been obtained in pre-clinical models, clinical outcomes have been poor. Ying’s dissertation sought to investigate the role of immune cell rejection on this poor response to identify ways to improve the efficacy of cell therapy options for T1D. 

During her PhD research, she made several significant contributions to the field. Specifically, she developed a benchtop platform that permitted the investigation into the recognition of immune cells to encapsulated cells. Using this platform, Ying was able to clearly show that the immune system still recognized the encapsulated cells, via distinct pathways, and that this activation can lead to detrimental impacts on insulin producing cells. Furthermore, she uncovered that a common material used to encapsulate the cells, alginate, could further activate these immune responses. She subsequently identified these material features and identified methods to mitigate this response. Finally, she used this platform to screen immunosuppressive agents that could inhibit this unique pathway of immune activation. The legacy of her work is that we now have an efficient and reproducible means to investigate immune responses to encapsulated cells, as well as the identification of specific immune pathways activated by these cellular therapies. These contributions can lead to the optimization of encapsulation cell therapy for type 1 diabetes by providing a more efficient screening of encapsulation materials and immunosuppressive agents. 

Ying’s research contributions have been published in several publications, including Biomaterials and Nature Reviews Materials. She has also presented her work at numerous conferences, including the Society for Biomaterials and the Biomedical Engineering Society. She was also recognized for her accomplishments by the college, where she was awarded the 2018 International Student Award based on nomination by the UF College of Medicine. 

Tautvydas Shuipys

After graduation, I will be starting a postdoctoral position. Thank you to Dr. Kevin Folta for his mentorship, to my graduate committee for their advice and to my parents for all of their support!

Mentor statement from Dr. Kevin Folta

Tautvydas took on a project that was a tremendous challenge. Our laboratory has identified novel molecules, new to the universe, that can disrupt biological processes. They are assembled from random DNA information, and while most do absolutely nothing, occasionally a new molecule is produced that has a disruptive effect. Tautvydas started examining a series of these molecules, then focused on one for his dissertation project. 

The molecule is a peptide, a small protein, that interferes with seedling responses to red light. Red light is important in directing many plant responses, so products that inhibit it are of interest. He examined how the peptide affected fundamental responses in seedling adaptation to the light environment, and showed that the effects were highly specific to a discrete set of cells during a particular time in a plant’s life. This is important because it demonstrates the specificity of this novel compound. He then tested to find more effective variants of the same molecule. The work will potentially lead to a better understanding of how plants adapt to light environments. The work was an excellent dissertation because it offered more questions than answers. 

Tautvydas was also the 2019 Berns Award recipient, he was recognized for the best graduate student presentation at the Florida Genetics Symposium, and he presented at the American Society of Plant Biologists conference and at its Synthetic Biology Conference in 2019.

Most of all, Tautvydas performed the work as a strong, independent scientist who was a pleasure to work with.  He was an outstanding laboratory citizen, and his kind, conscientious nature will take him a long way.  

Kristen Skruber

After graduation, I will be starting a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco in the lab of R. Dyche Mullins, PhD. I want to thank my mentor, Eric Vitriol, PhD; my spouse, Nicole; and the Graduate Program Biomedical Sciences office for all the opportunities and support. Most importantly, I want to thank my mom for being the best role model and endless giver of good life advice.

Mentor statement from Dr. Eric Vitriol

Kristen’s research focused on the actin cytoskeleton, an integral component of cells that controls their ability to divide, move and communicate. Her project used gene-editing, biochemistry and super-resolution imaging to identify novel mechanisms of how actin monomers, the basic subunit the actin cytoskeleton, control the assembly and organization of actin structures. Kristen identified that expression of the monomer-binding protein profilin 1 (PFN1) determined which actin networks assembled from the monomer pool. She used novel methods to manipulate how much PFN1 was present in the cell and demonstrated that different PFN1 concentrations changed which types of actin structures the cell made. These exciting findings could help explain why changes in PFN1 expression or activity have been linked to cancer, inflammation, and neurodegenerative disease. Kristen’s research productivity was outstanding, with three first-author papers published during her four-year PhD. 

Additionally, Kristen was well known for her service to the scientific community at the local and national level. This included starting the Florida Translational Cell Biology Symposium and serving on its steering committee for three years. The FTCB was a student-run event that brought together scientists from across the entire state to celebrate the breadth of cell biology research in Florida. Kristen has also served the American Society for Cell Biology as a volunteer at the annual international meeting and as a member of the Committee for Postdocs and Students and the LGBTQ+ Task Force. She recently wrote a very moving piece for the ASCB Post entitled, “We can choose to be better; can scientists afford not to?” that addressed privilege, inclusivity and racism in science. Kristen’s accomplishments were recognized during the Medical Guild Research Competition, where she was a Gold Medal finalist. 

Kartika Venugopal

Kartika stands in front of her research poster.

After graduation, I will be a postdoctoral research fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Kartika and her mentor at the Mentor-Match Celebration.

I would like to start by thanking my mentor, Dr. Olga Guryanova, for giving me this opportunity to learn many aspects of laboratory-based biomedical research and to grow as a scientist in her lab. I am extremely thankful for her guidance throughout my PhD and for always being supportive of my future career goals. I owe sincere gratitude to my committee members: Dr. Jonathan Licht for his invaluable guidance and assistance throughout my graduate education; Dr. Edward Scott for his unique perspectives and vital inputs on my research; and Dr. Brian Law for our motivating conversations and his guidance throughout my project. I would also like to thank Dr. Dietmar Siemann and Dr. Maria Zajac-Kaye for giving me the opportunity to be in the cancer biology concentration and for their encouragement throughout my graduate career.

I am eternally grateful to my parents for their unconditional love, constant support and sacrifices, without which I would not be here today, and my sister Aishwarya, who is my biggest supporter and has always believed in me. My heartfelt thanks to Mayank Kulkarni, my best friend, my most enthusiastic cheerleader, who has been incredibly patient, supportive and encouraging, especially during the challenging times of graduate school.

I would also like to thank my friends and family back home and in the U.S. I am incredibly thankful to the lifelong friends I have made in Gainesville who have filled the past few years with fond memories of our numerous game nights, potluck dinners and camping trips. My special thanks to Vindhya Vijay and Varsha Sundareshan, who have been my role models and guided me through my journey in graduate school. I would also like to thank my friends who I met through the Biomedical Sciences program: Mai Tanaka, Zac Wakefield, Emily Koller and Aaron Waddell for their constant love, support and laughter. I could not have imagined going through this without them by my side. Finally, I would like to thank the members of Guryanova and Licht labs — especially Yang Feng, Daniil Shabashvili, Cassandra Berntsen, Jianping Li, Daphne Dupere-Richer, Richard Bennett, Xiaoxiao Huang, Aditya Bele and Sayantan Maji — for their help in performing experiments and data analysis, but more importantly for making the lab an enjoyable and positive environment to work in.

Mentor statement from Dr. Olga Guryanova

Kartika joined the UF Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences as a seasoned researcher with a master’s degree from the University of California, Irvine. For her PhD dissertation project at UF, she studied how cells with mutations found in acute myeloid leukemia respond to chemotherapy. This improved understanding will help pave the way to develop more effective and less toxic treatments for this aggressive blood cancer. For her work, Kartika was selected as the UF Health Cancer Center 2019 Predoctoral Awardee, and she received a prestigious American Society of Hematology Abstract Achievement Award. Kartika will continue her training at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, where she will apply her talents to the development of novel immunotherapies for cancer.

Six colleagues pose for a group photo at a conference.

Congratulatory notes from family and friends

Hello Ammu, we are so proud and thrilled of your achievement. Your success was the sum of small efforts repeated day in day out right from your primary school days. Take a moment to savor it! Some will call you lucky, others will call you blessed. Whatever the case, this is your new normal. Life is about living your dreams. Pursue it. Bless you! — Lots of love, Amma and Achan

To my dearest sister: Hearty congratulations on this huge achievement! You make us all so proud. Wish we could be there on your big day, but nevertheless, we’re there in spirit and cheering you on! — Love, Aishu

Congratulations Dr. Venugopal! You’ve made it, you’re a doctor! You’ve pushed through thick and thin and you’ve made it all the way. I’ve seen your hard work, perseverance, passion and dedication during these five years and it has been second to none. You truly deserve this monumental achievement and title and I am super proud of you. I know you are going to achieve great things and anything that you put your mind to. Looking forward to celebrating this and many more such achievements in the future! — Love, Mayank

Hard work, sheer determination,
The mantra – mind over matter,
From UCI with protein interaction,
To UF with DNMT3A mutation, 
Your runs, stretches, living in a lab,
Staple diet of coffee and tea,
Now with yet another feather in your cap,
So very proud of this Doctor I see! 
Congratulations, Dr. Kartika Venugopal! 
— With lots of love and good wishes, Shibani

Congratulations, Dr. Kartuuu! You did it, you’ve made it, you have arrived! And I’ve never been prouder of you! This is such a huge accomplishment and I can’t think of anyone who is more deserving of this than you. I’ve seen you work so hard throughout the years and I’m so happy that it has paid off. You’re about to embark on another huge journey, being a postdoc at Harvard (by the way, I hope you’ll still remember me while you’re off being a fancy schmancy scientist) and I have no doubt that you’re going to succeed at that, too! Here’s to all your hopes and dreams coming true. — Love you so much, Kritu

Kartika, you’ve worked so hard and accomplished so much during your PhD, congratulations! We can’t wait to see what heights you’ll reach in your career as an independent investigator. — Zac & Mai

Dear Kartika, I am so incredibly proud of you, and I am so glad we got to do grad school together, from first-year shenanigans to being roommates to surviving quarantine together. I can’t wait to see all the amazing things you will accomplish! — Love you, Emily

Congratulations Dr. Venugopal! I guess we should start taking you more seriously now. So proud of you and all that you have achieved in this journey. Can’t wait to see all the great things in store for you in the next chapter. Hope we can celebrate you in person soon! — Varsha

Summer 2020

Olivia A. Bailey

I am taking a postdoctoral position in the lab of Dr. Elena Hsieh at UC Denver, working on primary immunodeficiencies. Thank you to my mother, Lori, who gave me a desire for knowledge and the strength to pursue it. Inspirational quote: “Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.” — Wayne Dyer

Mentor statement from Dr. Mark Atkinson

Dr. Olivia Bailey has a significant interest in basic science and detailed studies of mechanisms controlling autoimmunity as it relates to Type 1 diabetes (T1D). For these reasons, I was pleased that she joined my lab five years ago.

At that time, it was apparent that Olivia had been involved in multiple research efforts before entering the graduate program, and I was impressed with her technical experience, presentation skills and enthusiasm. She is a smart student who thrives on learning new concepts and techniques. She quickly delved into the literature to learn as much as possible about oral tolerance mechanisms and the intestinal immune system. Her extensive knowledge of these subjects allowed her to independently develop an F31 proposal with an innovative hypothesis: combining short-course, low-dose anti-thymocyte globulin (ATG) treatment with the oral delivery of genetically modified Lactococcus lactis expressing a key T1D autoantigen, proinsulin, and the tolerogenic cytokine, IL-10, will prevent diabetes in the non-obese diabetic (NOD) mouse model by inducing tolerogenic T cell and dendritic cell populations in the gut associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) and the pancreatic draining lymph nodes. Together, she and I designed a series of experiments to test this hypothesis. 

Her F31 grant proposal, entitled “A Novel Combination Therapy for Type 1 Diabetes,” received an excellent impact score of 19 and was awarded funding by the NIH/NIDDK in May 2017. These efforts evolved into the focus of her dissertation. Recognizing that broad immunosuppression can produce adverse side effects and, most importantly, does not address the underlying autoimmune pathology, Olivia’s dissertation outlines an approach involving short-term systemic immunosuppression coupled with long-term antigen-specific therapy that explicitly targets the aberrant immune response to beta cells that characterizes T1D. The data from these studies support the theory that short course immunosuppression with low-dose ATG concurrent with mucosal delivery of proinsulin to the GALT by orally fed bioengineered, proinsulin-expressing Lactococcus lactis prevents T1D development in NOD mice. Mechanistically, this combination therapy induced expansion of FoxP3+ regulatory T cell (Tregs) in the pancreatic lymph nodes and tolerogenic CD103+ dendritic cells in the mesenteric lymph nodes. Of course, further investigation is required to elucidate the exact mechanisms at play, but the preclinical data put forward in her work is quite promising for future clinical translation of this combinatorial immunotherapy. 

Clearly, Olivia has demonstrated an advanced understanding of complicated concepts and has become proficient at difficult techniques. She displayed creativity in experimental design and overcame a great deal of adversity related to reagent availability and, later, interruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. She has shown great potential to become an exceptional research scientist. I expect that Olivia’s continued development will result in a fruitful career in immunology research and a significant impact on the field of medicine. 

Enrico Rey Barrozo

My future plan is to be an academic postdoc. 

Mentor statement from Dr. David Bloom

Dr. Enrico Barrozo’s Ph.D. dissertation research has added to our understanding of how herpes simplex virus (HSV) RNAs allow this virus to maintain a lifelong, and often silent, infection in humans but still retain the ability to periodically awaken and cause disease. Specifically, Enrico’s work focused on two main areas: 1) Using cutting-edge technology that allows one to detect and identify all of the RNA that is made in a single cell. By analyzing thousands of HSV latently infected neurons, the cells that contain the inactive or sleeping virus, he was able to identify virus and cell RNAs that are made in greater amounts in different cells. Grouping the cells with similar patterns painted a picture of how HSV latency may be regulated; and 2) Studying the functions of three virally encoded small RNAs call micro RNAs (miRNAs). Through this research, he was able to show that two of these miRNAs seem to function to regulate the ability of the virus to reawaken and turn back on. Both of these projects have (or will) result in multiple research publications that will have an impact, not only because they have provided important information as to how HSV causes disease but also because they provide important clues for targets for new and better therapies to treat HSV disease. During Enrico’s time in my lab, he was the recipient of the Kenneth & Laura Berns Excellence in Genetics Award from the UF Genetics Institute and was awarded a prestigious Individual F31 Predoctoral Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health. Enrico will be going on to perform postdoctoral studies at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Shelby L. Blaes

Shelby Blaes

My post-graduate plan is to start a PhD program in clinical psychology at UF.

Mentor statement from Dr. Barry Setlow and Dr. Jennifer Bizon

Dr. Shelby Blaes’ dissertation work expanded our understanding of how chronic cocaine use causes increased risk-taking behavior and pointed the way toward novel approaches to reducing such drug-induced increases in risk taking. Her work also advanced our understanding of sex differences in risk taking and how males and females are affected by cocaine use. Her dissertation work was supported by a fellowship from the McKnight Brain Institute, and she received several travel awards from the Center for Addiction Research and Education. In addition to her research, Shelby was a tireless advocate for neuroscience education and outreach at UF and in the surrounding community. Immediately after graduation, Shelby will begin her studies in the doctoral program in clinical psychology at UF.

Breanna Kierspe Burkes

Currently I have a job offer to be a patent assistant for Beusse Wolter Sanks and Marie in Orlando, Florida. I would like to thank my P.I., Dr. Shuang Huang; my lab mates; and my parents, Greg and Lynn Burkes. 

Favorite inspirational quote: “If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off… no matter what they say.” — Barbara McClintock

Mentor statement from Dr. Shuang Huang

Dr. Breanna Burkes’ dissertation research work concentrates on defining mechanisms that are key to ovarian cancer malignancies. Ovarian cancer is the deadliest among all gynecological cancers, and its extremely high mortality rate is due to lack of means for early detection and targeted therapeutic approaches. With the belief that identifying events critical for ovarian cancer progression and dissemination will help in developing targeted therapy, Breanna focused on a molecule called WNT5a, whose role in ovarian cancer has been controversial. Breanna found that WNT5a actually exists in two forms (long and short) and only the short form of WNT5a is capable of potently promoting ovarian cancer malignancies. In her further work, she found that this short WNT5a is preferentially present in aggressive ovarian cancer cells and depleting it leads to remarkable reduction in various cellular events essential for ovarian cancer progression. Breanna’s work has not only identified an essential player in ovarian cancer malignancies but has also built the foundation for a novel ovarian cancer-targeted modality that is to interfere with the short form of WNT5a and its associated signaling pathway.

Marissa Carmae Ciesla

My future plan is to finish experiments with the Mitchell and Gonzalez-Rothi lab as a postdoctoral associate as I transition into my next steps for my career. I would like to thank my family and friends for all their support over the past few years. I thank my parents, Edward P. and Carmen T. Ciesla, and siblings, Lindsey T. and William B. Brezina and Edward N. Ciesla, for their unwavering support not only during my doctoral education but also through my whole life. I would also like to thank my mentors, Drs. Gordon S. Mitchell and Elisa J. Gonzalez-Rothi, who led and helped me grow as a scientist. I thank my committee, Drs. Harry Nick, Ron Mandel and Emily Fox, for their guidance in my graduate work. I would like to thank the current and past members of the Mitchell and Gonzalez-Rothi labs for their support and friendship: Drs. Latoya Allen, Yasin Seven, Moe El Chami, Arash Tadjalli, Raphael Perim, Alex Marciante and Kristi Streeter; as well as Amy Poier, Mia Kelly, Ela Sajjadi, Alec Simon, Kristin Smith, Ashley Holland, Ashley Ross, Juliet Santiago, Kelsey Stefan and Zac Asa. I would also like to thank all of the lab members and undergraduates I trained for reminding me how much I love mentoring. I want to thank my fellow PhD friends, Drs. Jess Dhillon, Melanie Shapiro and Breanna Burkes, who stood by me through the tough classes, presentations, volunteering, teaching, trivia nights and much more. Specifically, I want to thank Dr. Jolie Barter for keeping me sane and fun through all of our crocheting nights, collaborative projects, presentations, study groups and SFN events. Lastly, I want to thank my boyfriend, Jason Conner, for sticking with me, supporting me, always having chocolate and being a constant ear throughout my graduate work. I could not have completed this work without my whole network of supporters.

Mentor statement from Dr. Gordon Mitchell and Dr. Elisa Gonzalez-Roth

Dr. Marissa Ciesla’s work concerns a vexing problem for those with spinal cord injuries, particularly injuries in the neck region. Spinal injuries cut connections between the brain and muscles, compromising the ability to move — including walking, using one’s hands and even breathing. An injured spinal cord will never heal on its own, and there is no cure. 

To help solve this problem, Marissa chose to study the ability of a specific type of neuron that has unique abilities to recover below a spinal cord injury, a group of neurons in the medulla containing the neurochemical serotonin. She found that after an incomplete high cervical (neck) spinal cord injury, serotonin-containing neurons spared from injury have a remarkable capacity to assume the role formerly played by the neurons lost to injury. This ability benefits many different spinal cord motor neurons, the neurons that target muscles and enable movement. Although injured serotonin-containing neurons cannot regrow, the neurons spared from injury undergo a form of anatomical plasticity. They sprout, allowing each spared serotonin neuron to communicate with more motor neurons, so they can stand in for their lost comrades.  

Her findings are important since they show that at least one neuron population can adapt and improve function, even if injured neurons cannot recover. Recovery of serotonin actions on the motor neurons that drive breathing and other movements tells us that certain new therapeutic approaches have the potential to improve movement after spinal injury, including a new experimental treatment known as therapeutic acute intermittent hypoxia. For this promising new treatment to work, serotonin neurons that work must surround the motor neurons. Marissa’s work shows that enough serotonin should be present to make this new treatment possible. 

In her time as a graduate student, Marissa was a student leader, guiding the North Central Florida Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience. She was also involved in outreach activities to bring science to the public, particularly school children. Now that she has completed her PhD, she plans to take a brief period to publish her important findings and then seek a job teaching undergraduate students as they find their way to a new life. 

Theodore Tzvetanov Drashansky

Theodore Drashansky in the lab

My post-graduation plans are industry employment in New Jersey. I thank my parents for adhering to a high standard for my education, encouraging scientific curiosity and supporting every endeavor throughout my life. I thank my wife for her continuous backing during my five years at UF. I thank my brother for his optimism and constructive sibling rivalry. I thank Dr. Dorina Avram for mentoring and opening a new world of opportunities for me. I thank every past and current member of the Avram lab for helping me through experiments. I thank every past and present collaborator without whom this thesis and many manuscripts would not be possible. I thank all of my teachers, professors and research mentors in science and mathematics, for they laid the foundation for this work. I thank my friends for their support throughout these years of graduate education.

Favorite inspirational quote: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” — Winston Churchill

Congratulatory notes from family

Theodore’s parents: “Your graduation has special meaning. It’s filled with celebration, shared moments and special memories. It’s good to share your happiness and the pride in our accomplishment and to wish you the bright future you deserve.”

Theodore’s mother-in-law, father-in-law and brother-in-law: “Congratulations on your graduation. We are very proud of you for this big accomplishment. We wish you all the best in your new job.” 

Theodore’s wife: “I am so fortunate to be a part of your journey. I’ve seen your struggles and sacrifices. I’ve seen you grow and succeed. I’m so incredibly proud of your accomplishments. I love you so much.”

Mentor statement from Dr. Dorina Avram

Dr. Theodore Drashansky’s predoctoral studies focused on transcriptional and epigenetic control of Tregulatory cell program in mice and humans. Tregulatory cells play an essential role in immune homeostasis, and their alterations cause systemic fatal autoimmunity or organ-specific autoimmune manifestations. Theodore’s studies were published in Science Advances in August 2019. Remarkably, his work identified non-coding region-transcription factor regulatory modules at essential Tregulatory program genes, common in mice and humans. His studies show that these regulatory modules are important in chromatin accessibility and control expression of essential Tregulatory program genes. His research opens new avenues for therapeutic intervention by modulating the activity of the conserved regulatory modules. 

Theodore led another line of research, namely on mucosal associated invariant T (MAIT) cells. These cells recognize microbial riboflavin metabolites and play an important role in response to several bacterial infections and tumors. He investigated the role of the transcription factor Bcl11b and demonstrated its crucial role in the development and function of these cells. 

Recently, Theodore accepted a principal scientist position at Merck to work on immune therapies in cancer. 

Aishwarya Gurumurthy

Aishwarya Gurumurthy

My future plan is to be a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan in the department of pathology with Dr. Russell Ryan. I plan to study distal enhancer function and transcriptional regulation of oncogenes in lymphoid cancers. I thank Dr. Bungert for his excellent mentorship. His mentorship style, words of encouragement and steadfast integrity helped my development both personally and professionally. I thank my family for their support, love and encouragement. I dedicate this degree to my mother, who has been the wind beneath my wings.

Favorite inspirational quotes:

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” — Nelson Mandela

“She believed she could so she did.” — R.S. Grey

Top downloaded paper 2018-19: Aishwarya Gurumurthy

Congratulatory note from family

“We are very proud of you. Congratulations on your graduation and wishing you the best for the next step ahead.”

Aishwarya Gurumurthy with five fellow members of her lab,

Mentor statement from Dr. Jörg Bungert

Dr. Aishwarya Gurumurthy’s project in the laboratory focused on analyzing the regulation of the beta-globin genes during differentiation of red blood cells. The globin genes encode subunits of hemoglobin. Aishwarya discovered that RNA polymerase II (Pol II), which transcribes the globin mRNAs, is first recruited to a super-enhancer and then transferred to the globin genes. This process is regulated by the Integrator protein complex, which terminates transcription at the super-enhancer and releases Pol II and non-coding enhancer (eRNA). Aishwarya demonstrated that the release of Pol II and the eRNA is important for loading Pol II at the globin gene promoters. This Pol II transfer mechanism is consistent with recent findings showing that Pol II is recruited to super-enhancers and contributes to the formation of a phase-separated transcription initiation domain. Aishwarya submitted a manuscript describing these findings to the journal Nucleic Acids Research. This fall 2020, Aishwarya will join Dr. Russell Ryan’s laboratory at the University of Michigan to pursue research in the area of cancer genomics.     

Emily J. Koller

Emily Koller stands in front of her research poster

My post-graduation plans include starting a postdoctoral position in September at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, in the laboratory of Dr. Joanna Jankowsky. I would like to thank my family and friends for their love and support over the past four years. I also thank my mentor, Dr. Chakrabarty, who has facilitated my growth as a scientist and has molded me into the person I am today. I thank my co-mentor, Dr. Lewis, and my other committee members for their guidance and support, and I would like to thank Dr. Lewis and Dr. Bizon for their mentorship of my professional and scientific development under the T32 training grant. In addition, I thank the past and present members of the Chakrabarty lab and the members of the Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease, who have made these past few years fun as well as productive. Finally, I thank the neuroscience department and the Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences for their support during my research endeavors. Thank you to everyone. I would not be where I am today without you.

Congratulatory notes from family

“Emily, we are so very proud of your extraordinary accomplishments. Your hard work, long hours, sleepless nights and determination throughout your college years have paid off! Your educational experiences and publications acquired at the University of Florida have exceeded all of our expectations. You have always demonstrated great confidence and independence. We look forward to watching you do great things as you embark on the next chapter of your career at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Congratulations, we love you.” — Mom and Dad

“Dear Emily, congratulations! I’m so proud of your accomplishments and the person you are becoming. You are kind and loving, and I’m blessed to call you my sister. You’ve taught me dedication and perseverance and that hard work pays off. I can’t wait to see where you go next. Wishing you all the best and ready to cheer you on in the next chapter. Love always, your sister.” — Elizabeth

“Emily, congratulations on all of your accomplishments thus far. You are an inspiration to this family and especially to me. As you continue your life, strive to combine knowledge and wisdom to make an impact. Aristotle said, ‘You are what you repeatedly do.’ Therefore, excellence ought to be a habit, not an act. Remember to be kind and to always stay true to yourself.” — With love, Greg

“Emily, I am so proud of you! You have worked so hard to get here, and I’m constantly impressed with your dedication and smarts! I’m so blessed to have you in my life, and I can’t wait to visit you in Texas and hear all about the wonderful things you will accomplish, even if they’re over my head! Love you so much, pretty lady!” — Sara

“Dear Emily, since the days of us staying up late in Marston studying Spanish to now, it’s amazing to see how far you’ve come. I could not be more proud of you and cannot wait to see what you do next. Congratulations, Dr. Koller!” — Love, Sean

“Hey Emily, congrats! That’s it.” — Tosha

“Congratulations on successfully completing your Ph.D., Emily! I am so very happy for my wonderful friend, who has shown the spirit of a true achiever! Your relentless efforts and hard work have all finally paid off in the best possible way! I wish you all the very best for all your future endeavors and may this be just the beginning to a bright and successful future! Love you always.” — Kartika

Mentor statement from Dr. Paramita Chakrabarty and Dr. Jada Lewis

The primary focus of our research lab is to understanding the etiology of age-related neurodegenerative diseases, primarily Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, we are interested in a unique class of neurodegenerative diseases called tauopathies, so named because of the intracellular accumulation of aggregated tau protein. Patients with clumps of tau protein in their brain fall into a wide variety of clinical designations, such as Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, progressive supranuclear palsy and others. Normally, tau functions to stabilize microtubules, which are part of a cell’s cytoskeleton, but under disease conditions, tau disassociates from microtubules and clumps into aggregates called neurofibrillary tangles. Over time, these aggregations accumulate in the brain and lead to altered cognition and behavior and eventual brain organ failure. We do not know what causes tauopathies, and there is neither a cure nor a disease-modifying treatment for these devastating diseases. Dr. Emily Koller’s work has focused on uncovering the mechanistic role of different triggers that induce the tau protein to aggregate into neurotoxic oligomers and larger insoluble filaments. She has led various projects in the lab, including one that explored how different genetic variants of the tau protein result in unique neuropathology, behavior and synaptic dysfunction. This work shows how changing even a single residue dramatically alters properties of the tau protein. In her other studies, she has explored how metabolic proteins that increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease influence the development of tauopathy. Emily is leaving her alma mater having published six research articles and one review article. She is heading to Baylor College of Medicine in Houston to study selective vulnerability of specific neural circuits in Alzheimer’s disease.

Kyulim Lee

My post-graduation plans include appointments as a postdoctoral associate in Department of Oral Biology and a courtesy clinical assistant professor in the Department of Restorative Dental Sciences at the UF College of Dentistry. ​I would like to share a huge thank you to the UF community: Faculty, staff and colleagues, all who have played pivotal roles in my success as a trainee. Thank you for helping by opening doors to unimaginable opportunities and for your kindness and encouragement! 

Mentor statement from Dr. Robert Burne

Dr. Kyulim Lee, known to most as “Q”, was a dual-degree DMD-PhD student who finished her DMD training in May and defended her PhD dissertation July 22. The most prominent infectious diseases of the oral cavity have an ecological origin, where extrinsic (such as diet) or host factors drive changes in the composition and biological activities of the oral microbiome. While a tremendous amount of research has focused on the pathogens that emerge when disease develops, the roles that health-associated members of the oral microbiome play in maintaining health and suppressing the emergence of pathogenic organisms is grossly underappreciated. Kyulim’s work was focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms used by beneficial bacteria to promote oral health and prevent diseases. Using a novel isolate from a healthy child as a model organism, called Streptococcus A12, she made several major discoveries. A12 has a particularly powerful ability to help maintain a favorable pH in oral biofilms and is especially good at killing certain pathogenic bacteria. After analyzing the complete genome of A12 and using bioinformatics to identify potentially novel factors that could enhance probiotic properties of A12, she focused on three genetic loci, conducting an in-depth analysis of their regulation, as well as their biological and ecological significance. Her dissertation was a beautiful amalgamation of genomics, genetics, modeling of complex interbacterial behaviors using models and state-of-the-art imaging, and discovery of novel and unusual bacterial behaviors. Her work culminated in in vivo studies using a newly developed mouse model to test previously untestable hypotheses about how beneficial bacteria interact with their host and pathogens. Kyulim’s work has substantively changed the way diagnostic, therapeutic and preventive strategies will be designed in the future, and these paradigm shifts will keep our lab and others busy for years.

Kyulim is an author on eight publications, soon to be 10. She has won numerous awards, including the American Association for Dental Research and International Association for Dental Research’s prestigious Hatton Competition (AADR/IADR; 1st and 2nd place, respectively) and the Crest/Oral-B Promising Researcher Award. Her F30 NRSA Individual Fellowship Award was funded on the first submission. She was also the recipient of the AADR Gert Quigley Fellowship — this award had her traveling to Washington, D.C., to participate in science and public policy efforts and learn the federal legislative process. Certainly, as we face a global pandemic, the need for effective advocacy for science could not be more important. Kyulim will be staying on in the Burne Lab as a postdoctoral fellow, continuing her research and writing grants to the National Institutes of Health. She will also be spending one day each week teaching DMD students and treating patients as a faculty member in the College of Dentistry. In summer 2021, she will begin additional clinical and research training. Her PhD dissertation advisor summed up Kyulim’s time in his lab by saying, “You could not ask for anything more in a PhD student — she’s bright, has a tremendous work ethic, has rock-solid integrity, is enthusiastic, loves science and spends every minute of every day pushing herself to be better. I truly cannot wait to see what she accomplishes in the coming years. She is going to have an amazing impact on science, human health and the people she mentors.”

Victoria E. Makal

My post-graduation plans include a tenure-track faculty position at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise as an assistant professor of biochemistry. ​I would like to thank every member of the Boye lab for their unfailing support and friendship throughout the course of my graduate school journey. A special thanks to my committee for helping me grow and providing invaluable guidance that has made me both a better scientist and person.

Favorite inspirational quote: “Let us choose for ourselves our path in life, and let us try to strew that path with flowers.” — Emilie du Chatelet

Mentor statement from Dr. Shannon Boye

Dr. Victoria Makal’s doctoral research focused on understanding the biophysical properties of AAV capsids that are capable of transducing the retina following an intravitreal injection. She focused not just on what specific capsid mutations conferred this ability but also on what they meant and how they impacted the virus itself. She also explored ways to improve retinal transduction via the vitreous. Her work contributed significantly to one of the major goals of the lab and the field — to develop safe and efficient methods for addressing blindness due to inherited retinal disease. Victoria was the recipient of a competitive slot on our T32 training grant and published multiple manuscripts during her tenure as a graduate student. She was recently appointed as a tenure-track assistant professor of biochemistry at UVA Wise. Congratulations Dr. Makal! 

Nathan A. Quails

My future plans include a medical physics imaging residency at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.

Mentor statement from Dr. Lynn Rill and Dr. Manuel Arreola

Dr. Nathan Quails’ medical physics dissertation research involved measurement of radiation doses to the skin and eye lens for patients undergoing neurosurgery procedures that require real-time X-ray guidance. These procedures that treat blood vessels in the brain can be complex and lengthy, and therefore the radiation dose to the skin and lenses of the eyes can be significant. Very high doses might cause skin reddening or cataracts. Nathan designed a dose cap for patients to wear during their procedure, which contained small dosimeters. The dosimeters in the cap collected the X-ray dose throughout each procedure. Nathan read out the dosimeters after each procedure was completed, and these measurements were used to produce 3D maps of patient skin dose to help the neurosurgeons predict which patients and procedure types are at higher risk for skin and lens effects. 

During his time as a UF graduate student, Nathan presented his work at national and regional conferences of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM). Also notably, Nathan served in the role of president of the Society of Health and Medical Physics (SHMPS) student organization during his last year of graduate school. Following his PhD defense in June, Nathan relocated to Columbus, Ohio, to begin a residency in diagnostic physics at Ohio State University.  

Wei Zhou

Wei Zhou stands in front of her research poster.

My post-graduation plans include a position as a biochemistry and biophysics scientist at Hansoh Bio. I’d like to express my deep gratitude to my advisor, Dr. Chenglong Li, for his unlimited support during my PhD studies. Given great freedom and continuous encouragement, I am inspired to explore the unknown field of science with unwavering enthusiasm. In addition, I would like to thank my committee, colleagues, friends and family members for their support. All of you have impacted my life for the better. I will further proceed in the field of drug discovery, dedicate my knowledge to biotherapeutics and benefit human health care.

Mentor statement from Chenglong Li

First of all, congratulations again to Dr. Wei Zhou for your hard-earned PhD degree —well deserved! Wei had been working very hard in my lab on multiple research projects with great success! In these research works, she showed dedication, passion, creativity and professionalism. Here I mention two of them:

  1. She successfully generated PRMT5 protein — a valuable cancer drug target; characterized its inhibitors biochemically through enzyme inhibition assay, structural elucidation, binding studies and cellular evaluation. These help a novel class of potential cancer drug discovery.
  2. She generated TEAD2 protein; developed biochemical assay for drug screening; characterized a potential lead compound biochemically and cellularly, which helps further compound optimization.

Through the graduate research process, Wei has grown into a mature and independent biomedical researcher. She won the 2020 Wanda and Richard Boyce Award for outstanding graduate research in biochemistry and molecular biology and now works as a research scientist in a biotech company in the Washington, D.C., area. I am proud of her and wish her the best in everything!

Arthur D. Zimmerman

Arthur Zimmerman at a desktop computer.

My post-graduation plans include staying in academia and looking for a short-term postdoc position at UF until we move next June. After we move, I plan to do another postdoc. I thank my graduate mentor, Dr. Steven Munger, as well as my supervisory committee for their mentorship, guidance and support throughout my training. I thank my lab mates, former and current, for all their support and help. I thank my family for their loving encouragement and support for without which I would have not been able to complete my degree. I specifically thank my wife, Chelsea, and my son, Samuel, for their daily love, as they are my true inspiration and help motivate me to do my best each day.

Congratulatory notes from family

“Arthur, Samuel and I are so proud of you and all you have accomplished! You are such an excellent model of hard work and dedication for both of us. Only you could find such a perfect balance between being the best father, husband and student. We can’t wait to watch you continue to meet all of your goals! We love you.” — Chelsea and Samuel

“I knew when you were born that you would set out to do great things… Never doubt yourself. The sky is the limit! Take a bow Dr. Arthur Zimmerman… You did it! We are forever proud.” — Love, Mom

“Arthur, Since you were a little boy you have always been goal-oriented. So, it does not surprise me that when you set a goal you accomplish it, even if it is a really big one. I know it took a lot of determination and sacrifices to reach this goal and I can only say that I am so proud of your becoming a PhD and following in your grandfathers’ footsteps. We all celebrate your success. You, Chelsea and Samuel are always in my thoughts and prayers. Mazel Tov.” — Love, Dad

Mentor statement from Dr. Steven Munger

To make our way in the world, we must learn from each other. Humans and other animals use social communication to share information that shapes behavior and can be critical for health and survival. Many animals rely on odors as a primary method of interaction, and even humans use their sense of smell to connect to others and to the world around them. Dr. Arthur Zimmerman’s research used a combination of behavioral and neuroanatomical approaches in genetically-altered mice to define molecules, cells and brain regions that are critical for communicating odor preferences between individuals. These important neural substrates for social odor learning will not only help us understand how smell can convey critical information between two individuals but will also help us to determine how the brain helps us learn about our sensory world.

Ashley Nicole Zuniga

Ashley Zuniga at a computer in a lab.

I am actively interviewing for positions with the medical teams at pharmaceutical and biotech companies. My goal is to build a career as a leader in biomedical affairs and health care where I will put to use my extensive scientific training to implement smart, efficient initiatives that create real impact in the community.

I dedicate this dissertation to my parents, who gave me a life filled with love, support, adventure and endless comedy. Your tireless patience with all my wild ideas, early morning activities and constant chatter was exemplary. You were my tough, high expectation parents who became my best friends. Because of you, I am strong. Because of you, I care deeply for others. Because of you, I have joy in life. And because of you, I have reached a level of success I could never have imagined.  

I would like to extend my deepest appreciation for the members of my supervisory committee, Dr. Clayton Mathews, Dr. Laurence Morel, Dr. Christian Jobin and Dr. Lei Jin. Your continual support, constructive criticism of my work and overall willingness to assist in my training and journey through science has been dearly noted and appreciated. It has been an honor. 

In addition, I would like to thank many of my favorite historical and cultural figures who have provided a constant source of inspiration, strength and wisdom throughout this scientific endeavor. It was Nobel Laureate scientist Marie Curie who stressed, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” It was Eleanor Roosevelt who stated, “A woman is like a tea bag: You never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.” It was Amelia Earhart who proclaimed, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” It was Maya Angelou who asserted, “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.” It was Gainesville original Tom Petty who sang, “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.” It was Albus Dumbledore, the greatest wizard to ever live, who made the statement, “Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!” It was Evelyn Couch of the southern classic “Fried Green Tomatoes” who bellowed “TOWANDA! Righter of wrongs, Queen beyond compare!” And finally, it was Dr. Seuss who wrote my childhood inspiration and stated, “Oh, the places you’ll go!” For without them, life would be a dull existence. 

Spring 2020

Salvatore John Calise III

Mentor: Dr. Edward Chan

John’s dissertation work focused on a very interesting novel filament-like structure in mammalian cells. These novel subcellular structures are composed primarily of an enzyme called inosine monophosphate dehydrogenase (IMPDH). IMPDH is critical for the production of nucleotides, which are important for cellular processes like DNA and RNA synthesis and cell division. Because of its importance to the cell, many drugs that block IMPDH function have been developed for the treatment of viral infections, autoimmune diseases, and different cancers. IMPDH also does something unusual inside of cells – when nucleotides are running low, it assembles into large filamentous structures called “IMPDH filaments.” John’s work was significant because it defined the metabolic conditions of the cell that lead to formation of IMPDH filaments. His work was also the first to demonstrate that the assembly of IMPDH filaments is important for cell proliferation (cell division) in living animals, especially during the activation of T cells in the immune response. His data contributed significantly to the development of a model by other laboratories for how these IMPDH filaments function at the molecular level in rapidly dividing cells. While at UF, John was awarded a graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation and finished in first place at both the 2018 UF Medical Guild Advancement to Candidacy Competition and the 2019 UF Medical Guild Graduate Student Research Competition. He also co-founded and then co-organized the Florida Translational Cell Biology Symposium annually from 2017 to 2019. During his time at UF, John presented his work at nine national or international conferences, including some in Germany, Brazil, Japan, and China. He also published 14 papers, including 5 first-author original research articles and 3 first-author review articles or book chapters, with both local and international collaborators.

Robert Stephen Eisinger

Mentor: Dr. Aysegul Gunduz

Robert S. Eisinger’s dissertation work focused on the role of the basal ganglia in reward processing. He identified novel relationships between reward signals in the brain and impulsivity symptoms in people with Parkinson’s disease. This work advances fundamental understanding of the non-motor function of the basal ganglia in humans. It provides the foundation for understanding why people with Parkinson’s disease that receive deep brain stimulation in the basal ganglia can experience impulsivity side effects. Beyond his dissertation project, Robert has published extensively and has tackled a variety of research questions in the field of movement disorders by collaborating with engineers, neurologists, neurosurgeons, and other clinicians. He has presented his research at both national and international conferences. Robert is a National Institutes of Health TL1 and F30 predoctoral fellow and has received awards such as the McKnight Brain Institute Toffler Leadership Award and the Advancement to Candidacy Award. Following two more years of medical school to complete his MD-PhD program, Robert plans to pursue a career in academic neurology.

Henrietta Oyeyemi Fasanya

Mentor: Dr. Dietmar Siemann

Henrietta Fasanya is a member of our MD/PhD program. She is graduating with her PhD in Medical Sciences with a dual concentration in Cancer Biology and Clinical and Translational Science. Upon entering graduate school, she received the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship. During the course of her PhD studies, Henrietta focused on two primary projects for her dissertation. The first project investigated the role of tumor-secreted factors on metastasis in osteosarcoma. Her work has demonstrated that inhibition of these factors can significantly decrease metastasis in a preclinical model. During her studies, Henrietta received the TL1 fellowship, in which she developed a secondary project in collaboration with another pre-doctoral student in the College of Engineering. Her second project focused on the development of a circulating tumor cell detection device specific for sarcomas. The work on her secondary project truly reflects the heart of the UF College of Medicine and the MD/PhD program. Henrietta is one of the few students that has been able to develop a project that has gone from bench to bedside during the course of their studies. Henrietta will be continuing her education by transitioning to the clinical years of her medical school training. She plans to pursue a career as a physician scientist in the field of pathology.

Upasana Parthasarathy

Mentor: Dr. Dorina Avram

Colorectal cancer, known to start in the colon or rectum, is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer, and the second leading cause of cancer death in men and women combined in the United States. When healthy cells in the colon develop damaging changes in their DNA known as mutations, noncancerous small polyps in the colon can become rapidly dividing colonic tumors. Genetic predisposition, diet, inflammation or environmental factors can trigger these mutations. Several hundred proteins are involved in monitoring and protecting against generation of such mutations, thus guarding against cancer development. When the functioning of such proteins is dysregulated, there is increased incidence of cancer, including colon cancer.

Upasana Parthasarathy’s studies identified one such protein called HECTD3, that protects against colon cancer. HECTD3 belongs to a family of proteins named E3 ubiquitin ligases, which modify and promote either degradation of their targets or alternatively support increased function of their targets. Upasana established through her studies that HECTD3 controls several critical pathways with protective roles following DNA damage in colon cells. The pathways regulated by HECTD3 prevent malignant transformation of colon cells and progression into colon cancer. In this line, Upasana established that patients with colon cancer have low amounts of HECTD3 in their colon tumors versus healthy tissue. This implies that low levels of HECTD3 lead to dysfunction of critical protective pathways, thereby debilitating the body’s response against development of colon cancer.

Understanding the mechanisms of action for proteins like HECTD3 and their impact in cancer is an important piece in solving the puzzle of a large network of proteins that control the mechanisms of disease in colon cancer and development of future therapeutics. Upasana aspires to continue a career in research to understand molecular mechanisms involved in tumorigenesis using a combination of biological and computational approaches.

Mathew Sebastian

Mentor: Dr. David Tran and Dr. Dietmar Siemann

Breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in women and the second leading cause of cancer deaths with ~12% of women receiving a breast cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. Though breast cancer mortality has decreased significantly over the past several decades, the metastatic stage IV breast cancer, however, continues to be a major life-threatening disease with little improvement in overall survival. Thus, a better understanding of the basic processes of cancer progression and eventual metastasis formation is needed with the therapeutic goal of metastasis prevention.  Mat’s work delved into understanding the factors that play a role in cancer progression and metastasis. Specifically, his work focused on a factor that has never been described before in the context of breast cancer. He found that when this factor is targeted, it leads to decreased tumor growth and metastasis. The significance of this work is that it may lead to novel therapeutics to help in the fight against breast cancer.

Mat joined the UF MD-PhD Program in 2014, excelled during the first two years of medical school, and then joined my lab in 2016 and took on multiple projects. While in the program, he has received funding from multiple sources including the CTSI Pilot Project Award, the CTSA TL1 training grant, and the competitive NIH F30 MD-PhD training grant. He has presented his work at numerous regional, national, and international meetings. Notably, he came in second place overall in the UF Graduate School-wide 3 Minute Thesis Competition and received the Advancement to Candidacy Award from the Medical Guild, given to only three students per year.

Mat has also taken on other pursuits while in the MD-PhD program. He has served as the sole student representative of the MD-PhD Executive Committee, served on the Student Advocacy Committee, and was the founding Chair of the MD-PhD Scholar Council at UF. Finally, we recently found out that Mat will be inducted into the University of Florida Hall of Fame, the highest recognition given to student leaders at the University of Florida. The UF Hall of Fame is reserved for those students who have shown truly superior leadership and achievement through their activities and scholarship while members of the University of Florida community.

Following graduation, Mathew will resume medical school at UF and finish the last two years before applying to residency programs.

Melanie R. Shapiro

Mentors: Dr. Todd Brusko and Dr. Mark Atkinson

Dr. Melanie Shapiro is, without question, one of the most – if not the most – talented young scientists we have ever encountered throughout our combined 35 years as principal investigators. Her knowledge of and dedication to type 1 diabetes research far exceeds expectations.  Indeed, Melanie’s technical skill sets and research productivity are unsurpassed. Melanie hypothesized that the two insulin-like growth factors (IGFs), IGF1 and IGF2, or their bioavailability, regulated by seven IGF binding proteins (IGFBP), are altered during development of the autoimmune disease, type 1 diabetes, potentially by modulating immune cell proliferation and function. Indeed, Melanie’s careful and thorough investigation revealed that IGF levels are dysregulated prior to and following clinical diagnosis of type 1 diabetes, supporting further efforts to evaluate their use as disease predictive biomarkers. She also demonstrated that IGF1 signaling synergizes with the cytokine IL-2 to preferentially promote the expansion of naïve regulatory T cells (known as Tregs), which are critical for the maintenance of immunological tolerance and prevention of type 1 diabetes. She uncovered IGF1 receptor (IGF1R) expression levels as the mechanism underlying this relationship with naïve Tregs expressing higher levels of IGF1R than other T cell subsets. Importantly, she characterized the immunological impact of a novel genetic mutation affecting IGF1R, with multiple members of one family carrying the mutation exhibiting growth impairments and low blood sugar. Finally, she carried out essential work characterizing the immune profile and type 1 diabetes development in a novel line of CD226 knockout non-obese diabetic (NOD) mice. She demonstrated that CD226 knockout NOD mice had decreased disease incidence and insulitis as compared to controls. Moreover, CD226 knockout T cells were less capable of transferring autoimmune diabetes. Of note, CD226 knockout mice demonstrated increased numbers of CD8+ single positive thymus cells, leading to increased numbers of CD8+ T cells in the spleen. Decreased percentages of memory T cells were observed in the pancreatic lymph nodes of CD226 knockout mice. Her data support a role for CD226 in type 1 diabetes development by modulating thymic T cell selection and impacting peripheral memory/effector CD8+ T cell activation and function. Throughout the course of her graduate career, Melanie’s predoctoral fellowship has been supported by an NIH F31 grant as well as funding through the Children’s Miracle Network. She has been first-author on two peer-reviewed publications and co-author on three additional manuscripts. We are glad that Dr. Shapiro will be continuing on as a post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Todd Brusko’s lab within the UF Diabetes Institute.

Garrett Richard Smith

Mentor: Dr. Thomas Foster

Garrett’s work will form the basis of tests for the early detection of cognitive decline during aging. In addition, his biological measures of gene transcription provide a blueprint of where in the brain we should look and what biological pathways should be investigated. Finally, his work points to possible mechanisms for compensation, through the reliance on other brain areas and pathways.

Zachary Anthony Sorrentino

Mentor: Dr. Benoit Giasson

Zachary Sorrentino was exceptionally prolific during his doctoral studies centered on understanding how changes associated with the protein alpha-synuclein are involved in the initiation and progression of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. His studies have important impacts in trying to develop measures to modify the course of these insidious diseases. During his doctoral studies, Zachary published 17 articles, eight of which are first-author publications. He also has additional manuscripts under review and others that will be submitted soon. Zachary was granted a number of prestigious awards, including an NIH F30 5-year predoctoral fellowship and the Bryan Robinson Endowment fellowship. As part of his combined MD-PhD training, Zachary is now going on to complete the final two years of medical school before pursuing residency in a research-oriented neurological specialty.

MacKenzie D. Williams

Mentor: Dr. Mark Atkinson

Dr. MacKenzie Williams’ role within the University of Florida Diabetes Institute followed a unique evolution: first as a “friend of the lab” while working as a barista at Opus Coffee, then a brief time as a research technician in Dr. Mark Atkinson’s laboratory, and finally as a student in the Biomedical Sciences graduate program at UF in the Atkinson lab. MacKenzie should be commended, not only for her important contributions to the field of biomedical research and more specifically type 1 diabetes, but beyond that, for her unparalleled work ethic. She initially tackled the notion of how genes forming susceptibility to type 1 diabetes might contribute to the disease through their function. Specifically, she sought to determine whether a genetic variant associated with two proteins known as Toll-like receptor 7 and Toll-like receptor 8, which are responsible for viral sensing by the immune system, would modulate immune cell signaling and function, thereby contributing to the development of the autoimmune disease, type 1 diabetes. Dr. Williams put forth an exceptional effort involving a number of well-planned and well-executed experiments. Though the data did not support the hypothesis that TLR7/8 gene-specific effects might drive aberrant immune responses or type 1 diabetes, her findings have expanded our knowledge of genetic regulation of viral sensing pathways and downstream immune cell functions. From there, MacKenzie explored the hypothesis that islet autoantibody titers might serve as biomarkers to predict and monitor the rate of decline of residual insulin production in patients with type 1 diabetes, with a multifactorial genetic risk score potentially modulating this dynamic relationship. She assayed hundreds of serum samples for three islet autoantibodies, as well as the insulin production marker C-peptide, and developed an impressive knowledge of both the genetics of type 1 diabetes and statistical modeling methods. The resulting data support a model wherein the probability of detecting insulin production in patients with type 1 diabetes is best predicted by titers of all three autoantibodies, as well as the genetic risk score over the course of disease duration. We see this information as a critical step toward precision medicine for type 1 diabetes patients, with applications for this model seeing relevance in guiding subject enrollment and outcomes-monitoring for clinical trials, and potentially guiding treatment decisions in the clinical setting thereafter. We are delighted that Dr. Williams will be staying on as a post-doctoral associate in Dr. Clive Wasserfall’s lab within the UF Diabetes Institute.