Four pairs of UNC biomedical graduate students, mentors earn HHMI Gilliam Fellowships

This prestigious honor from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute supports exceptional graduate students committed to increasing diversity among scientific leaders across the country. Read about their past experiences and research in their own words.

Four pairs of UNC biomedical graduate students, mentors earn HHMI Gilliam Fellowships click to enlarge Clockwise, from top left, UNC's 2019 HHMI Gilliam Fellows: Shelsa Marcel, Brea Hampton, Andrew Hinton, and Kristina Rivera

August 5, 2019

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has named 44 pairs of graduate students and their advisors as Gilliam Fellows, including four student-faculty pairs from UNC-Chapel Hill:

• Shelsa Marcel and Ian Davis, MD, PhD, associate professor of genetics and pediatrics, and member of the UNC Children’s Research Institute and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

• Brea Hampton and Mark Heise, PhD, professor of genetics with a joint appointment in microbiology and immunology, and a UNC Lineberger member.

• Kristina Rivera and Scott Magness, PhD, associate professor of biomedical engineering with a joint appointment in cell biology and physiology, and a UNC Lineberger member.

• Andrew Hinton and Peter Mucha, PhD, professor of mathematics and applied physical sciences.

The HHMI Gilliam Fellowship program takes a two-pronged approach to ensure that a diverse and highly trained workforce is prepared to assume leadership roles in science: it supports promising graduate students from groups that are underrepresented in science and helps their thesis advisers build inclusive training environments.

Each student-advisor pair will receive an annual award totaling $50,000 – which includes a stipend, a training allowance, and an institutional allowance – for up to three years. Fellows’ thesis advisers will participate in a year of mentor development activities, including online training and two in-person workshops at HHMI headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

“These four student/PI teams from UNC represent 9 percent of the total awardees selected in 2019,” said Rob Nicholas, PhD, professor of pharmacology and associate director for graduate education at the UNC School of Medicine. “UNC-Chapel Hill’s success in having 4 HHMI Gilliam Fellowship awardees is based primarily on the outstanding potential for research and leadership of these students, but it also reflects well on their advisers, the research environment across campus, the Office of Graduate Education in general for its significant support for training, supporting, and mentoring graduate students from underrepresented groups, and the commitment of our faculty to become even better mentors for our graduate students.”

Read more about the Gilliam Program and this year’s fellowship recipients.

Below, in their own words, the UNC-Chapel Hill students tell of their experience and dedication to research and becoming a leader in their fields.

Shelsa Marcel: After graduating Cum Laude from the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI), with a bachelor’s of science in computer science with a concentration in computational biology, I began my graduate career at UNC. Currently a third year bioinformatics and computational biology (BCB) student in the labs of Dr. Ian Davis and Dr. Joel Parker, I am exploring the epigenetic drivers of clear cell renal carcinoma.

While at UNC, I have presented my research at various symposiums and was awarded a T32 Training Grant position by the BCB department. As I continue my research career, I stay aware of where I came from and how many women still lack access to research careers in STEM. After earning my PhD, I will continue in academics and run a bioinformatics lab. This will also pave the way for me to create an outreach program aimed particularly at young, African-American girls in my community, teaching them to bypass the labels that females are “out-of-place” in computational careers and lack the ability to have careers in STEM. 

Being a native Virgin Islander, the move to North Carolina was a major culture shift, but it afforded me the opportunity to widen the scope of my community outreach. While at UVI, I visited high schools around the territory as a UVI STEM liaison, as well as a promoter of college education. I was visibly active in my local community as a STEM tutor at numerous schools. I taught in workshops exposing middle school students to programming and in the UVI Summer Bridge program, preparing students for their first year of college.

Now at UNC, I conduct scientific outreach via a mentorship role, mentoring graduate and undergraduate students in the lab, and as a TA to the BCB Sequencing Analysis course. I returned to UVI last September and taught labs in the same genetics courses I sat in six years ago. Returning to UVI as a UNC representative, I also presented lectures about my research and judged the 2018 Fall UVI Research Symposium. I currently play an active role as a member of the UNC Initiative for Maximizing Student Development community.

The stellar mentorship provided by both Dr. Davis and Dr. Parker and the motivation provided by my personal journey equip me with the tools to positively impact the field of science and advance diversity in my academic field. 

Brea Hampton: I am currently training in the labs of Drs. Mark Heise and Martin Ferris. My thesis work encompasses genetics, immunology, bioinformatics, and virology to gain a holistic view of how the immune system is regulated in the steady-state and how viral infection and vaccination responses are affected by steady-state regulatory factors. I was able to present my findings from this work at the national level at the American Association of Immunology annual meeting this year. Given that science is becoming increasingly multidisciplinary, my interdisciplinary training will leave me well-positioned for success in addressing complex questions in host-pathogen interactions.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to pursue a career in science. However, one of the challenges I faced in pursuing this career path was a lack of role models in my community who could explain what a science career involved. Therefore, from the time I was a high school freshman, I knew the importance of engaging with my community and set out to become the role model that I lacked growing up.

As an undergraduate, I volunteered as a science fair judge at the local academy, demonstrated chemical reactions for the local Boys and Girls Club and Homeschool Science Fair hosted by High Point University chemistry department, as well as tutored underclassmen in biochemistry and chemistry courses. As a PREP student (UNC’s one-year post-baccalaureate bridge program) I continued to participate in scientific outreach as an NC DNA Day volunteer.

Having come from rural, southeastern North Carolina, it was important to me to return to the high school I attended to inspire students and demonstrate to them that becoming a scientist was a realistic goal they could accomplish. As a graduate student, my passion for outreach remains as I continue to volunteer for NC DNA Day annually and return to my home county each year for this event. I have also been an invited speaker at my high school for honor society induction ceremonies. This year, I served as a near-peer mentor through the UNC-NC Central University Partners Program which provides summer research experiences for minority students.

Kristina Rivera: I am a 3rd year PhD student in the UNC/NCSU Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME). As a Puerto Rican woman and Type 1 Diabetic, I am part of three underrepresented minority groups in the department. These categorizations of my person have not limited my success in biomedical engineering and make me an advocate for diversity in engineering. My PhD research project focuses on vascular microfabrication and intestinal stem cell biology. I have developed a novel co-culture system in a microdevice to study the communication between the epithelium and endothelium during ischemic injury. My project will provide me with the credentials to seek competitive postdoctoral positions on my way to my ultimate goal as an academic scientist.

As a Latina woman with a disability, I am passionate about supporting diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), and I am drawn to reach out to other underrepresented groups in STEM. I have been involved in STEM outreach programs since beginning undergraduate school, and I have continued this work in graduate school.

During my undergraduate education at the University of Arizona (UA), I was a founding member of the Women in Engineering Programming Board where I organized events to encourage young girls to pursue science and engineering studies and support women currently studying engineering. I also served as Vice President and Treasurer of the UA Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) where I worked in the local Tucson community and developed a sustainable water filtration and latrine system in the rural Andes of Bolivia.

I am currently part of the US2020 STEM Outreach Program at The Research Triangle Foundation, where I talk with middle and high school students about my journey to a STEM career. I especially enjoy talking to young girls from underrepresented groups about the endless possibilities in STEM and encourage them to consider STEM college degrees and careers.

At UNC, I designed and taught a summer day class to middle school girls where they built prosthetic knees and legs using materials I found at a thrift store, including duct tape, paper towel rolls, string, rubber bands, and colorful fabric cloths. My intro to BME class was well-received, and the organizers encouraged me to teach at future girls STEM day camps. For the past nine months, I have mentored a team of undergraduate engineering students at NCSU building a biosensor to measure antibiotic concentrations in blood plasma.

I recently traveled with the team to the Netherlands to present their biosensor at a conference and compete against teams from 12 different countries, including Egypt, China, and Canada. This experience mentoring young scientists provided me with ample feedback on how to be a good leader.

Andrew Hinton: In 2014, after completing my undergraduate degree in mathematics, I decided to enroll in a modeling and simulation engineering graduate program with a specific interest in utilizing my skills in mathematics and engineering to develop computational models that could be used to understand and personalize immunotherapy treatments for food allergies. In April 2016, while working full-time as a simulation engineer, my academic research won best simulation model and paper at the MODSIM World Conference for work conducted as part of my thesis project. In August 2017, after seven years of personal and academic research, I made a life changing decision to step away from my career and relocate my family of four to Chapel Hill to pursue my goal of one day advancing a treatment for food allergies.

Under the tutelage of Dr. A. Wesley Burks, a world-renowned expert in food allergies and current dean of the UNC School of Medicine, and Dr. Peter Mucha, an expert in network science, I am closer than ever to this goal. This decision to step away from my progressive career, one where I was promoted six times in 13 years, was difficult and involved great sacrifice.

In joining the bioinformatics and computational biology program, I have the unique opportunity to conduct novel research in the food allergies field using a distinctive blend of skills in engineering, statistics, mathematics, and machine learning all combined with a powerful personal connection to my research. In May 2018, I presented research detailing a new computational method to analyze microbiome data at the North Carolina Microbiome Symposium. Recent research has revealed a link in the microbiome and the development of food allergies where advances in this area may be useful in developing targeted therapies to improve treatment. My career goals are to one day become a leading principal investigator in the food allergy field where I hope to pioneer and use new computational methods to better understand how food allergies develop, to predict anaphylaxis, and to personalize immunotherapy protocols with machine learning. Most importantly, in this new career, I hope to make a difference in the lives of those who, like my daughter, suffer from potentially deadly food allergies.

Hinton was featured in this story by Jamie Williams, UNC Health Care.

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