- Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program | Student Accomplishments

Alex Keller and CJ Anderson

Alex Keller and CJ Anderson were chosen as “Leaders of Tomorrow” for GapSummit 2017, a 3-day international, intergenerational biotechnology leadership summit that took place in June at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington, DC. Neither of them knew that the other one was also selected until they arrived at the meeting! One hundred young leaders were selected from over 40 countries and they had a chance to interact with over 30 speakers and leaders in the biosciences to discuss challenges for the future. GapSummit created valuable opportunities for them to engage with young leaders coming from different perspectives, such as academic and industrial research, entrepreneurship, and business, and across a broad range of biotechnology disciplines. As part of the summit, they participated in a competition to develop solutions to challenges facing the future of biotechnology.

When asked if this meeting made a difference in their work here at UVA, CJ responded, “For the first time, I was able to map out the next 30 years of my career!”

This meeting was organized by Global Biotech Revolution (GBR), a group of young scientists (largely postdocs) who were all volunteering their time. GapSummit 2018 will be held at the University of Cambridge, UK from April 16-18, 2018. Applications are currently being accepted for GapSummitt 2018.

Nadine Michel

Nadine Michel is a Neuroscience graduate student working in the lab of Dr. Michael McConnell in Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics. She recently presented her work at the 2017 Central Virginia Chapter for Neuroscience 2017 Annual Meeting in Roanoke, where she was awarded best presentation by a graduate student. She is studying mosaicism in the human brain and seeking to understand how copy number variations (CNVs) develop in differentiating neurons. Her research includes making cortical neurons from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are made from human fibroblast samples, reprogrammed into stem cells, and then induced to become neurons. She can then study the dynamics of DNA damage and repair pathways to understand the mechanisms of mosaicism in neurons and how that can lead to neuropsychiatric disease.

Nadine is also an MSTP student and she is interested in the field of Psychiatry. She feels that this research might help her in diagnosing and treating psychiatric patients in the future.

Olivia Sabik

Olivia Sabik received a travel grant to attend the European Calcified Tissue Society’s training course in July 2017. It was held in Paris and designed especially for PhD students from all different countries. Faculty members from across Europe and the United States presented lectures about the basic and clinical aspects of bone biology and each student gave a talk or presented a poster to share their work and discuss. Students also discussed various career paths in the field, strategies for finding funding, and best practices for grant writing.

Olivia is a 4th year Biochemistry student in the lab of Charles Farber, whose primary department is Public Health. Her project uses mouse genetic reference populations to study bone-forming osteoblasts. She is looking primarily for genes and gene networks involved in the process of bone formation.

Kathy Michels

UVA researchers Borna Mehrad, left, and Kathryn Michels found that the hormone hepcidin limits the spread of the pneumonia bacteria by hiding the iron in the blood that the bacteria need to survive and grow. (UVA Health System photo)

Researcher Kathryn Michels, a graduate student in Mehrad’s lab and the first author of a manuscript outlining the findings, noted that many people lack the hormone because of genetic illnesses or liver disease.

“It’s quite common,” she said. “We think this line of research is very relevant to the many people who can’t make this hormone very well and are, clinically, very susceptible to these infections.”

She noted that there is already a drug in development that mimics the function of hepcidin and could be used to decrease the iron levels in the blood of pneumonia patients who lack hepcidin. That drug has been developed primarily to treat chronic iron overload, such as is seen in people with hereditary hemochromatosis, but the new research may give it another, lifesaving application.

The findings have been published online by the scientific journal JCI Insight.

(UVA Today, 3/27/17)


James Cronk – 2016 Peach Award

I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2008, and entered UVa’s Medical Scientist Training Program in 2009. Since beginning my graduate work in the Kipnis lab in 2011, I have been primarily focused on the role of methyl-CpG binding protein 2 (MeCP2) on immune function. Mutations or duplication of MeCP2 result in Rett syndrome or MeCP2 duplication syndrome, respectively, and both are devastating neurodevelopmental disorders. Our initial work in the Kipnis lab explored the therapeutic benefits of bone marrow transplant in Mecp2-null mice. Since then, we have shown that Mecp2 is an important regulator of macrophage genetic responses, including inflammation, hypoxia, and glucocorticoid signaling. We are currently exploring tissue-specific macrophage functions in the context of Mecp2 deficiency. In regards to MeCP2 duplication syndrome, I am studying a mouse model of influenza infection. MeCP2 duplication patients experience chronic, too often fatal, respiratory infections; we hope to better understand why this occurs and develop therapeutic strategies.


Jim Casanova (mentor), Nancy Hungerford, Charles Hungerford, Emily Billings (sitting)

Jim Casanova (mentor), Nancy Hungerford, Charles Hungerford, Emily Billings (sitting)

Emily Billings – 2016 Hungerford Prize


We are pleased to announce that Emily Billings (graduate student in the Casanova lab) is the recipient of this year’s Jill Hungerford Award. This award is provided through a generous endowment by Nancy and Charles (Chick) Hungerford in loving memory of their daughter Jill (Ph.D. ’95 in Cell Biology). It is given annually to one student in the BIMS program, whose selection is based on outstanding scholarship, leadership and service to the community. Congratulations Emily!


Crystal Richardson

A Cell Biology Ph.D candidate in the lab of Doug DeSimone has received a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award for Individual Predoctoral Fellows from the National Institutes of Health. “Mechanisms of Collective Cell Migration.” Collective cell migration is necessary for morphogenesis and diseases progression. Cells undergo collective cell migration during wound healing, regeneration, embryonic development, and cancer metastasis. Most cell migration studies have been done on single cells in culture. However, in vivo many cells migrate as groups maintaining contacts with neighboring cells. Often these contacts are required for directional migration. My goal is to understand how cell-cell contacts influence cell polarity to result in directed collective cell migration. A recent finding in our lab demonstrates that application of mechanical force to cell-cell adhesions is sufficient to recruit a network of keratin intermediate filaments to cadherin adhesions and orient protrusions to direct migration. I seek to further understand this biomechanical mechanism by investigating the role of Wnt-Fz/PCP and PDGF signaling in this process. Overall this study will increase our understanding of how cell behaviors are coordinated to produce collective movements.



Soo Shin

A Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Kimberly Kelly has received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Project Title: Unexpected gain of function for the scaffolding protein, plectin, due to mislocalization in pancreatic cancer. Research Statement: Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is an intractable clinical problem, typically presenting with metastasis at the time of diagnosis and exhibiting profound resistance to existing therapies. Early detection and complete surgical resection offers the best hope for longer survival. Using phage display and functional proteomics, we recently demonstrated that the cytoskeletal linker protein plectin is a robust biomarker for transition between advanced precursor lesion and invasive PDAC. We showed that plectin, normally cytoplasmic, is localized to the cell surface and is overexpressed in PDAC cells. Plectin has been studied extensively in diseases such as epidermolysis bullosa and muscular dystrophy. However, the biological role of plectin in pancreatic cancer has not been studied. Understanding the biology of aberrant localization of plectin to the cell surface may provide insight into a functional role for this important biomarker of PDAC. The overall goal of this project is to 1) determine the role of plectin in PDAC growth and invasion, 2) determine the potential mechanism by which plectin is mislocalized in PDAC and the effects of plectin mislocalization on PDAC, and 3) delineate the signaling cascades involved in plectin-mediated PDAC growth and invasion.



Xiao Chen

A Biomedical Engineering Ph.D candidate in the lab of Frederick Epstein has received a Predoctoral Fellowship from the Mid-Atlantic Affiliate of the American Heart Association.Project Title for the Award: Accelerating Cardiac MR with Intrinsically Motion-Guided Compressed Sensing.Statement: Recently advances from the fields of information technology and image compression have been adapted to the field of medical imaging (magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, in particular), leading to impressive increases in the speed of MRI image acquisition. The general term for the new technology is “compressed sensing” (abbreviated as CS). Indeed, early results using CS suggest that this technology may revolutionize MRI of the heart. However, a major challenge involves compensating for respiratory motion, which can cause artifacts and distortions in the images. The major problem being addressed by this study is compensating for respiratory motion when accelerating cardiac MRI using CS, which we will accomplish by incorporating motion tracking methods into CS reconstruction algorithms.

Previous Education: B.S., Engineering Physics, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China



Ali Haider Dhanaliwala

A Biomedical Engineering Ph.D candidate in the lab of John Hossack has received a Predoctoral Fellowship from the Mid-Atlantic Affiliate of the American Heart Association. The Project Title for the Award is: “Red Blood Cells as Ultrasound Contrast and Drug Delivery Agents”. Ultrasound is a unique medical imaging modality as it can both image and deliver therapy to the vasculature. Microbubbles are ultrasound contrast agents that improve ultrasound image quality and can enhance drug delivery vehicle. Microbubbles, however, have short in vivo half-life and a small therapeutic payload. Red blood cells (RBCs) have been investigated as an alternative vascular delivery vehicle that have a long in vivo half-life and a large therapeutic payload. RBCs, however, cannot be imaged in vivo and lack an inherent mechanism to trigger drug release. To overcome these limitations I am proposing the development of a new ultrasound contrast agent – acoustically active RBCs – that will combine the ultrasound contrast of microbubbles with the longevity and drug payload of RBCs. Contrast agents with increased longevity will allow continuous ultrasound investigation of phenomena that can take hours to develop. In addition, acoustically active drug delivery vehicles could use ultrasound to trigger drug release in both space and time.

Previous Education: BSE, Bioengineering, University of Pennsylvania



Zegbeh Kpadeh

A Microbiology Ph.D candidate in the lab of Paul Hoffman has received a Robert D. Watkins Fellowship Grant from the American Society for Microbiology. Deciphering the Bifunctional Role of Oxidoreductase DsbA2 in Legionella pneumophila.   Legionella pneumohila (Lpn) are small, fastidious, gram negative bacilli that live in aquatic environments as intracellular parasites of free-living protozoa but cause Legionnaires’ disease when aerolized bacteria infect human alveolar macrophage. Lpn displays a dimorphic developmental cycle in which the vegetative replicating bacilli differentiate into metabolically dormant cyst-like planktonic forms, which are known to be resilient and highly infectious. Disulfide bond (DSB) formation is essential for the folding, activity, and stability of many proteins exported from the cytoplasm to the periplasm. The Dot/Icm type IVb secretion system (T4SS) is essential for virulence and mediates delivery of multiple effector proteins into the host cytoplasm. The proper assembly and function of the Dot/Icm T4SS is dependent on correct DSB formation catalyazed by a novel and essential periplasmic DSB oxidoreductase DsbA2 and not by DsbA1, a second nonessential DSB oxidoreductase. This investigation examines the activities and function of a disulfide bond oxidoreductase, DsbA2, which exists as a bifunctional homodimer with both oxidoreductase and protein disulfide isomerase activity. By gaining a better understanding of the activities and function of this protein in Lpn, we hope to gain new insights into the pathogenic processes utilized by Lpn during infection.

Previous Education: BS Biology, Morgan State University