By Davin Means
One thing that Dr. Yamamoto emphasized within the course, Planning Your Scientific Journey, was that individuality and diversity is an absolute necessity within the realm of science. A diversity in thinking, approaches, and backgrounds allows for a conglomerate of unique perspectives that challenges the limits of the known. Diversity in thought is how the field of science advances. As an African American male majoring within a STEM degree, attending a southern, predominantly white institution, this message spoke to me on a personal level and sparked a deep contemplation upon my role within the scientific community and forced me to reflect upon any potential legacies my interests would enable me to leave upon the field of science.
Aside from having a family history of hypertension and other cardiovascular complications, my overall interest in cardiovascular medicine and research magnified upon attending a case study oriented advanced medical program at Johns Hopkins University. During this program, we focused primarily on hypertension, coronary artery disease, and heart failure and explored these topics via the perspective of aspiring future medical students. We analyzed a plethora of patient histories, and we did hypothetical rounds with paid patient actors as well as attempted to read echocardiograms with the assistance of resident cardiologists. While at Johns Hopkins, I also did a project which focused on the effects of smokeless tobaccos and how they increase the risk for oral and esophageal cancer. Thus I exited the Johns Hopkins program during the summer before my Junior year of high school having been instilled with an intense interest in cancer, and cardiovascular related topics.
After completing my freshman year at the University of Arkansas and all the fundamental biology and chemistry courses attached to those first couple of semesters, I yearned to “get my feet wet”, and explore something extremely specific. One of my mentors suggested I try my hand at research, and the hunt for a suitable lab began. First and foremost, I decided that whatever lab I ended in should focus on either cardiovascular or cancer research. I am all for pushing the boundaries of what is accepted and considered common for my people, thus my desire to research within these fields was magnified when I discovered that only 3% of cardiologists were African American and only 2.3 % of oncologists were African American. Aside from my previously explained exposures into these two branches of science, or the disparity of African American healthcare providers within those fields, or even my families troubled past with cardiovascular disease and cancer, my decision to focus on these disciplines is validated by the fact that cardiovascular disease and cancer are the first and second primary cause of death within the United States of America.
After conversing with various principal investigators at my university, I decided to join a lab run by Dr. Narasimhan Rajaram that focuses on using optical imaging to investigate changes in the tumor microenvironment of cancers in response to treatment. Specifically, we are interested in studying the relationship between tumor oxygenation and metabolism, and its role in promoting undesirable tumor outcomes, such as treatment resistance, recurrence, and metastasis. The biomarkers derived from these investigations will lead to the development of optimized whole-tumor imaging methods that can identify patients who will benefit the most from treatment. Within this lab, I have been working with a graduate student on a project that explores the effectiveness of various doses of radiation in regards to mammary cancer treatment. I have become fairly proficient in monitoring tumor growth within lab mice as well as in operating diffuse reflectance spectrometry equipment. I am also proficient at operating mice radiation therapy equipment. After clearly defining some of my current research goals within the Planning Your Scientific Journey course, my PI and I have heavily considered shifting my focus to that of glioblastomas. I would be using metabolic imaging to monitor the tumor’s response to treatment as well as using genetic and RNA sequencing to investigate why some tumors respond to treatment and others do not. This research topic would be used for my honors thesis.
Outside of academics and research, I have given back to the community by volunteering at the local boys and girls club as well as local libraries. While these forms of community service are personally fulfilling, I have been wanting to shift my service efforts to a more healthcare related goal. The Virtual AHA SURE program at Vanderbilt has done a fantastic job of exposing me to the myriad of ways in which socioeconomic determinants of health impact minority communities and decrease health equity. From the hypertension and stroke awareness and prevention collective impacts mentioned by Dr. Costanza, to the American Heart Association’s government intervention, healthcare advocacy and policy change mentioned by Dr. Herbert, I now have a plethora of ways in which I can promote healthcare equity within the minority populations of my community.
Aside from the program’s emphasis on health equity and advocacy, the Vanderbilt AHA SURE Program has consistently exposed me to various frontiers within cardiovascular research and fortified my belief in my intended long term career trajectory of becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon. Furthermore the program has drastically increased the effectiveness of my scientific communication. I have learned to formulate scientific objectives that are testable, as well as how to present information in a way that caters to a very specific audience. I have also learned how to produce scientific writing that is more likely to be accepted by the scientific community. I have learned that challenging a community’s mastery of a subject along with instigating instability and providing value that solves a cost or supplies a benefit is what distinguishes the impactful writing from the ignored. I am extremely thankful to the Vanderbilt AHA SURE program for the skills that I have gained through the course curriculum in conjunction with a phenomenal virtual experience that has promoted profound contemplation in how I can express myself and my individuality through science.