Medical research has many benefits, but one of its most important roles is perhaps the widespread effect it has on health care diagnosis and treatment. Doctors rely on decades of data collection, case studies, and evidence-based practice to address every type of ailment – from the common cold to cancer.

But what if all that data didn’t come from people who look like you? What if your symptoms, treatment, and measures of progress were based on a completely different segment of the population?

Cherice Hughes-Oliver, a doctoral student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics within the College of Engineering, is finding motivation for her studies in those very questions. With a focus on the lack of racial representation in biomechanical research, she hopes to discover how common research practices are limiting the generalizability of results.

As a 2018 Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study recipient, Hughes-Oliver will now be able to utilize additional resources from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in her investigation. The highly competitive awards are granted to doctoral student/advisor pairs to support an increase in the diversity among scientists who are prepared to assume leadership roles in science.

Through the Gilliam Fellowship, Hughes-Oliver will examine the effects of race and related factors on balance and gait mechanics, or how people move when they walk. Although standard factors, such as gender and age, are always taken into account for this type of medical research, she wants to know if race could also make a difference. 

Hughes-Oliver chats with a co-presenter at the 2018 Virginia Tech - Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences Student Symposium, held at Wake Forest University last May. Hughes-Oliver, along with all other biomedical engineering graduate students at Virginia Tech, pursues her degree through the joint program between the two universities.

“Our research has a huge influence on clinical translation,” said Hughes-Oliver, who is a native of Cary, North Carolina. “It can affect preventative care as well as surgery and rehab recommendations if you get injured. It affects you across your entire health spectrum.”

Hughes-Oliver’s research question first bloomed when she observed a gap in the literature regarding racial factors. She noted that as an African-American woman, she wasn’t really represented in most subject populations for the field in which she wanted to specialize.

“If we’re going to have a huge impact on people’s lives, I think it’s super important that we make sure we’re serving everyone equally – that our research is applicable to everyone,” she said.

Robin Queen, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, agrees. Queen has worked with Hughes-Oliver in the Granata Lab for the last several years, and now the two will continue their research as an advisor/advisee pair on Hughes-Oliver’s dissertation through the Gilliam Fellowship.

“Cherice came to me and wanted to understand race as it relates to mechanics,” said Queen. “I think this is something that’s very interesting to understand, and it also integrates well with the overall goals of the lab.”

Both Hughes-Oliver and Queen understood they were asking a broad question that would require more than just their knowledge on the subject. In order to investigate their chosen issue more fully, they have assembled an interdisciplinary team from a wide range of backgrounds across the university community, as well as experts at other universities.

Hughes-Oliver speaks to a group of local high school students during last April's National Biomechanics Day festivities at Virginia Tech.

“One of my favorite parts of biomedical engineering is being able to ask clinical questions and at the same time ask human factor questions that might involve an aspect of psychology or sociology,” Hughes-Oliver said.

Part of the fellowship application required a submission from Queen as well, who outlined a plan for increasing inclusion and diversity in both the department and the College of Engineering through recruitment and retention strategies.

In her pursuit of these goals, Queen will partner with the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, the Virginia Tech Initiative for Maximizing Student Development, and the New Horizon Graduate Scholars Program. She will also attend various mentoring workshops sponsored by the Gilliam Fellowship.

“I personally have a huge interest in increasing the number of women in engineering,” Queen said. “The goal is really to improve diversity and inclusion not just in our own labs, but across the college and the department.”

Hughes-Oliver, who is herself a New Horizon Graduate Scholar, credits mentors like Queen and the support she has found within the Virginia Tech community with her success so far. 

“You can’t succeed on your own,” said Hughes-Oliver. “You need strong advocates and mentors at every step along the way to make sure you have access to certain opportunities that could help set your career up on a great path.”

As someone who has always been interested in hands-on work and practical applications, Hughes-Oliver explained that even her decision to become an engineer was due at least in part to suggestions from her mentors over the years. 

“I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of people in my corner,” she said.

Now she’s hoping to return the favor to incoming first-year graduate students through her involvement in the Virginia Tech Early Engineering Mentoring Program. She also begins her term as the graduate student subcommittee co-chair for the Virginia Tech Women’s Alliance this fall.

Written by Rebecca Sutton and Emily Roediger

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