As an undergraduate, Blanka Bordas’ favorite course was developmental biology – the study of how an organism grows and develops from a single cell into something more organized, specialized, and complex.

Bordas is in her second year of Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine and Health (TBMH) Graduate Program, which enrolled its first class in fall 2014 and has quickly grown and developed a national reputation as an innovator that allows students to pursue a wide range of research areas with a singular focus: making fundamental discoveries and advancing them into and through the translational pipeline.  

The program has graduated 77 alumni and currently has an additional 84 students enrolled. This fall’s cohort includes 23 students, with two pursuing master’s degrees and the rest as doctoral candidates -- nearly double last year’s entering class.

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The program is headquartered on Virginia Tech’s Health Sciences and Technology campus in Roanoke and works closely with scientists at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, but it expands its education and training by connecting with research partners and health-focused faculty research mentors and teachers universitywide.

“Our students are already conducting cutting edge research in Roanoke and Blacksburg,” said Steven Poelzing, the program's director and professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics at the College of Engineering. “We are very excited they can now take advantage of unique and new research opportunities at Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus.”

Research rotations

During their first year, students complete introductory coursework in TBMH’s focus areas, which include cancer, metabolic and cardiovascular science, public health and implementation science, cognitive and molecular neuroscience, developmental and pediatric science, and immunity and infectious disease.

Students also rotate through three labs before deciding on a dissertation advisor.

Hands-on experiential learning takes place with faculty mentors at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke and Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus in Washington, D.C.; Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus; the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s Animal Cancer Care and Research Center in Roanoke; and Carilion Clinic.

To clear the way for students whose primary residences are in Roanoke or Blacksburg, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute provides students with housing and other resources during eight-week rotations in Washington, D.C..

Bordas was trying to decide between a focus on public health or cancer, so she spent time in with a researcher focused on public health and two focused on cancer before deciding Kathleen Mulvaney’s lab was the best fit.

Mulvaney, assistant professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, investigates how cells communicate inside tumors with a goal of developing therapies for hard-to-treat cancers in both children and adults.

Bordas is the first translational biology, medicine, and health graduate student to conduct research full-time in a lab on the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus. She slipped on her lab coat and gloves to demonstrate techniques she has learned. “Undergrad labs only teach you so much,” she said. “But Dr. Mulvaney really took the time to walk me through the protocols, show me how to do it, watch me do it myself, and make sure I was comfortable.”

When she completes her degree, she wants to be a professor – teaching and conducting research in cancer or a related field. The program boasts a Ph.D. completion rate of 86.6 percent, compared with a national average that ranges from 41.6 to 56.2 percent in similar programs, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Diverse fields, diverse backgrounds

At least once a month, Bordas travels back to Roanoke to reconnects with other students in the program. “I love the diversity of the cohort,” she said. Virtual meetings also give them a chance to share their work. “You’re forced to learn about other fields outside cancer, or outside biochemistry.”

The interdisciplinary program is taught by Faculty of Health Sciences members who serve as teachers, student mentors, dissertation advisors, and committee members. Its more than 200 faculty from across Virginia Tech include academic and physician researchers representing chemical engineering; human nutrition, foods, and exercise; statistics; computer science; agricultural and applied economics; psychology; population health sciences; biomedical engineering and mechanics; neuroscience; animal sciences; surgery; internal medicine; and more.

Among all her admission offers, first-year student Abby Doku said the TBMH was the most diverse. “I get to glean knowledge and experience from five major fields led by seasoned professors before specializing in one.”

Of the 23 students who joined the program this fall, nine are international. There are two students each from Nepal and Ghana, making this fall the first time those countries are represented in the graduate program. Other first-year students are from Iran, Bangladesh, China and Nigeria.

Doku, from Ghana, earned a master’s degree in exercise physiology from Central Michigan University. She wanted a better understanding of how the human body responds to exercise in healthy and diseased states.

“Prioritizing preventive health measures not only fosters longevity, but also promotes a healthy lifespan,” she said. At Virginia Tech, Doku plans to focus on cardiovascular and metabolic sciences.

Outside of the challenges of acclimating to a new culture, interpreting new academic expectations, and dealing with occasional bouts of homesickness, Doku said she has found an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere at Virginia Tech. In her master’s degree program, she was the only student of African descent in her cohort.

“Having a diverse TBMH class where my classmates bring their unique backgrounds and perspectives has fostered a dynamic and stimulating academic environment,” she said.

A physician-scientist first

The program continues to draw interest in a new track the program’s leadership established with the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Students accepted to the medical school can apply to earn a translational biology, medicine, and health doctoral degree before continuing with their medical training. The program graduated its first physician-scientist in May, and there are more in the pipeline.

In another first, one of those students – Katelyn Stebbins – earned a prestigious F30 pre-doctoral fellowship from the National Institutes of Health to support her studies. The grants are awarded to promising predoctoral students enrolled in combined programs, such as the M.D.+Ph.D. This is first for Virginia Tech.

Students must first be accepted to the medical school, whose curriculum places a heavy emphasis on research. They attend two years, take a leave of absence to pursue their doctoral degree, and then return to finish medical school.

Stebbins studies how the brain decodes visual signals. The project that earned her the grant focuses on the development of cells and circuits in a mouse’s visual system. She hopes to gain a better understanding of how scientists might regenerate these circuits in diseases or trauma that result in vision loss, such as glaucoma.

Stebbins was also one of 10 graduate students nationwide selected to be part of an Early Career Policy Ambassadors Program for the Society for Neuroscience.

Looking ahead

“I’ve been excited about the interest to come up to D.C.,” Mulvaney said. “Blanka has been terrific, and I have a second rotation student coming in the spring. Blanka is helping establish a workflow and really creating a pipeline for other students.”

Mulvaney and Assistant Professor Jia-Ray Yu, whose research focuses on brain tumors in pediatric patients, are the first to set up labs on the Washington, D.C., campus. Both the number of labs there and the number of students joining them is expected grow, and not only through the TBMH program. Chen-I Hsu started in Yu’s lab as a technician and is now a graduate student in the biomedical and veterinary sciences program in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

Translational biology, medicine, and health graduates have gone on to postdoctoral positions at the National Institutes of Health and Mayo Clinic as well as Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Vanderbilt, and Yale universities. They also are working in industry and for government at such places as Novartis, Astra Zeneca, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We are thrilled that our students continue to receive national and international recognition for their graduate work,” program director Poelzing said. “It is an honor to these rising stars and see them launch their careers.”

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