Alumni and Friends
As alumni of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Human and Molecular Genetics, we value hearing about your success and your continued involvement with the department.
Here are a few stories about what some of our alumni are doing today.
Jacquelyn (Jackie) Meyers is currently a post-doctoral research fellow in Psychiatric Epidemiology at Columbia University in New York City. Her work focuses on genetic and environmental mechanisms underlying chronic substance use disorders, using a variety of interdisciplinary approaches including molecular genetics, developmental psychology, and epidemiological methods.
Jackie moved to Richmond in 2007 to start the PhD program in Human and Molecular Genetics, where she had some of the most challenging and rewarding times of her life. Coming from a background in Psychology from the Florida State University, the rigorous coursework in molecular and clinical genetics taught by Drs. Shiang, Lloyd, Pandya, Elsea, Corey and Grotewiel, gave her and her cohorts (Drs. Peterson, Yan, and Chiplunkar) an excellent foundation for a career in genetics research (and many intensive study sessions fueled by Cafe Gutenberg, Urban Farmhouse, and Lamplighter coffee!). She found her academic “home” at Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, one of the world premier institutes for conducting research in Psychiatric Genetics. There, the faculty (Drs. Kendler, Riley, Neale, Maes, Eaves, Silberg, York, Webb, Aliev, Hettema, Aggen, Maher, Edwards, Latendresse, Wormley-Prom, Gillespe), and of course Jackie's advisor, Dr. Danielle Dick, provided an academic education where she learned the essential interdisciplinary skills both to conduct research in psychiatric genetics and to thrive in a modern academic environment.
After graduation, Jackie took this education to Columbia University in 2012, where she has worked with Dr. Deborah Hasin, a leading substance use epidemiologist. She has enjoyed this experience immensely, as a post-doctoral fellowship allows the time to focus on building your own unique program of research that will hopefully lay the groundwork for the rest of your academic career. Jackie recently submitted an independent research grant to the NIH to study systems-based genetic risk for substance use disorders in subgroups of the US population, and hopes to continue on to an academic faculty position.
Kayla Claxton is currently a prenatal genetic counselor for Maryland Perinatal Associates (MPA). This is her first job since graduating from VCU’s genetic counseling program in 2014 with her Master’s in Genetic Counseling. Kayla works at two office locations for MPA; Takoma Park, MD and Clinton, MD. Kayla works with maternal fetal medicine specialists, ultrasound technicians, dietetics specialists/nurses and medical assistants to help care for and monitor high risk pregnancies.
“One of my favorite parts of this job is building a relationship with the patients I see. I meet with many of our patients on their initial appointment at our office. Through follow up appointments with me, as well as their continued monitoring visits to our office, I get to know many of our patient’s pretty well. I love being a part of their continued care.”
In addition to seeing prenatal patients, Kayla hopes to one day work in a pediatrics setting, and in particular with children with Neurodevelopmental disabilities. “I came to VCU’s GC program with a background and some experience interacting with this population, but through the Virginia LEND (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities) program offered at VCU, this type of work became a great interest and passion for me. I gained invaluable knowledge and experience through the multidisciplinary approach that LEND takes in training and preparing its students, and through the educators and other students that I got the chance to work with. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to be a part of that program. It not only helped guide my education and thesis project while in graduate school, but it will also benefit me long term with my future career goals.”
Having clinical rotations in multiple locations throughout the state of Virginia allowed Kayla to gain experience working with individuals with various cultural, religious, socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. “In my Takoma Park office, I work primarily with a lower income population, and there is often a language barrier with these patients. Through my clinical rotations at VCU, I had experience working with interpreters, finding documents and patient resources in other languages, as well as learning about the cultural differences between a patient and myself. All of these skills are things that I will continue to use throughout my career.”
Santhosh Girirajan is currently an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. His laboratory studies the genetic basis of human neurodevelopmental disorders including intellectual disability, autism, and congenital malformation using high throughput genomic technologies.
"A major decision in my life was to move to Richmond from Michigan State University along with Sarah Elsea's laboratory in 2004 and that worked well for me" says Girirajan. "I think that I got an overall education in Human Molecular Genetics at VCU, learning from teachers with varied research interests, both in classrooms and in labs. I was fortunate to be exposed to research in developmental biology (Rita Shiang, Joyce Lloyd), statistical genetics (Ken Kendler, Lindon Eaves, Linda Corey, Brian Riley), Medical Genetics (Walter Nance, Arti Pandya), and model organisms (Mike Grotewiel, Jolene Windle, Jenny Wiley). He then quips, "The candidacy exams were tougher than other places that I have seen". But quickly adds, "Now, I think that is good, in a way, to raise standards and getting students to meet them!"
Girirajan graduated in 2008 and moved to Evan Eichler's laboratory at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA, to study the genomic basis of primate evolution and complex human disease. He started his new laboratory in July 2012 at the Pennsylvania State University and attributes his training for helping him handle his new responsibility -- "My mentors told me to take everything that I have learned so far and apply it".
In addition to directing his new research lab, Girirajan loves teaching and motivating students in the "practice of science". Girirajan intends to come back to Richmond and visit VCU and his teachers. "It is highly likely to bump in to a current VCU student or an alumni in human genetics meetings".
Gretchen Oswald is currently a senior genetic counselor in the Pediatric Genetics Clinic at John Hopkins University, in Baltimore, MD. She specializes in connective tissue disorders and skeletal dysplasias.
"I graduated from the genetics program at VCU with a master's degree in genetics counseling," said Oswald. "During my time there, I feel like the counselors and physicians really helped me to build a strong foundation of counseling and clinical investigation/history-taking skills that has aided me in my current job in an adult/pediatrics genetics clinic at the John Hopkins University. There was exposure to diverse populations, not only in terms of diagnoses (connective tissue disorders, inborn errors of metabolism, skeletal dysplasias, and chromosome anomalies) but also in terms of the social, emotional and socioeconomic status of the patients."
In addition to her many clinical duties, Oswald also assists with training of genetics fellows and medical students, serves as supervisor for the genetic counseling students from National Institutes of Health/John Hopkins, University of Maryland and Howard University genetic counseling programs and is involved in clinic coordination and administrative duties.
"I especially appreciate the 'behind the scenes' education I received -- learning how to send out labs, run clinics, schedule patients, work with insurance companies," she said. "These practical skills are a major part of everyday practice and it is invaluable to get exposure to them as a student. The program has a great balance of clinical, educational and research requirements."