From White Water Rafting to Innovation in South Africa: The Best of the BEST program

Jessica Coates

With the first cohort of students completing their internships, the BEST program here at Emory has a lot to share. During this past summer students got the opportunity to experience a wide array of activities from drug development in South Africa to white water rafting to build confidence. As a part of their summer experience, four BEST scholars continued the 8 year tradition of working South African inventors to strategize for new technologies to propel African life sciences and promote health innovation. For those who didn’t participate in the South Africa excursion, they faced a unique challenge of white water rafting on the Ocoee River. Scholars described the adventure as challenging and forcing them to overcome their fears and prevail. 

   The BEST (Broadening Experience in Scientific Training) program was established as an initiative to expose graduate students to careers outside of traditional academia. Graduate students are invited to apply to the BEST program in their third year of graduate school. As participants in the program, students are required to attend seminars associated with career tracks in entrepreneurship, communication, and outreach to name a few. As students progress throughout the curriculum, they gain valuable career advice and even the opportunity to get hands on experience in alternative career tracks.

   I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Elizabeth Zoeller and gain a first hand account of all BEST has to offer its scholars. Upon hearing about all the BEST program had to offer from Dr. Bill Rice, GDBBS alumnus and donor, she didn’t hesitate to become involved with the program. Only having been exposed to

the traditional academic career path, she was leery to pursue graduate school because she didn’t envision herself spending a lifetime as a professor.

Once she heard about the BEST program, she immediately applied so she could learn about career options more fitting to her personality. When asked to sum her experience with the BEST program, Elizabeth feltthe word “enlightening” was the best to describe her time with the BEST program because she’s been able to learn so much about career opportunities and career development. She credits the BEST program with her growth and development as a scientist and future career professional. Participation in the program has allowed her to not only learn about her own potential but also what skill set she possesses and how to utilize those skills to propel her career path.

   The growth and experiences she’s gained doesn’t stop there. Elizabeth commends the BEST program because it has given her the opportunity to network and build communities with other students. Having differing career interests from the majority of students could be a bit isolating. However, through participating in the BEST program Elizabeth now has a sense of community to know that she is not alone. Based on her wonderful experience with the BEST community, she encourages other students to become involved with the program. For anyone interested in learning more about the BEST program, don’t hesitate to visit their website ( or contact Tammi Hutto at The BEST program also releases periodic magazines ( showcasing all the wonderful endeavors their students have embarked upon in the past semester.

MaKendra Umstead Receives Inaugural Kharen Fulton Diversity Graduate Award

Alessandra Salgueiro

   Named in honor of the late Kharen Fulton, Laney Graduate School awarded the inaugural Kharen Fulton Diversity Graduate Award to Cancer Biology graduate student, MaKendra Umstead. Fulton served Emory for over 30 years as director of diversity, recruitment, and admissions. Throughout her time at Emory, she touched the lives of students, faculty, and staff alike through her encouragement and guidance. The recently graduated Dr. MaKendra Umstead personifies the Fulton Diversity Award with her service, outreach, and community building throughout her tenure at Emory. Fulton’s legacy is a call to action, inspiring award recipients and others to continue creating an inclusive community that breaks down barriers for underrepresented individuals.

For more information about the Kharen Fulton Diversity Graduate Award and how to support the award, follow this link:

2016 GDBBS Banquet Award Winners



Faculty Mentor Award:  Adam Marcus

Graduate Career Award:  Marc Schureck

Outreach/Community Service Award:  Christopher Lewis

Student Leadership Award: George Inglis

Student Mentor Award: Michelle Giddens

Graduate Career Teaching Award: Alicia Cutler

Student Teaching Award:  Arielle Valdez



Program Scholar of the Year:

            BCDB:  Paul Donlin-Asp

            CB:  Katelyn Ponder

            GMB:  Michael Christopher

            IMP:  Ryan Martinez

            MMG:  Lalita Priyamvada and Kendra Quicke

            MSP:  Scott Cordova

            NS:  Lukas Hoffman

            PBEE:  Carolyn Ayers

Questions with GDBBS Distinguished Alumnus Dr. Jing Chen

Jamie King

Why did you choose Emory GDBBS for your graduate training?

Dr. Chen says he chose Emory for his graduate training for several reasons, both personal and professional.  In addition to choosing Emory for the location in Atlanta, he also chose to attend Emory due to its strong reputation in the field of basic research.  More specifically, the program he applied to (Cell Biology and Developmental Biology) had a robust faculty research focus in signal transduction, which was his main interest upon entering graduate school.

What advice would you give to current GDBBS students?

The major piece of advice Dr. Chen has for current students is to remember to learn how to ask broad scientific questions and how to develop them as individual projects.  For looking beyond graduate school, Dr. Chen says don’t be afraid to explore other scientific fields outside the one you’re currently working in and don’t be afraid to create your own niche. 

How did your GDBBS experience prepare you for your career?

As Dr. Chen is now a Professor in the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology, he says his experience in GDBBS prepared him in three core areas.  The first area was the training in grant writing.  Dr. Chen was one of the first students to participate in the grant writing course many GDBBS students are familiar with today.  As a result of taking this course, Dr. Chen says he built his confidence to communicate science and write grant applications.  This was valuable to him in his postdoctoral training and beyond.  In addition to preparation for writing grants, Dr. Chen says the student seminars were helpful in encouraging and motivating him to present scientific data as a complete story for a broad audience.  These type of student seminars fostered a good environment to present research. Since Dr. Chen now also fills the role of a mentor, he says his experience with his graduate mentor, Dr. Haian Fu, and committee members highlighted what it means to be a patient mentor with strong communication skills, along with how to adapt to different mentoring styles.

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The Cancer Biology Graduate Program Announces the Convocation of Their First Two Graduates

Allison Lytle

In 2016, President Obama included a 215 million dollar investment into his yearly fiscal budget as part of a precision medicine initiative to focus primarily on oncology. The goals of this project were to advance biomedical research and provide clinicians the tools to offer cancer patients a treatment plan personalized for their disease. Physicians would have the ability to use molecularly targeted therapies tailored to an individual’s cancer based on genetic mutations as well as molecular changes. 

   The doctoral program in Cancer Biology (CB) here at Emory University has answered the call accepting their first class of students back in 2011. The CB program has recruited diverse faculty members with backgrounds in both basic science and clinical research, providing a learning platform for their students with excellent multidisciplinary training opportunities. The goal of the CB program is to produce exceptional leaders in the field, with a strong foundation in cancer biology and basic research techniques. The program is also based out of the Winship Cancer Institute, offering students outstanding opportunities to participate in translational research. Recently, the Cancer Biology program had the privilege of announcing the graduation of their first two doctoral candidates from the inaugural class of 2011. 


   Gina Alesi earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering from the University of Michigan. With a personal connection to cancer, Dr. Alesi was motivated to pursue a career in research and joined the laboratory of Dr. Sumin Kang in 2011. She was a recipient of an NRSA award and has several middle author papers focusing on the molecular mechanisms of tumorigenesis and tumor growth. In April of 2016, Dr. Alesi published a first author paper in Oncogene focusing on microtubule dysregulation and its role in cancer cell invasion and tumor cell metastasis. She will be pursuing a career in the private sector and has accepted a consulting position at the prestigious firm The Boston Consulting Group here in Atlanta. 

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   Scott Wilkinson received his Bachelor of Science degree from Berry College in 2009. He was also a recipient of an NRSA award and joined the laboratory of Dr. Adam Marcus who studies tumor escape and metastasis. Dr. Wilkinson has a first author paper in Molecular Biology Of The Cell that focuses on defective kinase activity and its role in cancer cell invasion, with a second manuscript currently under review. He is actively involved in cancer education through both the Biology department and the Pre-College Program here at Emory. Additionally, he volunteers for Students for Science, a community outreach organization that brings science education to elementary schools. Dr. Wilkinson has accepted a postdoctoral fellowship position at the NIH in the laboratory of Dr. Adam Sowalsky, focusing on genomic changes in prostate cancer that contribute to cancer progression and drug resistance.

   Both Dr. Alesi and Dr. Wilkinson are exemplary of the hard work and effort the CB program has invested in their students. Their achievements and future opportunities reflect the outstanding research and training opportunities available to PhD candidates. We are excited to see what future graduates will achieve as they complete the Cancer Biology graduate program here at Emory.