Lisa Vinikoor ’02 came to the Colleges with little idea of where her love of biology would lead her. “When I was at HWS, I just knew that I loved genetics and my biostatistics classes,” she says.
After graduation, Vinikoor’s love of biology brought her to a program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that placed her in a laboratory setting for a year with other students who hoped to continue onto further degrees. However, this too was a learning experience. “Within months, I realized this was not what I wanted to do,” admits Vinikoor, who recieved her Ph.D. in epidemiology from the University of North Carolina. “I eventually realized that the part of biostatistics that I loved was epidemiology.”
Epidemiology was always at the forefront of Vinikoor’s thoughts, and a night class she took during her time at the NIH cemented her love for this branch of science. Now working at the Environmental Protection Agency, Vinikoor works on air quality standards as part of the Clean Air Act, doing general population research. A current project involves examining birth certificates and records, and comparing that to particulate matter in the air during that time to see if there is any association between that and low birth rate. Other research includes finding connections between air quality and instances of cancer and other diseases.
“It is a really great way to combine math and science and helping people. The goal of epidemiology is to improve health – that is what I hope to do,” says Vinikoor, who has had her work published in popular magazines such as Men’s Health and Women’s Health.
Throughout her career changes, Vinikoor has continued to keep in touch with those at HWS who helped her find her path. Professors of Biology David Droney and Thomas Glover were influential in her choice of career. “My life has been very transitional, but I’ve kept them in the loop,” explains Vinikoor. “I recently had lunch with Professors Droney and Glover, and it was wonderful to share my work with them.”
During her senior year, Droney worked closely with Vinikoor on her honor’s project. “Lisa was an outstanding and independent honors student. Her work epitomized honors study in that we were more like colleagues than professor-student,” says Droney. “I am very pleased that I was able to introduce her to an area of research that she was unaware of, but perfectly suited for.” It was Vinikoor’s honors research that initiated her current career path.
The Biology Department at HWS is a close-knit group of students and faculty, and just like the scientific community HWS biology graduates enter, the professors and former students take great pride in keeping in touch and sharing their accomplishments.
Recent graduate Jenny O’Brien ’10 also has a strong connection with Glover, who served as her adviser. Glover helped her gain many opportunities, such as finding a job at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station studying fungus, and connecting her with former advisee Dr. David A. Rizzieri ’87, a practicing physician in hematology-oncology.
The summer before her junior year, O’Brien headed to Duke University to study with Rizzieri. “I got to observe the day-to-day operations of a physician in both a hospital and out-patient clinic setting and conduct retrospective research through the Duke University Medical Center’s patient database,” explains O’Brien.
During the course of the summer, O’Brien wrote two papers, one of which was published in Blood, a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Society of Hematology, and another that caused a group of doctors to reopen a study of patients treated with a novel therapy.
“I learned so much more in those 10 weeks than I could have in a classroom,” says O’Brien, who currently works at Duke University in the Department of Medical Oncology, where she is the research technician for lab that focuses on cancer immunology. A large portion of her work is done with a post doctoral candidate who works on the characterization of liver tumors, and the identification of various cell types and cell markers present in liver cancer. “The goal is to identify pathways that exist in healthy immunological tissues – and deviations from them – in tumors that can be used for therapeutic benefit.”
O’Brien says her time in the Duke lab has been invaluable. “I’m extremely fortunate to get to work in a lab with funding to support my exploration of the many different directions I can take in the field of cancer research,” explains O’Brien. “The skills I gain here to understand and maintain a functioning lab and to do independent research will help me greatly as I pursue my own biological Ph.D.”
She also is grateful for her HWS support. “I feel very fortunate for having such a supportive adviser to offer me guidance and help throughout my college experience.”
A continued connection is not only beneficial to the professor and former student, but can help to foster interest and hope in undergraduates. “One of the most important things to see is that by taking certain courses, these alumnae found careers,” remarks Glover. “I think that taking a chance, that doing internships in the summer or taking a course you think you might not like, might lead you to a career.”
“I took the e-mail Lisa wrote to me and David Droney about the importance of her biostatistics class, and put on my bulletin board,” says Glover. “I put it there in hopes that maybe the first-years in my current biostatistics class will see that a single class can truly be significant.”
Professors Glover and Droney are featured in the top photo. Lisa Vinikoor is featured with the EPA logo. Jenny O’Brien is flanked by classmates Kendall Griffith ’10 and Travis Blum ’10 at Commencement 2010.