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Clinical and Translational Research doctoral program celebrates its first graduate

Dr. Gina Sizemore reaches milestone as an August 2020 grad

by Dalia ElSaid

To be truly groundbreaking, a biomedical discovery needs to make a difference in the real world. That’s the premise driving translational science, a field that applies basic science techniques to answer clinically relevant research questions, specifically designed to improve health outcomes.

Coordinated by The West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute (WVCTSI) in conjunction with West Virginia University, the Ph.D. program in Clinical and Translational Science (CTS) was developed in response to the fundamental changes taking place in biomedical research and education. This commitment to developing the next generation of clinical and translational scientists is paying off. In August 2020, the CTS Ph.D. program celebrated the graduation of its first doctoral student, Gina Sizemore.

Gina’s attitude to life and work can be summed up in her own words: "Never stop being curious! Never stop showing compassion!”

For as long as she can remember, Gina’s love for science and need for ongoing intellectual stimulation were durable themes that guided her professional choices. For the Petersburg, West Virginia resident, a career in medicine was a unique opportunity to combine an interest in science with helping others. Additionally, one of her aspirations was integrating the best of clinical medicine with meaningful research.

Gina initially graduated as a certified physician assistant (PA-C) with a master’s degree in primary care medicine. “I became a clinician because I enjoy caring for people,” Gina said. “During my twenty years of practice in family medicine and then internal medicine, I was fascinated by the concept of translational research and how it presents itself as a way to solve medical problems on a broader scale through the improved understanding of disease and the discovery of new therapies.”

Gina found in the CTS Ph.D. program an excellent opportunity to develop a solid base of expertise beginning her research career. To her, one of the program’s strongest aspects is identifying methods and skills in the translational spectrum that can be used in diverse clinical settings. By engaging clinicians, communities, and patients in biomedical research, translational science creates an ongoing cycle between the laboratory and the clinic that can potentially facilitate improved outcomes for humanity.

“As a clinician, my goal was to expand my skillset to translate basic science discovery into clinical application,” she said. “Fortunately, I found my quest in the CTS Ph.D. program which was ideally suited to accomplish that.”

Mark Olfert, Ph.D., director of the CTS Ph.D. program, elaborated that Gina is a prime example of many experienced medical professionals (physicians, nurses, pharmacists, etc.) who decide to pursue a graduate degree driven by the desire to do more with their training and the aspiration to become scientific leaders in their respective fields.

"Unlike a traditional Ph.D. program, the CTS Ph.D. program requires students to develop their research projects to overlap under at least two of the three major scientific thematic areas - basic, clinical, and population sciences,” Dr. Olfert said.

A physics enthusiast at heart, Gina’s doctoral work centered on electrophysiology as it relates to potassium channels in breast cancer. Despite improvements in early diagnosis and treatment, breast cancer remains a major health problem worldwide. Among breast cancer subtypes, triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) is the most challenging to treat. Triple negative breast cancer is an aggressive breast cancer without ER+, PR+, or HER2 targets and therefore cannot be managed with treatment modalities available for these types of breast cancer. The standard of care for triple negative breast cancer patients is a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Still, TNBC has the highest risk for brain metastasis of all breast cancers and a 77% five-year survival compared to 93% five-year survival in ER+ breast cancer.

In this scenario, searching for novel biomarkers that might help both in diagnosis and therapy is critical. In recent years, it was shown that different families of potassium channels are overexpressed in primary breast cancers. Gina’s translational doctoral work demonstrated that a specific potassium channel called the BK channel could be targeted to kill triple negative breast cancer without harming healthy cells. The altered ion channel expression proved impactful for treatment in vitro and in vivo. Furthermore, future work moves toward making it useful for adjuvant therapeutic purposes, potentially resulting in safer, more effective, and less invasive treatment options.

“Electrophysiology is exciting,” Gina said. “It offers an unrecognized opportunity to translate, across measures of scale, from the microscopic results in the lab to the macroscopic complexity of the clinic.”

Reflecting on her time at the CTS Ph.D. program, Gina said the program helped her capitalize on her existing strengths in addition to honing new fundamental laboratory skills. She also credits the program with providing her rigorous mentorship that guided her through the translational science arena.

Though the collaboration, support and guidance of faculty mentors, Gina’s confidence as a researcher strengthened. She learned how to translate a vision into an achievable outcome, and how to maintain a broader perspective of a project’s goal without sacrificing the details essential for success. Honing these fundamental skills, coupled with a rich learning setting that extends beyond lecture halls, put Gina on the fast track to completing her degree.

“During the time I spent in the program, the personalized interactions I had with my mentors empowered me to fully explore my intellectual curiosities and enrich my scientific knowledge,” she said. “Dr. James Simpkins believed in me and always challenged me to go the extra mile. Dr. HanGang Yu’s love for discovery and good science inspired me to improve my detail skills to reap the rewards of scientific discovery. Dr. Julie Lockman’s leadership and compassion guided me in some of the toughest times of my program. Dr. Werner Geldenhuy’s friendly demeanor and genuine love for students made each learning experience memorable. Dr. Bernard Schreurs’s willingness to mentor and guide me amidst his busy schedule reminded me that good mentors teach by example. Last but not least, I am indebted to Dr. Peter Guida from the Brookhaven National lab in New York. His empowerment of students and innovative thinking encouraged me to challenge myself and achieve more than I ever dreamed of.”

After four years of compelling research work, Gina’s future plans speak to the personal and professional growth she experienced in the CTS Ph.D. program.

“Gina had an outstanding mentoring team with diverse expertise that is designed to ensure the students’ projects are translational,” Dr. Olfert said. “We are delighted to see Gina reach this momentous milestone, and we know she will go on to do great things.”

Driven by her growing interest in electrophysiology, Gina endeavors to continue ion channel research and work towards improved cancer treatments.

“This degree paves the way to open the research arm of my clinical practice,” Gina said. “As a clinician, I want to positively impact the lives of my patients today. As a researcher, I want to positively impact their future. I see myself combining clinical work, research, and medical innovation into my career.”

Asked about her advice for prospective students, Gina reiterated that appreciation is key.

“Love and appreciate those who support you through the process,” she said. “Take the time to say thank you. Life gets busy and those who show you kindness, support, and guidance are giving you the most valuable gift - their time.”

On maintaining work-life balance, Gina’s tips include dedicating time to your hobbies. To her, that means gardening and reading. She also writes science fiction under a pen name. Cultivating a positive mindset is an equally significant practice that helps her overcome roadblocks she faces.

“Compassion is the most important thing to me,” Gina said. “I keep an appointment on my calendar that I review each morning to remind myself that I cannot always decide what will come in at me. However, I can choose what goes out from me. My greatest power is in this choice.”

Gina’s degree was conferred on August 14.