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Hughes turns curiosity into passion for research

Clinical and Translational Research master program celebrates spring graduates

In a famous quote, Albert Einstein explained his genius when he said, "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious." Curiosity has magical properties which have been extensively studied by scientists. To clinical and translational science Master’s graduate Krystal Hughes, curiosity has been the cornerstone of a challenging yet fulfilling and exciting journey.

As far as she can remember, Krystal has always been curious about how the world works on a molecular level. She was never quite satisfied with concepts presented in textbooks. As a child, she would delve into her favorite book “How Come? Every Kid's Science Questions Explained,” by Kathy Wollard. As she grew older, Krystal stumbled upon research and considered it a welcoming avenue to feed her blossoming curiosity. The native of Lewisburg, West Virginia was only 15 when she started working in a research lab, and she never left.

Inching closer to a college decision, Krystal’s remarkable interest in chemistry and healthcare led her to the field of pharmacy. In the span of two years, she was able to finish undergraduate coursework at West Virginia University to meet all of the prerequisites for the Pharm. D. program at WVU’s School of Pharmacy.

Typically, first year students in this program are offered the opportunity to concentrate their elective courses and one or more experiential rotations in a specific area of study within pharmacy. For Krystal, it was the area of translational pharmacy research that piqued her interest. However, with her prior extensive research background, she felt the need to further expand her knowledge beyond that path.

A suggestion from her mentor, Dr. Marina Galvez Peralta, introduced Krystal to the master’s program in clinical and translational science offered by WVU and the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute. A quick look into the program and what it offers sufficed to make up Krystal’s mind. She knew right away that she was about to embark on a new endeavor: earning a dual degree. She would later not only become the first in her family to attend college, but also the first graduate student to simultaneously complete both degrees.

“When I learned about the CTS M.S. program, I knew it was the perfect fit for me,” Krystal said. “Being a Pharm.D. student, I was learning the clinical applications of medicine, while the M.S. program allowed me to learn how that translated to research. I knew I would have to pitch my idea. I mapped out the next three years of coursework to show that I could fit in the extra credits. Luckily, both programs trusted my plan to complete both degrees on time.”

And while this daunting journey was riddled with challenges, Krystal found seamless layers of support exemplified in expert guidance and numerous resources.

“The program’s cadre of accomplished mentors has been instrumental in my success,” she said. “Dr. Mary Stamatakis and Dr. Julie Lockman have both advocated for me in every step of the way and ensured that I had the support needed from both programs. Dr. Peralta has been my mentor since my first semester of pharmacy school and has been a foundational part of my academic career. She has consistently supported and pushed me to be the best clinician, scientist, and overall person I can be. Additionally, Sarah Haymand and Jennifer Clutter have both been incredibly helpful with the behind-the-scenes aspects of scheduling meetings, auditing my transcripts, dealing with the financial aid office, and all of the logistical steps along the way. Last but certainly not least, my committee members who have been encouraging and supportive throughout my time as a CTS M.S. student: Dr. William Petros, Dr. Werner Geldenhuys and Dr. Joan Lakoski.”

Throughout the duration of her study, Krystal never stopped asking questions, and research allowed her to pursue the tough ones. This theme of curiosity underpinning her journey spilled over into her research. In her current project, Krystal turned to pharmacogenomics to tackle an epidemic that has touched her personally.

“Growing up in southern West Virginia, where substance use disorder is highly prevalent, I have seen firsthand how difficult addiction is to treat and the devastation it causes within families and communities, mine included,” Krystal said. “Losing my cousin to an overdose, I have seen how patients who suffer from addiction are not only faced with the difficulties of therapeutic challenges, but also the societal stigma that is associated with this disorder. My research with Dr. Galvez focuses on the genomic and metabolomic differences that might impact how successful a patient will be when treated with buprenorphine which is one of the primary components of suboxone, used to treat substance use disorder. While buprenorphine may be highly effective in some patients, there is a wide range of variability with its absorption and clinical response within different patients. My hope is that if we can detect pharmacogenes that could be used as predictive factors for successful buprenorphine therapy, we may be able to identify patients who are at higher risk and may need additional support.”

Since translational research acts as a bridge between science and practice in the real world, scientists’ ability to communicate effectively beyond their peers is crucial. As a researcher, an integrator, and a problem solver, Krystal strongly believes in the power of communicating science to different audiences. She also has a unique tip that helps her translate the jargon of science to a language that the public understands.

“In healthcare, you must factor in health literacy when communicating with patients,” she said. “I take the same approach when discussing research with non-scientists. It is important to determine how familiar the person is with the topic to decide how in-depth background information should go and to determine the best terminology to utilize. I have also admittingly called my mother, especially prior to giving a lecture, to explain concepts. She doesn’t have a healthcare or science background, so it is extremely helpful to see what may be hard to follow when explaining complex ideas.”

As her time as a CTS graduate student comes to an end, Krystal reflects on her experience. She praises the program for its unique features and credits it with opening unexpected possibilities for her professional development.

“I have been extremely satisfied with my experience at the CTS M.S. program, and while it was challenging to balance both degrees, I would do it again without hesitation,” Krystal said. “The CTS M.S. program is beneficial for dual degree health professional students or students who are already practicing clinicians. The program allows mentored training on how to take science from bench to bedside which is a unique opportunity that I would urge everyone to consider. The program allows for flexibility with elective scheduling and there are endless possibilities for how students might tailor their degrees to balance other obligations. Aside from the courses, the faculty and staff are also great to work with and are supportive from day one.”

Clearly, Krystal’s journey is one of resilience, determination, and perseverance. Adamant about planting more seeds as a scientist, researcher and educator, Krystal proudly shares that she has been accepted into the Ph.D. program for biomedical sciences at WVU. And despite the countless hats she wears, Krystal makes sure to dedicate time for self-care. Her formula to de-stress and recharge includes a handful of activities that bring joy to her heart.

“I love baking and find it to be the perfect balance between science and art,” she said. “I also love reading science fiction novels, playing board games with friends, and video games.”

Krystal’s degree will be conferred on May 16.