First graduates receive NCCU doctoral degrees in more than 50 years

Rasheena Edmondson has long envisioned herself in a white lab coat. As a science-loving middle school student in Wilson County, N.C., she first dreamed of becoming a pharmacist. Investigating the career further, however, she had second thoughts.

“I shadowed a pharmacist for a day and thought: I can’t do this. It’s boring,” Edmondson recalled. Next on the list was medical doctor. But her squeamishness about touching strangers quickly derailed that plan.

Then, while taking a high school biotechnology class, she got a better idea.

“Working in a lab or at a pharmaceutical company? I can do this,” she determined.

Edmondson, 29, has become quite comfortable in the lab – and the lab coat – since she enrolled at NCCU in 2012 to work toward her career goal. On May 12, 2017, she and fellow scientists Helen Oladapo and Elena Arthur became the first graduates to receive a North Carolina Central University doctoral degree in more than 50 years, since an Ed.D. program was discontinued in 1964.

“I’m very, very pleased to see these students coming out of the Ph.D. program on track and with solid research experience,” said Professor Caesar Jackson, Ph.D., who worked on plans for implementing the program that was approved by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors in 2011.

To earn their degrees, the Ph.D. candidates worked with members of faculty conducting research at the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE) and the Biomedical/Biotechnology Research Institute (BBRI) on campus, as well as completed a dissertation. The faculty mentors all are principal investigators who receive outside funding for their work.

“The research base of our faculty became what distinguishes this Ph.D. program from others,” Jackson said. “We focus on health disparities – the fact that there are disproportionate numbers of minorities who suffer from major health issues, from heart problems to cancers to diabetes and others. Our idea for this program was to tap into African-American and other minority students who wanted to discover solutions to health disparities as a way of giving back to the community.”

Ph.D. students have a choice of concentrations: pharmaceutical or biomedical sciences.

Edmondson applied for the Ph.D. program in 2012 intrigued by its emphasis on finding treatments and cures for diseases that disproportionately affect African-Americans. She already held a bachelor’s degree from Elizabeth City State University and a master’s from North Carolina A&T State University and was looking at several Ph.D. options when she learned about the new offering at NCCU.

“I heard that the program at NCCU was focused on health disparities, which immediately drew my interest,” Edmondson said. “Honestly, I love being black and I have always interested in knowing how diseases affect us differently.”

Natacha Janvier-Derilus, academic advisor and recruiter for BRITE, said having the Ph.D. program strengthens the department from the undergraduate level on up. NCCU also offers a Master of Science degree in integrated biosciences.

“Now students can go straight from the bachelor’s to the Ph.D. program at the same university, which is a big plus,” she said. “Our emphasis on research gives students the foundation they need so they can be competitive candidates for the Ph.D. here or elsewhere.”

Having three minority females earn their Ph.D.s this year will help encourage other female and minority students to set their sights on the doctoral program, Janvier-Derilus said.

“We can put them on display to show the pathway to a Ph.D.,” she said, also noting that Edmondson achieved her goal by exclusively attending HBCUs. Students who are able to work in the same lab continuously for five or more years have more time to hone their skills and expand the research.

“They can begin as undergraduates and continue their research while they earn a master’s degree, building toward the Ph.D.,” Janvier-Derilus said. “That provides additional opportunities for publication, presentation and other skills that add so much value.”

Four students who began the doctoral program in fall 2012 graduated in 2017 – three in May, all in pharmaceutical sciences, and a fourth, Dal Khatri, in December, in biomedical sciences.

Doctoral student Elena Arthur has been working with Professor Jiaua Xie, Ph.D., on research into proteins that could protect beta cells in the pancreas, which are diminished in patients with diabetes. She co-authored a research article published in the International Journal of Biological Macromolecules.

Arthur said the challenge of writing a dissertation is the need to present new information that has not been seen before, which requires many hours at the laboratory bench.

“It can be a lot of pressure for students, but here we are able to offer each other moral support,” she added.

She said the professors she worked with, not only the individual mentors, have shown a personal interest in helping the doctoral students achieve their goals.

“Every one of them was truly concerned about us maturing into and thinking as scientists; I learned a lot from all of them,” she said. “I am also grateful for the wonderful faculty and staff at BRITE. They are amazing. They have supported and encouraged us all the way with their time and talent. It feels like family.”

Janvier-Derilus pointed out that the mentoring-style relationships students experience at BRITE is one of the highlights of the program, along with the fact that most of NCCU’s integrated bioscience faculty and researchers came from the pharmaceutical industry.

“Our faculty can take in students, work with them and train them and prepare them for industry,” she said. “They are given academic, technical and professional development skills.”

Doctoral student Helen O. Oladapo, who holds a bachelor’s degree from East Carolina University and a master’s in pharmaceutical sciences from NCCU, has worked closely with Professor Kevin P. Williams, Ph.D., on her research.

Oladapo hopes to begin her career in the field of drug development. She is also interested in becoming a patient advocate in clinical trials that include diverse populations.

In the lab, Oladapo became proficient at the high-throughput screening process used to analyze molecules and compounds for potential pharmaceutical uses. Her position was funded through a Komen Foundation grant, on which Williams is the primary investigator. The research focuses on triple-negative inflammatory breast cancer, a deadly form that resists traditional breast cancer treatments and is more common in women of African descent.

“We screen compounds for activity and study those that might lead to better drug efficacy,” said Oladapo, a native of Lagos, Nigeria.

She said the past five years have been filled with hard work.

“But I received back many rewarding experiences, as well,” she added. “And the work has been fun – not boring at all. Acquiring my Ph.D. degree is a dream come true.”

Edmondson has worked alongside Professor Liju Yang, Ph.D., who receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Army Research office to study cellular activities, among other topics.

Edmondson plans to look for a job in the pharmaceutical industry after graduation, either in a clinical or administrative role. But she doesn’t rule out teaching.

“I feel like I am well prepared for whatever I do based on my experience at NCCU,” she said. “The largest class I had was about 10 people, so there was lots of one-on-one interaction with instructors. Working in the lab at BRITE, everyone was willing to help.”

According to Williams, gaining experience in a state-of-the-art lab such as BRITE, along with mentoring by seasoned faculty members – many of whom have past experience in the pharmaceutical industry – are opportunities unique to NCCU’s Ph.D. program.

“We’re trying to build a pipeline,” he added. “We want our Ph.D. students to go out and be successful in an academic setting or industry.”