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Immunology and microbiology PhD candidate aims to use her voice in science policy career

Sarah Cleveland serves as diversity and inclusion co-chair on Graduate Student Body Council, studies mechanisms of T cell tolerance in Huseby lab

Sarah Cleveland is as passionate about her work studying T cells in the lab of Eric S. Huseby, PhD, professor of pathology, as she is about the need for diversity in academia.

“It’s so cool to me how our body can either learn to attack itself or attack foreign objects. It can tell the difference, and it can remember things. Out of every single cell and organ in our body, the only things that can remember things are our brains and T cells and B cells. And I think that that’s just awesome.”

Cleveland is in her third year in the Graduate School of Biological Sciences. A PhD candidate in the Immunology and Microbiology Program, she expects to earn her doctorate in biomedical sciences in 2024.

She said she was drawn to immunology after her grandfather—her best friend—died from cancer in 2013. It was her mother, Leisa Cleveland, a pharmacist, who first sparked her interest in how medicine works. In 2001, Leisa Cleveland had a stroke and was later diagnosed with a congenital heart defect that would require surgery. Sarah Cleveland missed a lot of school and developed anxieties that proved to be a learning impediment. Her mother did recover, but Cleveland’s struggles with reading and writing persisted and continue to be an obstacle as she navigates her graduate school coursework. It wasn’t until Cleveland took advantage of student counseling services at UMass Medical School that she was able to better understand both her weaknesses and strengths and begin to learn to work with them.

“Student counseling had always been available to me, but I thought I’d be able to do it all on my own,” Cleveland said. “I think that it was really good that I was able to finally reach out and get the kind of help and support that I needed.”

The recruitment and retention of underrepresented learners in science and medicine is important to her.

“Diversity is a value word. And I think that having different perspectives from different communities, especially in an academic research setting, is very valuable. So that is a huge part of my platform and my mission,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland is the diversity and inclusion co-chair for the Graduate Student Body Council along with her cohort mate, Qiu Yu “Judy” Huang. Cleveland represents GSBS students on both the campus-wide DRIVE (Diversity, Representative and Inclusion for Value in Education) initiative, working on the development of an inclusive curriculum, and the Recruitment and Retention Working Group, helping enhance the school-wide effort to recruit diverse learners.

She’s a member of the GSBS Diversity Interest Group (DIG), a student-led diversity initiative that offers seminars and journal clubs aimed at creating a more equitable environment for all students; and a team member for the new UMMS-HBCU Link program. Ciearra Smith, PhD’21, postdoctoral associate in diversity, equity and inclusion, created the program to connect UMass Medical School students with undergraduates at historically black colleges and universities. Others have noticed Cleveland’s commitment; she was nominated for GSBS’s inaugural Student Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion Leadership Award. (The DIG leadership won.)

Cleveland’s focus on the recruitment and retention of diverse learners, in part, derives from her experience in the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program while majoring in biological sciences and philosophy at the University of Connecticut. The program is a U.S. Department of Education initiative that helps prepare first-generation college students with financial need and students from groups traditionally underrepresented in graduate education who are interested in pursuing doctoral degrees in STEM for the application process. Brian Lewis, PhD, the George F. Booth Chair in the Basic Sciences, professor of molecular, cell & cancer biology and the associate dean for diversity and prematriculation programs in GSBS, invited Cleveland and her McNair cohort to UMass Medical School and meet students and faculty.

“Brian Lewis sustained that relationship and really made me feel comfortable. That was a huge part of why I decided to come to UMass Medical School—because I knew they wanted me here,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland plans to pursue a career in science policy. Post-graduation, she has her eyes set on a NIH policy fellowship for postdoctoral scholars because she believes the foundation for a sustainable future needs to be built on policy decisions that are informed by science.

“I really like using my voice to be able to communicate,” Cleveland said. “I like communicating. I like engaging with people. And if I can do that in a way that is conducive to spreading factual information regarding science, and medicine, and research—that I would love to do.”

The Student Spotlight series features students in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Graduate School of Nursing and School of Medicine. For more information about UMass Medical School and how to apply, visit the Prospective Students page

Related stories on UMassMed News:
Justice, equity, diversity and inclusion celebrated at annual GSBS awards ceremony
GSBS Diversity Interest Group promotes social justice, equity and advocacy
Campus conversation: Coming together to enhance diversity in STEM
Teaching inclusively: DRIVE initiative aims to develop bias-free learning