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Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences celebrates milestones of IMSD, PREP students

Group shot of PREP students
From left to right: PREP students Amanda Modica and Joshuel Velasco, and IMSD students Calvin Johnson and Helen Magana  

The Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at UMass Chan Medical School hosted its year-end celebration to highlight a successful academic year and the 22 members of the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) and the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) program.

The event recognized students who completed their PhDs, are finishing PREP or have successfully passed their PhD qualifying exam.

The PREP and the IMSD program are funded through the National Institutes of Health with the shared goal of increasing diversity and promoting the success of students in biomedical sciences. 

Group shot of the members of the 2024 PREP class
  Members of the PREP class of 2024  

Enhancing academic preparedness and research experience
Joshuel Velasco has been enrolled in the PREP program since 2022, working in the lab of Silvia Corvera, MD, the Endowed Chair in Diabetes Research and professor of molecular medicine. Velasco will be pursuing his PhD in biomedical sciences at UMass Chan this fall.

“Before starting PREP, I wasn’t sure that I was capable of being a PhD student in biomedical sciences, but with the experience that I’ve gained, I am definitely confident that I can succeed,” Velasco said. “I wanted to hone my scientific confidence. I feel I accomplished exactly that. I was knee deep into the research, doing my own project, and having the mentors along the way to steer me in the right direction.”

“The IMSD program helped me understand what being a research-focused scientist means . . . I’m very glad I’ve been a part of this community.”

  – PhD student Helen Magana

The PREP program runs from July to June and enrolls nine students each year. To be eligible, students must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents and have completed a bachelor’s degree within the past three years and intend to pursue doctoral study in the biomedical sciences.

PREP student Amanda Modica will be pursuing a PhD in microbiology and immunology at Drexel University College of Medicine Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Professional Studies starting this fall.

During her PREP year at UMass Chan, Modica worked in the lab of Kiera Clayton, PhD, assistant professor of pathology, investigating HIV accessory proteins and the mechanisms by which they trigger natural killer cells.

“It was a fantastic experience. I gained the skills I needed to bolster my graduate school application and I feel well prepared for the next step,” Modica said.

Building a community of underrepresented students in the biomedical sciences
David Upegui, PhD, a science teacher at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island and an adjunct professor of education at Brown University, served as the year-end celebration’s keynote speaker. Coincidentally, Helen Magana, an IMSD student and fourth-year biomedical science PhD candidate, had Dr. Upegui as her science teacher at Central Falls High.

Photo of Kate Lapane, Whitney Bentley, Brian Lewis and Zhané Adamson inside a conference room
IMSD and PREP program leaders Kate Lapane, PhD; Whitney Bentley; and Brian Lewis, PhD, present Zhané Adamson with a certificate of achievement for completing her qualifying exam and becoming a PhD candidate.  

“The IMSD program helped me understand what being a research-focused scientist means,” said Magana, who has a Bachelor of Science in biology from Rhode Island College. “I think of all the supplementary workshops that we get—writing, presenting, how to present data. How we think about those kinds of things isn’t anything I really thought about until I was with IMSD.”

Magana works in the lab of Mary Munson, PhD, professor of biochemistry & molecular biotechnology, vice chair of diversity for the department, and assistant vice provost for health equity, where she researches specific mutations in the VPS45 gene that causes congenital neutropenia, a rare, severe disorder in newborns.

The IMSD program enrolls more than 40 students at all stages in their PhD journey. The program strives to increase the number of students who complete PhD degrees despite socially, culturally, economically or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds that inhibit entry into research training and careers.

“Everyone in the program comes from different backgrounds, it’s very collaborative, and UMass Chan really wants to see us succeed in the program,” said Calvin Johnson, a PhD candidate in the IMSD program who earned his Bachelor of Science in microbiology from UMass Amherst. He works in the lab of Jason Pitarresi, PhD, assistant professor of medicine, where he is identifying new drug targets for reversing suppression of the immune system in pancreatic cancer.

“The faculty have been supportive, friendly and eager to answer questions for trainees.”

IMSD Class of 2024
Nathan Bamidele
Xavier Gonzalez
Leslie Torres Ulloa

PREP Class of 2024
Lali Berelashvili
Tarrin D’Aniello
Amanda Modica
Caroline Moore
Blanca Muñoz Villarreal
Rachell Rivera
Olachi Unaka
Joshuel Velasco
Astrid Veloz-Maury

IMSD Qualifying Exam Completion
Zhané Adamson
Rakeyah Ahsan
Brianna Dominguez
Calvin Johnson
Oscar Lam
Rebecca Pavchinskiy
Claudia Perez
Alejandra Rivera Nieves
Carolyn Senneca
Askar Temirbek