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King University News :: Alexia Melo Discovers Love for Research

In 2008, Glade Springs, Va., native Alexia Melo graduated from then King College with her Bachelor of Science in Cellular and Molecular Biology. After graduation, she headed straight for Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., to study for her PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology.

During her junior year at King, Melo’s advisor was Dr. Vanessa Fitsanakis, associate professor of Biology. Dr. Fitsanakis suggested Melo entertain the prospect of research as a career option. “Until then, I didn’t realize that people did research for a living, as a career. My original plan was to study pre-med at King and become a doctor; I thought if you liked science, then you had to become a doctor. After discussing options with Dr. Fitsanakis, she brought me to Vanderbilt to an open house event, then suggested that I apply for a summer program at the Mayo Clinic during the summer of 2007. I fell in love with research, so much so that I decided to pursue my PhD.”

Research programs are competitive, so when Melo was accepted to her first choice program at Vanderbilt, she was thrilled.

Melo currently works in the research lab of Dr. Christine Eischen, associate professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, and associate professor of Cancer Biology for Vanderbilt. Eischen’s research lab specializes in oncogenic and tumor suppressor pathways in tumor development. Through research, the lab hopes to provide a better understanding of cancer development, which might then lead to improved intervention strategies for malignant tumors.

Melo’s work is focused specifically on the areas of DNA damage and how alterations in the DNA damage affect tumor progression.

In 2009, during her first year in the research lab at Vanderbilt, Melo applied for and received a highly competitive individual research fellowship, the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards for Individual Predoctoral Fellowships to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research, through the National Institutes of Health. “Being Hispanic and from a rural socioeconomically disadvantaged background allowed me to apply for this diversity fellowship. The fellowship pays my tuition; I also receive a stipend. I was honored to receive this award. Approximately only 20 to 30 percent of those who apply are awarded the fellowship.” The fellowship is renewed annually.

Once Melo completes her PhD in 2014, she plans to seek a post-doctoral research fellowship. “My ultimate goal is to have my own research lab and incorporate research with teaching. I’m interested in research of autoimmune diseases. I am also particularly interested in influencing diversity in the biomedical sciences through reaching out to lower-income and rural schools or areas that do not have a research component available, and ultimately make research opportunities accessible. I wasn’t exposed to the possibilities of research until my junior year at King; many in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia have also not been exposed. I am eager to share this amazing career option with others like me.

“I’m so thankful to Dr. Fitsanakis for her guidance. Until now, I have never let her know how much of an impact she truly had on my life.”