INRO Testimonials

Our research fellows are part of a group of committed scientists crossing scientific boundaries to solve today's complex global health problems. The stories below are from trainees who have been matched with NIAID labs in three locations. Read their stories and see what they are doing now.

The Postdoc Experience

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Tshaka Cunningham

From Science to Business to Science

The first male in his family to go to college, much less an Ivy League school, Tshaka felt pressure to go into business. Deciding instead to follow his heart, Tshaka ventured into virology, earning his Ph.D. from Rockefeller University. He went on to do postdocs at the Louis Pasteur Institute in Paris, the National Cancer Institute, and NIAID. Finding himself at a crossroad once again and ready to take a step away from the bench, Tshaka began to explore his options.

Today, Tshaka is the Associate Director of Scientific Collaborations at DIAglobal, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to bringing health care product development professionals together to share insights and drive action in health care product development and life cycle management. Although he is no longer in the lab full time, Tshaka still has "a toe," as he calls it, in the door of research. The many journals he reads and his affiliate faculty position at George Mason University keep him up to speed on the science. Is it enough? "I am very satisfied," says Tshaka.

Of his postdoctoral experience at NIAID, Tshaka says "NIAID offers that high level training." He regularly returns to NIAID to speak about his experiences and offer advice to postdocs considering careers at the bench. "Make the best of the opportunity—get on well with your lab mentor and make as many connections as you can inside and outside of NIH," because you never know which direction you may go. Tshaka has returned to the INRO program as a speaker, offering his advice on life after the bench.

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José Ramirez

Taking Advantage of NIH Resources as a Postdoc

José Ramirez was finishing his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University and looking for a place to do his postdoctoral training. He had met some researchers at NIAID during his graduate work and started noticing how much of the research fit his interests and the direction he wanted his career path to take.

Seeing information about INRO, he applied and set to work defending his thesis as he waited to hear whether he was accepted. At the same time, he heard about a postdoc position opening in a lab at NIAID. Relying on the old adage—apply to everything that interests you—he interviewed with NIAID's Dr. Carolina Barillas, Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research; was accepted; and signed on to begin his postdoc fellowship in the new year. A few weeks later he learned that he had been accepted to INRO.

José studied vector-host interactions at the molecular level to see how mosquitoes respond to infection as part of his postdoctoral fellowship. “This is one of the best places to do this research,” he said of NIAID. The “research crosses so many fields. The opportunity to talk with people in other labs who also are working on vector research really” expanded his own research."

José also remains active with the Office of Training and Diversity INRO community, often giving talks or participating on career development panel discussions about the benefits of training at NIAID and the opportunities to expand one’s skill set. "The monthly brown-bag lunch series offers a wealth of training skills—how to present, how to network—and opportunities to learn about other areas of biotechnology. I'm very proud to be included in INRO," he says, to be "part of this community and at the same time to learn so much."

José is currently a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture studying arthropod-borne pathogen systems, particularly the identification of factors that influence pathogen infection and the elucidation of novel mechanisms to control vector populations and prevent pathogen transmission.

Clinical Research

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Donald Cheatem

"INRO superseded my goals. The research described was very cutting-edge and groundbreaking."

As an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Donald applied to INRO to gain a better understanding of research opportunities available. He knew that he wanted to pursue his interest in immunology, obtain a medical degree, and conduct research at a teaching hospital. He also knew that NIAID was at the forefront of research in immunology and would be a wonderful place for him to feed his desire for discovery through research. INRO offered the chance to see exactly what opportunities might be available to him.

Part of the first INRO class, Donald accepted a summer internship position and spent the time honing his research techniques and gaining a broader understanding of research protocols. Returning to the University of Illinois with a stronger set of research skills, Donald went on to complete his M.D./Ph.D. program and is now the lead medical director of clinical development at Baxter Healthcare Corporation in Illinois. Donald has returned to INRO offering advice to trainees and visiting students who are exploring medical research.

The Postbaccalaureate Experience

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Neysha Martinez

Two Postbacs

Neysha had planned to go directly to grad school after completing her bachelor's at Pontifical Catholic University at Puerto Rico, thinking it would be better for her career. After encouragement from her professor, Neysha applied to and attended INRO, ultimately deferring her graduate work and committing to a traineeship.

During INRO, Neysha had been intrigued by a presentation by Steve Porcella, Ph.D., Research Technologies Branch, Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML). She talked with him informally, and by week's end, was convinced RML was for her. She started her postbac traineeship at RML that same year, working under Dr. Porcella.

In fact, RML gave Neysha what she was looking for, a strong foundation of "important research techniques." She also learned how to give scientific talks and was co-author of a paper.

After discussions with her mentor about her goal to gain as much experience as she could in different locations prior to returning to Puerto Rico, Neysha signed on to do another postbac traineeship. This time it was with NIAID investigator Dr. David Greenberg, Laboratory of Clinical Infectious Diseases, at NIH headquarters in Maryland. Because of the skills she learned at RML, Neysha had more independence during this postbac. "I was excited to have my own experiment studying Granulibacter bethesdensis (a newly identified bacterium) in longer life phagocytes."

After two postbac research traineeships, Neysha began graduate school at the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus to study industrial pharmacy. Frequently a guest speaker at INRO, Neysha is a strong supporter of the program. "INRO surpassed all my expectations. It was challenging and enriching. I felt more prepared and confident to go to grad school and then go on with what I'm positive will be an exciting career." Neysha has spoken at numerous INRO programs, and most recently attended the 15th anniversary where she explored the possibility of a career position at NIAID. 

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Mila Ortigoza

"I was thrilled to learn that the research component was definitely something I could incorporate with my medical career.… INRO solidified for me that research."

At INRO, Mila attended scientific lectures and had the opportunity to interview with several researchers, including Edward A. Berger, Ph.D., chief of the Laboratory of Viral Diseases. She talked with Dr. Berger about the research in his lab and what she might do if she signed on for a research traineeship. After the interview, Mila says, "I had no doubt that I wanted to take a year off and learn more about independent research at NIH."

Mila pursued her M.D./Ph.D. at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York through the Medical Scientists Training Program, an NIH-funded program. She is currently an infectious disease fellow at NYU Langone Health. She has returned to NIAID over the years to participate on career panels and has been dedicated to mentoring young scientists seeking careers in biomedical research. 

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Juliana Lewis

Juliana Lewis attended the inaugural class of INRO on the advice of her mentor at Northeastern University in Boston. She had just completed her first laboratory experience as an undergraduate and was sparked with a newly found interest in biomedical research. Her mentor thought that INRO might help Juliana decide whether she wanted to move forward with her original goal of attending medical school or perhaps take another path.

"At INRO, I learned about the science behind the medicine," Juliana explained. "I realized that there are additional paths that will lead me toward my career goal of helping mankind lead a longer, healthier, and more fulfilling life. Biomedical research happened to be a side of medicine that sparked my interest on a deeper level than hands-on patient care."

After a summer internship in the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Immunology, Juliana secured a postbaccalaureate position within the same laboratory, ultimately staying for an additional two years.

Juliana was awarded her doctoral degree in immunology at Tufts University in Boston. A regular guest speaker at INRO, she speaks openly about her change from her original desire to attend medical school to her current path, that of obtaining a Ph.D. "It's an exciting milestone in my life."

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Imran Babar

"The program sounded like an exciting opportunity to learn about NIAID research.…"

As an undergraduate at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, Imran Babar became fascinated with basic cell and molecular biology. On the advice of a professor, he applied to INRO and was accepted.

During INRO, Imran met and interviewed with several NIAID investigators. Dr. Stephen F. Porcella, chief of the Laboratory of Human Bacterial Pathogenesis at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML), sparked his interest. "I wanted to learn microarray analysis, and researchers at the RML were doing a lot of it."

Under Dr. Porcella's mentorship, Imran gained a wealth of experience with microarray analysis, received advice regarding graduate school, and was able to coauthor a publication in a respected peer-reviewed journal. The experience motivated Imran to apply to some of the Nation's top graduate schools, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Yale University. Imran is now on a career track as a private equity senior associate at OrbiMed Advisors, a company that invests in promising medical product innovations. He recently returned to NIAID and the INRO program as a guest speaker for the 15th anniversary of the program. .

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Jawara Allen

Making a Valuable Contribution as a Postbac

Jawara Allen was pretty sure he wanted to become an infectious disease researcher but thought it would be useful to do a postbac before beginning his M.D./Ph.D. education just to be sure. The decision led to his applying to INRO to find out more about NIAID.

INRO, Jawara says, "really highlighted how much diversity there is in biomedical research and that I can do any number of things." He interviewed with Thomas L. Leto, Ph.D., in the Laboratory of Host Defenses. "Dr. Leto had clearly read my application in detail and knew the work that I had done in the past." In fact, Dr. Leto already had a project in mind that used Jawara's genetics research experience, leaving Jawara "feeling that I would be a valuable member of the lab, bringing something unique to the research."

Jawara continued to be impressed during his first couple of weeks in the lab when Dr. Leto sat down with him to discuss both of their goals. "Dr. Leto wanted to make sure my time was used well and that I learned to think like a scientist," says Jawara.

During his postbac, Jawara applied to and was accepted in the M.D./Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Of one thing he is sure, "I definitely will come back to NIH for a postdoc." While he’s not yet back for a postdoc, Jawara frequently visits NIAID and the INRO program to share his experiences and offer advice to others exploring a career in biomedical research. 

Summer Internships

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JoLynn Azure

Making the Most of the Summer Internship

JoLynn Azure, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, heard about INRO through her membership with the Association of American Indian Physicians and jumped on the opportunity. After interviewing with Kim Y. Green, Ph.D., Laboratory of Infectious Diseases, and learning more about the research underway in the lab, JoLynn signed on for a summer internship.

While at NIAID, JoLynn used her eight weeks wisely. In addition to doing a poster on her research, she job shadowed at the NIH Clinical Center, a hospital devoted to clinical research. Twice a week she followed staff to get a sense of the day-to-day life of a physician who is also conducting research. The experienced fueled her goal of going to medical school.

Asked whether she felt uncomfortable at NIAID given that there are so few American Indians in biomedical research, JoLynn remarked on how welcome she felt, "My work crew is very diverse which is helpful. I felt like I fit in very well."

After completing her summer internship, JoLynn returned to her hometown of Minot, North Dakota, to help her family rebuild their home which was flooded when the Souris River—heavy with intense snowmelt and rain—overtopped levees. 

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Elisa Frankel

Technologically Speaking

When she applied to INRO, Elisa Frankel didn't know anything about NIH. But after attending the four-day program in February, she knew she wanted to come back. She spent the summer working with Olivia Steele-Mortimer, PhD., Salmonella Host-Cell Interactions Section, at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, studying salmonella bacteria using a transmission electronic microscope.

The experience whetted her appetite to learn more about the technologies that support biomedical research. After her summer internship Elisa traveled to Israel under a Fulbright scholarship to study the electronic properties of DNA base lesions at the Weizmann Institute of Science, where she incorporated both physics and biology into her investigations.

She is currently part of the Integrated Program in Biochemistry as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she plans to get a Ph.D. Elisa recently returned to NIAID to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the program and to pursue a career position at the Institute. 

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Josh Baeza

A Summer Internship, Then a Postbac—Totally Worth It

Josue had attended a small university with few research programs and thought INRO was the chance to delve into the full experience of biomedical research. "It was the best opportunity I've ever had," he says. "I listened to so many different researchers talk about their work. That clinched it for me. I knew I wanted to come back for the summer."

Josue was offered a summer internship with Dr. Shyam Kottilil, Laboratory of Immunoregulation, where he worked on HIV/hepatitis C co-infection. In addition to gaining invaluable research skills, he was co-author on a paper, an uncommon accomplishment for summer interns. Josue found the experience so enriching that he returned for a postbac after finishing his undergraduate education at the University of Texas.

Josue received his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Looking back on INRO, Josue says, "It was a catalyst, a big stepping stone to getting to where I am now." Missing four days of school and playing catch up, he says, "was totally worth it." He believes the experience made him very competitive for the National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship. "I don't think I would have gotten it without my experience at NIH." Josue frequently returns to NIAID as a speaker, offering his advice to others contemplating the next step in their career path.​​​​​​

Content last reviewed on August 24, 2017