“Education is something that nobody can take away from you.”
“I’ve heard that so many times from my dad, but he’s right,” said Alexis Fakunmoju, who is graduating this spring from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry in the first cohort of students in the oral biology track of the M.S. in microbiology and immunology graduate research program. This track is designed for students wishing to improve their resume for applications to dental school, Ph.D. programs and biomedical jobs.
Fakunmoju majored in biology as an undergraduate in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences. She was attracted to the M.S. program at VCU School of Dentistry after gaining exposure to research during her capstone biology course. She felt that it would help her improve her chances of getting into dental school, her ultimate goal.
“My father is from Nigeria. My mother is from Boston, but her mother remarried to a Nigerian man and met my dad after they moved there,” said Fakunmoju, whose parents came back to the U.S. and settled in the Virginia Beach area. Her family has faced tough times financially, but her father’s emphasis on education and a desire to support her family provided the motivation to pursue her dream of becoming a dentist.
“I have a rare type of cyst that grows in my jaw and have needed multiple surgeries to remove it. The oral surgeon can’t explain why it continues to return, so I became determined to gain the knowledge that would help me find out myself,” said Fakunmoju, explaining what attracted her to dentistry. To gain experience in the field, she worked for eight years as a dental assistant at a practice in Virginia Beach.
Beginning the M.S. program was an intimidating experience. “I got accepted a little later than other students, because a few had dropped out and it opened up a spot for me. I had missed orientation, and I didn’t have a lot of prior experience in a research setting so I was overwhelmed at first.”
The two-year program is designed to slowly integrate students into a research environment, first through coursework and journal clubs. Not only do students learn the process behind biomedical research and how to interpret scientific literature, they also learn to identify flaws in manuscripts and question different methodologies before undertaking research on their own in the lab.
While Fakunmoju had some prior research experience from her undergraduate experience, the labs at the Philips Institute of Oral Health were new and initially intimidating. She gained valuable experience in the Bristol Lab, which is run by Molly L. Bristol, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Dentistry. The lab focuses on human papillomavirus type 16 and the development of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers.
“Dr. Bristol took me in and really helped get me up to speed. I had never even pipetted before, but I was surprised how quickly I was able to catch on,” Fakunmoju said. “She was there with me for weeks, standing behind me if I had any questions and slowly increasing my responsibilities as I progressed. After a couple of months, I was helping train other students.”
Once established in the lab, students work with their faculty advisers on research projects related to oral health. Fakunmoju’s research focuses on the impact of estrogen on HPV-associated head and neck and cervical cancers.
“My research focuses on the tumor microenvironment,” Fakunmoju said. “In cell cultures, estrogen inhibited the growth of cancer, but we got the complete opposite results when we started looking at mouse models. Now, we’re trying to figure out what interactions in the tumor microenvironment are responsible for the enhanced cancer growth in the presence of estrogen.”
This type of research is fundamental for the development of new drugs, because it helps explain the biological processes that drive disease progression and how we might be able stop or take advantage of them. Fakunmoju is preparing to defend her thesis at the end of the semester, and she hopes the work will also be published in a scientific journal.
“Research is like a puzzle. I love it, but it can be so frustrating!” Fakunmoju said. “I was talking to Dr. Bristol the other day, and I said, ‘I don’t want to leave; I feel we’ve opened so many doors and I want to see what’s behind them.’ Dr. Bristol said, ‘Alexis the doors will always be there; even when I left my Ph.D. the doors were still open.’ And that’s what’s so cool about research, you’re always adding to and building on someone else’s work.”
Fakunmoju is quick to acknowledge how much support she’s received from faculty, postdocs and other students in the M.S. program. She even applied for and was awarded a VCU Graduate Research Scholarship to offset her final semester tuition at Bristol’s urging. She now tries to use her experience to educate others, especially friends and family members who come from underrepresented and less-than-privileged backgrounds.
“I’ve become a role model for many of my friends and family members, and as I climb up I want to be able to help others by giving them a foot in the door however I can,” Fakunmoju said. “I think so much relies on overcoming intimidation and taking advantage of opportunities. I try to teach others to not be intimidated and to do their best, and really that’s all that matters.”
In addition to graduating from the program and defending her thesis, Fakunmoju’s focus has shifted to applying to dental schools. Having attended VCU as an undergraduate and graduate student, she hopes to get into VCU for dental school but understands it’s a competitive process. However, she feels her experience in the program has helped improve her application; she even had the opportunity to take a course with other dental students as an elective to get an idea of what she might face when pursuing a doctoral of dental surgery degree.
“I completed a first-year course focused on infection control in clinical settings. It was really hard and I didn’t get much sleep during that semester, but Dr. Bristol really encouraged me and pushed me to focus,” said Fakunmoju. “I remember getting an A and Dr. Bristol and others came in and were, like, shouting at me and super excited. It makes me feel good, because I know that people here just want to see me succeed and do well.”
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