Graduate Spotlight

When she enrolled in Jackson State University as an undergraduate, Cheryl Bell wanted to be a forensic scientist. A naturally curious child, fascinated by how things—the human body in particular—work, she eventually earned a degree in biology and taught in a public school in Mississippi, after which she returned to Jackson State to pursue an MS in cell biology. Through her participation in the Bridges to the Doctorate Program, she was provided with a formative experience conducting research in the Anatomy and Cell Biology Department at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, on a project funded by NASA studying bone formation.

As she neared the completion of her MS, Dr. Bell was encouraged to apply to PhD programs, and soon found herself at the University of Connecticut researching an HIV-prevention therapy for uncircumcised males. Through her work she conducted Next-Generation Sequencing to compare changes in gene expression, and found that one of the genes affected by the treatment makes a gap junction protein, connexin, which has been shown to be important for wound healing. Similar research was being conducted here at Pitt, and a postdoc position opened up just as she was preparing to defend her dissertation.

Now in the 3rd year of that postdoctoral associate position in the Department of Cell Biology at Pitt, and an alumna (’16–’17) of the ICRE’s Career Education and Enhancement for Health Care Research Diversity (CEED) Program, Dr. Bell is exploring a novel explanation for the cell-to-cell communication that takes place during the process of wound healing. Although research thus far has suggested that connexin is degraded and synthesized anew as communication needs fluctuate, Bell and her colleagues posit that these proteins may in fact be held onto and recycled as needed. She is actively designing projects to test this hypothesis, in addition to writing grants, publishing papers, and giving presentations.

Her participation in CEED, and the requirement to write a mock grant, came in handy as she wrote two National Science Foundation renewal grants with her postdoc mentor and her own National Institutes of Health K99/R00 career development award. CEED also enabled her to forge valuable connections with colleagues who, being at different stages of their career, were able to offer advice and encouragement to one another, and who have ultimately helped make her research more interdisciplinary and translational.

Dr. Bell was interested in becoming involved with the ICRE not just because of CEED, but also because of our fundamental focus on clinical and translational science. When speaking with Dr. Bell, her infectious curiosity, collaborative spirit, and gift for communicating her passions are more than evident. Her talent for communication was even recognized through her being awarded second place in UConn’s 3-Minute Thesis Competition. Since her passion for research goes hand in hand with the desire to disseminate knowledge, she seeks not just to understand the mechanisms of how things work, but also to translate this understanding into practice so that it can improve people’s lives. She is driven by the knowledge that her research can directly affect future generations, and that because of the work being done today by researchers like her, people currently suffering from incurable illnesses could in 20 or 30 years be able to live comfortably with their condition. “If I can be even just a small part of this process,” Bell says, “that will be satisfying for me.”

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