Education in Trying Times: 2020 Grad Student Recap

2020 has presented many unexpected changes, and our graduate students have not been exempt from all of the challenges of this year. Despite the setbacks that came from an abrupt lockdown and a switch to virtual learning, our students have made the most of this year and continued in their academic achievements. Today we want to highlight a few of the ways that our students have persevered this year, first by sharing quotes that summarize their Student Experience and then by noting their various Awards and Accomplishments.

The Student Experience

Being new to GWHT, it has been unfortunate that we are unable to spend as much time together in person as we would have before COVID-19. However, the group seems to have adapted very well to the new COVID-19 policies, and we see each other frequently on Zoom. Having one-on-one Zoom meetings with each lab member when I arrived and continuing to have lab meetings and even lab lunches over Zoom throughout the semester makes me feel like a part of GWHT regardless of the current social distancing guidelines.

— Alana

When the pandemic hit, most of our laboratory work was slowed down or halted to limit the number of people in the lab. Luckily, I was still able to keep developing our low-cost breast cancer treatment strategy in pre-clinical models. We had an international clinical trial that was planned for the Summer of 2020 that was put on-hold indefinitely. It was hard to see that cancelled but has allowed me to focus more on my pre-clinical studies, and we have since started developing a cervical cancer treatment model.

— Corrine

This year was a year of social distancing, however I still found virtual meetings with my team energizing. It’s so exciting to see the work my fellow grad students are doing and their great results and analysis always inspires me.

— Victoria

A silver lining of being sent home from the lab and unable to do hands-on experimental work was that when we finally had approval to return to the lab, I felt invigorated to do more experiments. The time spent quarantining at home allowed for extensive literature review and planning, and let us hit the ground running.

— Erika

It was difficult to keep doing work when you don’t have constant feedback from seeing everyone in the lab every day. It has been energizing to train new students (even if virtually), to share some of the excitement we have for the science we are doing.

— Corrine

On the day of my prelim I received a message from the lab saying to look on my front porch. Sitting there was the cutest care package full of chocolates (which I immediately began to stress eat) and an adorable pair of socks. It has been really hard not being able to see all our team members at work, and this small gift made me feel the community and support from the lab. It really meant a lot especially on the day of such a big milestone.


I have been very fortunate to work with wonderful undergraduate researchers at GWHT. When the world began shutting down and summer internships were cancelled, I proposed summer projects for both of the undergrads working with me. I am so proud of the grace and grit that each exhibited to make the most out of an unusual summer. Both exceeded my expectations in what they were able to accomplish and learn in an entirely digital setting.


This year I studied a field that was entirely new to me- machine learning. Through hours and hours put in I feel like I’ve mastered many skills within that field, been able to work on some cool projects, and even began mentoring undergrads in that area. The other area I feel like I’ve improved in is in mentoring- I’ve worked with two undergraduate students on a research project and have been able to guide them while allowing them ownership of the project, and seeing them learn and grow has been very rewarding.

— Victoria

My major goal for 2021 is to publish my first first-author academic research paper!

— Victoria

In the next year, my plan is to defend my thesis and begin the next phase of my career in medical school. In the meantime, I am working to finalize my experiments and publish my findings.

— Corrine

I am excited to direct energy back into the community. Professionally, I anticipate applying what I’ve learned this year to publications and presentations in the coming year. Personally, I’m eager to reconnect to the Durham community and to find new ways to give back as we begin to return to normal.



Awards and Accomplishments

Fellowship Awards:

Enakshi Sunassee, Clinton Global Initiative Cohort of 2020

Roujia Wang, DGHI Fellowship

Lillian Ekem, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Victoria D’Agostino, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Erica Skerrett, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Erika Cheales, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and Tau Beta Pi Harold M. King Fellowship

Riley Deutsch, National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate Fellowship

Enakshi Sunassee, The Howard G. Clark III Fellowship

Alana Gonzales, John T. Chambers Fellowship

Conferences and Presentations:

  1. M. C. Madonna, J. Duer, D. Fox, J. Alvarez, and N. Ramanujam, “In vivo metabolic imaging reveals mitochondrial membrane potential reprogramming following Her2-targeted therapy and dormant disease,” in Biophotonics Congress: Biomedical Optics 2020 (Translational, Microscopy, OCT, OTS, BRAIN), OSA Technical Digest (Optical Society of America, 2020), paper TTu1B.3.

  2. R. Wang, R. Deutsch, D. A. Alvarez, C. Lam, B. T. Crouch, T. Haystead, and N. Ramanujam, “Leveraging Surface Hsp90 Expression for Rapid-on-site Breast Cancer Diagnostics,” in Biophotonics Congress: Biomedical Optics 2020 (Translational, Microscopy, OCT, OTS, BRAIN), OSA Technical Digest (Optical Society of America, 2020), paper TM4B.2.

  3. Asiedu, M.N., Skerrett, E., Sapiro, G., Ramanujam, N., Combining multiple contrasts for improving machine-learning based classification of cervical cancers with a low-cost point-of-care Pocket Colposcope. IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society Conference (EMBC), July 20–24, 2020; Montreal, Canada (Virtual)

  4. Nief, Corrine A., Erika Chelales, Robert Morhard, Jeffrey Everitt, Jenna Mueller, Junjie Yao, Mark W. Dewhirst, and Nirmala Ramanujam. “Averting tumor growth in rodent breast cancer models with a liquid ablation approach.” (2020): 5243–5243.

  5. Chelales, E., Morhard, R., Sag, A.A., Ramanujam, N. Polymer-Enhanced Ethanol Ablation Localizes Injected Ethanol and Increases Tumor Treatment Efficacy. Poster presented at: Biomedical Engineering Society Annual Meeting. Virtual. October 2020.

  6. Chelales, E., Morhard, R., Sag, A.A., Ramanujam, N. Radiologic-Pathologic Analysis of Novel Ethanol Gel Formulation for Percutaneous Ablation in an Animal Model. Poster presented at: Symposiium on Clinical Interventional Oncology. Virtual. October 2020.

  7. Deutsch, R., Madonna, M., Zhu, C., Goga, A., Ramanujam, N., (October 2020). Optical Fluorescence Spectroscopy Identifies Changes in Fatty Acid Metabolism During Tumor Regression. Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) Annual Meeting. Virtual.

Thesis Defense: Robert Morhard completed his final defense in August 2020 and went on to start a Postdoc at the National Cancer Institute, NIH.

Megan Madonna completed her final defense in September 2020 and is now the Assistant Director of Education at GWHT.

Pre-Lim: This fall three of our students completed their pre-lim exams. Congrats to Erica Skerrett, Erika Cheales and Riley Deutsch!

Publications: Understanding Factors Governing Distribution Volume of Ethyl Cellulose-Ethanol to Optimize Ablative Therapy in the Liver

Polymer-assisted intratumoral delivery of ethanol: Preclinical investigation of safety and efficacy in a murine breast cancer model

Quantitative assessment of distant recurrence risk in early stage breast cancer using a nonlinear combination of pathological, clinical and imaging variables

In vivo optical metabolic imaging of long-chain fatty acid uptake in orthotopic models of triple negative breast cancer

A novel speculum-free imaging strategy for visualization of the internal female lower reproductive system


Learn more about all of our students through our Student Spotlight Youtube Series!