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UC, Children’s research collaboration leads to Fulbright in homeland

UC biomedical grad student will investigate genetic links to cancer with Fulbright research award

When a Richmond, Virginia police officer was shot in 2004, his physicians said he would never regain the use of his hand.

“That was until a prominent local hand surgeon and director of his own nerve research lab said, ‘No, I can do that because that’s my research. I pioneered this procedure,’” says Dylan Naitraj David, University of Cincinnati biomedical graduate student. “From the moment the surgeon restored my father’s hand back to full use, I knew I wanted to go into medical sciences.”

UC grad student Dylan David and his father a police officer in uniform stand together.

After successful surgery restored his hand to full use, Dylan David's father, Naitraj David, was able to return to work as a sergeant for the Richmond Sheriff's Office. He is now a master patrol officer for the Richmond Police Department.

Fast forward 16 years, and the moniker “physician-scientist” is still deeply rooted in David’s future. As he prepares to defend his UC master’s thesis in immunology this summer, David is also the recent recipient of a Fulbright student scholarship to participate in open study biomedical research in Trinidad and Tobago, the cultural birthplace of both his parents.

“It’ll be an honor to spend my Fulbright at the University of the West Indies conducting research as a mentee in the Rajini Haraksingh cancer research laboratory,” says David. “With my American Trinidadian heritage, I am especially interested in looking at the causes for such high rates of cancer in that cultural population.”

Four University of Cincinnati students were granted Fulbright U.S. student scholarships in 2020. Others include Jeffrey Banks, study/research grant to Old Corinth and Athens, Greece; Erika Nguyen, English teaching assistant in Vietnam, and Mia Turnbull, English teaching assistant in Spain. (UC News will be featuring all four in the coming weeks.)

Since its inception in 1946, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program is the largest U.S. exchange program offering opportunities for students and young professionals to engage in international graduate study, advanced research and teaching. Currently operating in 140 countries around the globe, the program awards approximately 2,000 grants annually in all fields of study and aligns with UC’s Next Lives Here strategic direction for academic excellence.

Early impact

Several undergraduate students covered in Holi festival colors stand together.

As part of the coordinator board of VCU's chapter of Camp Kesem, a free summer camp for children who have or have had a parent fighting cancer, Dylan David and the other counselors enjoyed playing "Messy Games." The event helps the children release negative feelings by getting each other as messy as possible using whipped cream, shaving cream, chocolate syrup, nontoxic washable paint and water.

Making his mark right out of high school, David began his undergraduate studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) with a full-ride scholarship. While there he kept a steady academic pace earning a University Scholar award and was a member of the Phi Sigma Pi National Honor Fraternity and the Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Honor Society.

But according to David, his service as a counselor and a unit leader for VCU’s chapter of Camp Kesem — a free summer camp for children who have lost a parent or have one currently fighting cancer — ignited the spark to go into cancer research. His undergraduate outreach contributed significantly to the children in Virginia and continued on in Cincinnati where he later served as an adviser to the nascent Camp Kesem chapter at UC.

The amount of resources, scientific apparatus and collaborative nature between UC and CCHMC is incredible. I found the collaboration genuine and sincere where scientists all come together generously for the sake of creating better science.

Dylan David UC biomedical grad student and recipient of a 2020 Fulbright Scholarship

Orthopedic surgeon Jonathan Isaacs stands with UC grad student Dylan David.

Dylan David enjoyed working as an undergraduate research assistant with Jonathan Isaacs, (on left) the same orthopedic surgeon who successfully repaired his father's hand almost a decade earlier.

Among several opportunities to work with diverse biomedical researchers as an undergrad, David’s hands-on training in the VCU lab of Jonathan Isaacs — the same orthopedic surgeon that saved his father’s hand and career — made the biggest impact.

“Seeing the bench-to-bedside approach of a physician-scientist up close amazed me and reinforced my desire to both practice and enhance medicine through biomedical research,” says David.

David's later work in the Isaacs laboratory as an undergrad at VCU was an amazing experience, he says, where he also earned authorship on a publication in the Journal of Hand Surgery.

“While he spent time shadowing me in the clinic, it was in the lab where [Dylan] really demonstrated his true talent,” says Isaacs, professor and chief at VCU Division of Hand Surgery. “His passion for research was contagious, and he displayed a level of professionalism and maturity rarely encountered in undergraduate students.”

Before joining UC’s biomedical graduate program, David pivoted for a year, securing a prestigious Intramural Research Training Award fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Washington, D.C.

“It was during my time at the NIH where I fell in love with the University of Cincinnati,” says David. “The incredible research opportunities I saw there were unlike anywhere else."

Bearcat inspiration

Five members of CCHMC's Marie-Dominique Filippi's research lab stand together at a conference.

Members of CCHMC's Filippi bone marrow research laboratory attended the 14th Annual Midwest Blood Club Conference. From left, graduate students Jose Javier, Dylan David and James Bartram, mentor/advisor Marie-Dominique Filippi and research assistant Devyani Sharma.

While interviewing at immunology programs all over the country David says he was most impressed with UC’s collaborative graduate program.

“They not only had one of the most well-established programs with great funding, outstanding mentors and state-of-the-art research going on, but they [also] were the most accommodating,” he says. “By the time I left I didn’t want to see any other schools and began making plans to do every part of my graduate training at UC.” 

The partnership and close proximity between UC’s immunology department and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC) was the biggest selling point of all. 

Four members of a family, one dressed in cap, tassel and gown, stand together after a college graduation.

Dylan David, surrounded by his family in Virginia, graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with honors.

“The amount of resources, scientific apparatus and collaborative nature between UC and CCHMC is incredible,” David claims. “I found the collaboration genuine and sincere where scientists all come together generously for the sake of creating better science.”

“It’s actually more than what I saw as a research fellow at the NIH,” he adds.

As he propelled forward in UC’s immunology graduate training, David worked in collaborative cancer bio-research at CCHMC, beginning in Edith Janssen’s immunology lab and later working full time in bone marrow cancer research in the lab of Marie-Dominique Filippi.

David is currently working on defending his master’s thesis this summer in immunology. After spending his Fulbright year in Trinidad, he plans to hopefully matriculate into an MD/PhD dual-degree program, such as UC's Medical Scientist Training Program, to train as a physician-scientist in the areas of cancer biology and immunology.

"From the first moment I met Dylan, I knew his strength of purpose was evident," says Jenny Hyest, director of UC's Office of Nationally Competitive Awards. "He knew exactly where he wanted to go, what he wanted to do there and why."

In Trinidad, David will combine his academic experience in immunology, cancer biology and bioinformatics to investigate the genetic linkage to poor cancer outcomes in the Trinidadian population.

“From my very first interaction with [Dr.] Isaacs when I was 10, medicine and research has been my intended career path,” says David. “And as an American-born Trinidadian with little connection to my culture, I now look forward to going to my parent’s homeland to make an impact on cancer research there.

“The Fulbright U.S. Student Grant will give me the opportunity to learn more about my heritage and enhance my skillset to be able to properly study and fight cancer in all populations of people.”

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Featured image at top: Dylan David presented a poster on his leukemia research while serving in his IRTA fellowship at the NIH. Photo/Provided by Dylan David

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