VCU Wright Center researcher earns national scholarship to finish her Ph.D.

photo of Josly

Seventeen-year-old Josly Pierre-Louis would be surprised to know what her 2021 self is up to. A singer, actor, dancer and musician, Pierre-Louis spent her early life planning for a career on the stage. 

“I auditioned for a performing arts program in North Carolina,” she said. “I put all my eggs in that basket. I said, ‘That's the school I'm going to.’”

But, when she didn’t get in, Pierre-Louis started classes at John Tyler Community College in Chesterfield County. And a chemistry course unexpectedly handed her a new passion.

Now the second-year doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University is planning a career in research and education with the help of a national fellowship from the Ford Foundation and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. The fellowship is geared towards students who want to be professors and educators, and specifically those who actively help and mentor underrepresented students.

It’s a perfect fit for Pierre-Louis, who has led efforts to establish support groups on campus for her fellow science students and help her colleagues navigate unfamiliar spaces. 

“In performing arts, I always liked being a part of a team and seeing how everyone's expertise could come together to build this awesome product,” she said. “And I found that I could do that with science, too, by bringing those who are underrepresented into that world.”

Having a supportive environment was also in the back of Pierre-Louis’ mind when she was choosing a Ph.D. program. In the fall of 2019, she enrolled in VCU's Clinical and Translational Science Doctoral Program in Cancer and Molecular Medicine at the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, supported by the National Institutes of Health's Clinical and Translational Science Award.

“We have amazing science happening on campus, and what I like about this program is that it’s an environment that would support me, where I’m always advocated for,” she said. 

Pierre-Louis is set to graduate with her doctorate in 2024. The interdisciplinary program at the Wright Center trains students to perform research that translates sciences like chemistry into health breakthroughs. 

The competitive Ford Foundation Fellowship from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine is a predoctoral award, meaning it will help fund her next three years of school and gives her access to regional liaisons in the Ford Foundation. The award will also pay her travel expenses to an annual conference where she’ll meet other Ford Foundation fellows. 

“Josly has been a standout student from day one at VCU,” said Patricia Sime, M.D., chair of the Department of Internal Medicine in the VCU School of Medicine. “She’s really lived the vision of this fellowship through her leadership within the university as an undergraduate — and now graduate student. Josly is a valued member of our research team where she’s investigating aspects of lung inflammation and scarring, including those caused by COVID-19.” 

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