Stephanie Chidester, PhD in Nursing Graduate, Selected as iCURE Postdoctoral Fellow at National Cancer Institute – UMSL Daily


Stephanie Chidester, who completed her PhD at UMSL last May, began a three-year iCURE postdoctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute in July. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Chidester)

When Stephanie Chidester was applying and interviewing for a scholarship under the National Cancer Institute’s Intramural Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences program, impostor syndrome began to creep in.

As part of the National Institutes of Health, the iCURE program provides mentored research experiences for scientists and scholars from underrepresented minorities at NCI campuses in Bethesda, Rockville, and Frederick, Maryland. It is a competitive program, attracting applications from across the country, and only 20 or 30 scholars are selected for the scholarship.

Despite her qualifications, Chidester – then a doctoral student in nursing at the University of Missouri–St. Louis – found the months-long interview and selection process nerve-wracking, to say the least.

“When you have the opportunity to meet some of the other candidates they interview and interview potential PIs that you could work with in the program, it’s easy to get into that impostor syndrome way of thinking. , ‘These people are so beyond who I am and where I am in my scientific career,” she said. “You get overwhelmed and sometimes you develop an inferiority complex.”

Fortunately, her fears proved unfounded and Chidester – who completed her doctorate at UMSL last May – was accepted into the program. She began the three-year iCURE postdoctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute in July, but had already moved to Maryland in 2019, after receiving a Graduate Partnerships Program fellowship at the National Institute of Nursing Research.

With an emphasis on attracting candidates from underrepresented populations in the biomedical sciences, the iCURE program is designed to increase diversity among biomedical researchers within the National Cancer Institute. The selection process considers factors such as race, ethnicity and gender while involving scientists from different disciplines to increase the potential for collaboration.

“I’m a nurse scientist, for example, whereas many NCI interns are more traditional biomedical researchers — for example, in molecular biology or post-docs from medical or doctoral programs,” Chidester said.

Chidester herself was drawn to the iCURE program to continue her education while learning from experts in her field of interest. As part of her fellowship, she is studying liquid biopsy technologies, a subject she began studying during her graduate program at UMSL. While his research at the university focused on developing liquid biopsy technology for better diagnosis and prognosis of diabetes, his work at NCI, of course, examines how the technology could be used in the treatment of cancer.

At NCI, Chidester is building on postgraduate research she did at UMSL examining how to detect low-abundance biomarkers to predict outcomes using specific subsets, in the form of extracellular vesicles, of a whole blood sample.

A standard diagnostic blood test, for example, would use a sample of whole blood to try to detect a molecule in the blood that could predict a result, whether good or bad. But as Chidester explains, there must be an abundant amount of a particular molecule in that blood sample for it to be detected, and its origin is still unknown – it could have been released from any number of organ systems throughout the body.

To that end, Chidester’s work examines how extracellular vesicles could be used in blood samples to predict outcomes more accurately. These vesicles, which circulate in the blood, are incredibly small – usually between 50 and 150 nanometers. They are derived from the cell membrane and often carry membrane markers that can indicate what type of tissue or cell may have released them, which Chidester likens to a return address.

“In the case of diabetes, let’s say they have markers indicating that they come from the pancreas or from fatty tissue or muscle tissue,” she said. “We can pull them out and have a way of diagnosing what’s going on in the pancreas, the fatty tissue or the muscle tissue that could increase the risk of disease or complications. So it’s a biopsy without having to go in and take a sample of that actual tissue. We can get information about this tissue from the extracellular vesicles in the blood sample.

The hope, of course, is that by learning more about how to develop the technology, it might also be applicable to other diseases besides cancer.

But the iCURE grant isn’t just helping Chidester and his colleagues pursue their own research. The program also offers many learning experiences that fellows can benefit from together as a cohort, including research conferences, scientific interest groups, workshops, classes, and more.

“It really is a great experience and there are more opportunities than any scholarship holder could possibly participate in, in their wildest imagination,” she said. “There are research talks given daily by scientists from all the different NIH institutes, many of which are relevant – directly or indirectly – to my own research interests or those of other interns. There are scientific interest groups; for example, I participate in scientific interest groups on extracellular vesicles or extracellular RNA.

The program is also designed to provide professional development and career exploration for fellows, including opportunities to work closely with world-class biomedical research scientists at the National Cancer Institute and connect to a network broader mentorship. Chidester said it had been a vital step in helping her progress towards her long-term career goal of becoming an independent researcher.

“Right now, my trajectory is to become a faculty member and an academic researcher, so my PI and my mentors at iCURE are helping me develop a plan that’s going to help me get there,” she said. “It includes learning the skills to successfully apply for funding for my research, or being able to transition from a postdoctoral fellow to a faculty member conducting their own research program. It is truly a great program, and I feel extremely blessed and lucky to have been selected as an iCURE Fellow, to be able to interact with others in this program, and to learn from the circle of mentors who help me grow. professionally.

She is also able to benefit from this career development and training without facing many of the prejudices she has experienced in the past due to her gender or profession. The scientific community isn’t always particularly welcoming of nurse researchers and nurse scientists, she says, but in the iCURE program, that’s anything but true.

“One of the wonderful things about working at NIH is that, to a large extent, I haven’t had to deal with a lot of the stigma that a lot of people go through as women in STEM fields,” said she declared. “When I tell people what I do as a nurse researcher, I can sometimes have this really weird reaction: ‘But you are a nurse. You shouldn’t do this,” or think I’m not qualified to do this, even though I have extensive training and experience.

“At NIH, I really don’t encounter that so much. Thanks to Paule Joseph at NINR and NIAAA and Dr Jennifer Jones at NCI, I have been able to develop a circle of mentors who not only help me to develop my skills as a researcher, but also to learn what I have need to succeed as a woman. In science.”

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