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Health Sciences Senior Invited to Present Research at 'Posters on the Hill'

Devon Taylor

Devon Taylor, a senior in Old Dominion University's College of Health Sciences, is one of 74 undergraduates nationwide to be invited to present research at the 2012 "Posters on the Hill" event in Washington, D.C.

The poster session, held annually by the Council on Undergraduate Research, will be April 24 in the Rayburn Office Building near the Capitol. Those in attendance will include members of Congress, congressional staff members and representatives of federal agencies. Congressmen Scott Rigell of Virginia's 2nd District and Bobby Scott of the 3rd District will be Taylor's hosts.

Taylor took on the research project that won him a spot in "Posters on the Hill" while he was a 2011 summer intern at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. At ODU he has a 4.0 GPA and is focusing on public health studies. He has his sights on some of the best medical schools in the country, with Johns Hopkins and Harvard being his first choices.

For 10 weeks last summer he conducted research at the Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center. The work was part of a study of genetic causes for a group of skin diseases, the most serious of which can turn deadly when a person who suffers from it gets a smallpox vaccination. One goal of this line of research is the development of an alternative vaccination for high-risk patients.

The Hopkins intern program is funded by the National Institutes of Health and is geared toward undergraduates from underrepresented and/or disadvantaged backgrounds who are pursuing a career in biomedical sciences.

"It is highly competitive," said Dr. Larissa Shimoda, the Hopkins program director, but she added that Taylor "really stood out" among the applicants. "His back story, coupled with outstanding grades, essay and reference letters, made him a top candidate."

That "back story" begins with Taylor as a teenage truant in Flint, Mich., and includes a maturation period while he worked in the U.S. Navy's nuclear power program. "The Navy reconstituted my sense of hope," Taylor said. "My self-confidence was rebuilt."

In the back of his mind throughout the Navy experience, however, was a long-standing dream to be a physician. He wanted to deliver health care to the less fortunate, to people such as the neighbors he remembered from Flint who didn't see a doctor very often and were uncomfortable with the interaction when they did. His participation in Navy relief efforts for the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 only made him more determined to realize the dream.

So when Taylor left the Navy in 2009 he enrolled in ODU's College of Health Sciences. "I felt old, like I had to make up time," he said. "I wanted to get my bachelor's degree in three years and the people here have done everything they can to help me. The personal attention I have gotten here has meant a lot to me."

Jacqueline Sharpe, the director of the college's health sciences bachelor's program, took Taylor under her wing early on. "From the day I met him, he has expressed a most sincere desire to help people as a health care professional," she says. "That sincerity has been present in his written and oral work. He has outstanding people skills and his desire to become a doctor is genuine."

Shimoda of Johns Hopkins said she observed a weekly "journal club" meeting of the interns, including Taylor. "Each student presents a research article from a scientific journal related to their project. Devon had a wealth of knowledge that allowed him to understand everything presented and ask insightful questions. Several faculty members actually thought he was a graduate student."

Dr. Kathleen Barnes, the Hopkins faculty member who mentored Taylor during the summer, was eager, as well, to praise him: "I could never say enough positive about Devon."

During his summer internship, Barnes explained, he took on an ambitious study of the genetic underpinnings of a complicated disease, atopic dermatitis, and its devastating syndrome, eczema herpeticum.

"This project required considerable self-teaching of the basic biology of these illnesses as well as the basics of molecular genetics and genetic epidemiology, which he mastered in little time. His discoveries were presented in a manner emblematic of a seasoned clinician scientist," Barnes said.

"Devon has a unique ability to garner expertise and lessons learned in a discipline as remote from medicine as one could imagine, and apply those talents in hypothesis generation and testing, and critical thinking overall."

Barnes also called Taylor a team player, "clearly demonstrating a keen sense of appreciation for those around him, regardless of rank and status. I am confident Devon will go far in our field, and his life's lessons combined with his passion for learning will no doubt propel him to a fulfilling career in medicine."