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ODU Biology Alumna Ignites Passion Through Science

Written by: Tiffany Whitfield

Alexis Burton has worked in the fields of immunology, infectious disease, epigenetics, and others after receiving a Master of Science in biology from Old Dominion University in 2013. Her interest in these various scientific positions was kindled after collaborating with professors in Biological Sciences from ODU as well as her undergraduate institution.

During Burton's senior year at George Mason University, an adjunct professor who worked at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) gave her an opportunity to do a laboratory internship. "I went into this lab because my main focus was infectious disease, and I was able to expand my knowledge in vaccine research," said Burton. "It was pretty exciting to see the application of my coursework in tangible experiments." After she completed the internship and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in biology, she was hired full time in department of Immunology, Bacterial Disease Branch, WRAIR.

While there, she was introduced to clinical trials. "It was rather thrilling for somebody new to the field to see history being made by actively participating in the bench science all the way through clinical trials," said Burton. "The work was fascinating, and I really enjoyed doing it." Toward the end of the clinical trials, Burton realized that a higher degree would become important to take on more career responsibilities. "I think my boss expected me to go back to school around the D.C. area and still work but I decided to find a university closer to home," said Burton. Her mom and younger sister were in Virginia Beach, and she missed the Hampton Roads military environment being a former Navy dependent. She also valued affordability for graduate school and claimed Virginia residency. "I looked at ODU and examined the program and thought it be a good fit in order to learn more about infectious diseases," said Burton. ODU faculty was also considered by Burton when applying to ODU, and she was pleased to be accepted by Wayne Hines, associate dean and biology professor, as her graduate advisor. Also, Dayle Daines, associate professor emerita and former associate dean, was a significant role model.

According to Daines, "It was a joy to have had Alexis in my lab, as she had not only a great natural curiosity and a persistent motivation to solve problems, but also a deep love for science in all its forms. Every day we discussed topics such as experimental design, the best way to approach obstacles and how to analyze data. Her innate independence and quick grasp of the path forward resulted in our talking in "lab shorthand", meaning that we often finished each other's sentences. She truly has what is known as a "fire in the belly" for science, which is one of the hallmarks of a great scientist."

"Dr. Daines was phenomenal, not only was she a great professor and teacher, but she was definitely my mentor and still is," said Burton. I'm so glad I had the opportunity to work with her because I gained many scientific principles that I still use today."

After completing her graduate degree at ODU, Burton wanted to move into the industry side of biology. She was hired at a small private biotech company in upstate New York. She worked in the field of epigenetics, which was a little different from what she'd done in the past. According to Burton, "The skill sets that I've learned from previous scientific roles and having a thesis-based master's degree put me in a position to understand research concepts in this new position." Through that process, they saw her potential and put her in charge of process development for research-grade recombinant monoclonal antibodies which resulted in a new product line for the company. "That was a really great project," said Burton. "I worked on the project from start to finish. It was rewarding to be in on the ground floor and then see it finally on the market for sale." Seeing the product that she worked on be mass produced was a big accomplishment for Burton, and her boss encouraged her to move on and seek bigger challenges in science. Plus being in New York for three years and dealing with the cold winters, she wanted to move back to the south.

When she moved to the Raleigh-Durham area, in North Carolina, she sought positions in the Research Triangle Park area. She was hired at a contract development and manufacturing organization in the analytical support group. Burton widened her science skills as she worked on the opposite spectrum, moving from bench science to final drug products. "It was eye opening to see the process of generating data for FDA submissions," said Burton. "Once again, my learning curve from my past experience to this position was exponential in the sense of scientific principles and learning new equipment." Her knowledge in chemistry and biochemistry was helpful in this role and she credits ODU's curriculum.

Burton's next professional challenge was in gene therapy. Currently, she works in the DNA manufacturing lab for a gene therapy company. She was originally hired two years ago as a scientist. This year she was promoted to DNA Manufacturing Team Lead, a managerial role. She has learned many new skills along the way, which has been par for the course in her science career.

From the beginning, she knew she wanted to make an impact in science, but she did not know where her path would lead her. "Being a bench scientist and not knowing exactly the path ahead of you, it's really been an interesting journey to now become a manager," said Burton. "There's been a lot of trust and hope that it'll work out with having a biology degree and not wanting to become a doctor," said Burton. She believes "there's a whole new field out there and I think it's just trying to position yourself well, diversify your skills and seek out opportunities."

Her advice to ODU students, "Tap into the resources available to you. Seek support from faculty. I think just being a young person coming to ODU, you might be a little hesitant of speaking to your professors, but if you show interest, they'll show interest in you. It's an amazing dynamic between students and faculty."

Burton credits ODU for much of her success: "It's been an incredible journey, and I have been able to learn a lot and contribute to the scientific community. I've embraced the challenges in my career, and I feel grateful for successes. What I would like to tell students is: keep core values, do good science, and keep in contact with good people, like Dr. Daines, who continues to inspire and motivate."