Prestigious fellowship propels success, contributions of two outstanding OHSU grad students

August 16, 2017

Gabriel Romero, a student in the OHSU School of Medicine Physiology and Pharmacology Graduate Program, is one of a select few across the country to receive the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute 2017 Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study.

Gabriel RomeroRomero is only the second student from OHSU to receive this award. Antoinette Foster of OHSU's Neuroscience Graduate Program was the first, and was one of 34 Gilliam Fellowship recipients nationally in 2016.

"These students are not only doing outstanding science, they are leaders who embody the expansion of ideas and possible approaches when all students have the opportunity to succeed," said Allison Fryer, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate studies, OHSU School of Medicine. "The Gilliam Fellowship not only supports their research, it supports their growth as leaders to the benefit of our graduate programs, OHSU and science as a whole."

These highly competitive fellowships are awarded to exceptional doctoral students who are committed to increasing diversity among scientists. Awarded to Ph.D. students from racial, ethnic and other traditionally underrepresented groups in science, the Gilliam Fellowship program fosters the expansion of the fellows' professional network and provides annual stipend support for up to three years. The program also includes seminars with HHMI scientists and mentoring beyond their institution.  

Following three years of research at the University of Minnesota, where he developed an interest in sensory systems and synaptic transmission, Romero joined OHSU's Physiology and Pharmacology Graduate Program in 2015. As a second-year Ph.D. student, Romero is recognized for his research focused on determining the normal function of the medial olivocochlear reflex, which plays a role in protecting the auditory system from noise-induced hearing loss.

In addition to financially supporting his research, Romeo says the award "will help bring attention to the importance of equality and inclusiveness in the biomedical sciences, which is currently lacking," while also providing opportunities to broaden his professional skills and network.  

He said the fellowship will further his goal of becoming an independent research scientist and a role model for underrepresented students. Romero's mentor is Larry Trussell, Ph.D., professor of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery, OHSU School of Medicine.

Antoinette FosterLast year's recipient from OHSU, Antoinette Foster, is a Ph.D. student in the Vollum Institute/OHSU Neuroscience Graduate Program. Foster works in the lab of Ben Emery, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology, OHSU School of Medicine, studying the underlying molecular and cellular mechanisms that drive oligodendrocyte myelination. Disruption to the formation of myelin leads to devastating neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis and leukodystrophies.

Foster's project focuses specifically on activity-dependent myelination, which examines the role of neuronal activity in the myelination process. The fellowship made it possible for Foster to run more expensive and wide-scale gene expression experiments over the last year than she might otherwise have been able to.

Foster reports that the impact of her fellowship "goes far beyond money… [HHMI's] main interest is our success, and they understand that this is heavily influenced by mentorship."

Through annual mentor meetings, HHMI provides Gilliam fellows with meaningful professional connections and guidance. Foster reflects that the most important piece of her mentorship is "discussing barriers, challenges, and solutions to mentoring a diverse student."

Although this is only the first year of her Gilliam Fellowship, the impact for Foster has been profound. Influenced by students she met at last year's annual fellowship meeting, Foster says she was "inspired to start making diversity a priority for my institution."

Upon returning to OHSU, Foster, along with two other graduate students and a faculty member, created The Alliance for Visible Diversity in Science. The group's mission is to increase and support visible diversity within the graduate programs at OHSU; read more about it on the Center for Diversity and Inclusion's website.