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VCU alum receives Fulbright research award

Dylan Naltraj David travels to his homeland, Trinidad, to conduct cancer research.
Dylan Naltraj David dressed in graduation attire with his family

A second-generation American, Dylan Naltraj David had the opportunity to return to Trinidad, the nation his parents emigrated from, through the Fulbright research award. Fulbright research awards are competitive grants given to individuals completing research projects in foreign countries or universities. This award not only allowed David the opportunity to learn more about his heritage but also expanded the scope of his cancer research. His passion for research is undeniable as he continuously seeks opportunities to study with experts in the field. David even published alongside Jonathan Isaacs, M.D., professor and chair of the division of hand surgery at VCU Health, an article in the Journal of Hand Surgery discussing the effects of processed acellular nerve allograft.

David graduated from VCU with a bachelor’s degree in forensic biology and biology with a minor in chemistry in 2017. While a VCU student, he was an active member of the Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Honor Society and Phi Sigma Pi National Honor Fraternity. He also served as a counselor at VCU’s chapter of Camp Kesem. Currently, he is pursuing a master of science degree in immunology at the University of Cincinnati.

We met with David to learn more about his research and impressive accomplishments.

What are you passionate about in your work?

I believe that failure is never permanent and that, in most cases, failure is a necessary stepping stone to success, especially in biomedical research when so many experiments and hypotheses "fail." Without those failures, the true successes of good therapies, treatments and solutions wouldn't be found! But burnout and fatigue from frequent failures and setbacks can be exhausting in both medicine and in science, so it's important to keep the people that your work will directly benefit at the forefront of your mind to be able to push through. The human element — and the compassion for those that these fields of study aim to serve — is by far the most important aspect of my work that I am proud of.

Tell us about your research investigating genetic links to cancer.

I am a second-generation American born to two immigrant parents, Vashti and Naitraj, who were both born and raised in the twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. I am immensely proud and excited to return to Trinidad and Tobago on a Fulbright Study/Research Grant in 2021. My Fulbright project will focus on elucidating the genetic causes for the higher cancer mortality-to-morbidity ratio in the population of Trinidad and Tobago, when compared to the population of the USA (even when accounting for differences in healthcare and social pressures between the two nations). 

As a Trinidadian-American immunologist and cancer biologist, I hope to learn more about my own culture while representing and sharing the culture and ideals of the USA, UC and VCU; I hope my work will shed some light on new therapeutic targets and approaches for cancer diagnoses and treatment in Trinidad and Tobago. After my Fulbright, I hope to matriculate into an MD-PhD dual-degree program, such as VCU's MD-PhD dual-degree program or UC's Medical Scientist Training Program to train as a physician-scientist. 

I would most definitely say that the biggest reason that cancer and hematology are my main areas of focus in research are due to my time in Camp Kesem. Throughout my time in my undergraduate education, I have remained involved in many endeavors and organizations that allowed me to give back to the community — through service and science. Camp Kesem is a national nonprofit that provides free summer camps for children who have parents with cancer, as well as year-round support and reunions for campers and counselors of each chapter. I served as a counselor for Camp Kesem at VCU for four years — and as a volunteer coordinator, that was responsible for recruiting and training counselors, for one of those years. 

Since graduating from VCU, I have stayed heavily involved with Camp Kesem on a national level. During my year at the NIH, I was an active and involved member of the Camp Kesem DC Alumni Association. I worked with three new Camp Kesem chapters in the DC area to help them plan, fundraise for and enact their first ever summer Camp Kesem sessions. Moreover, since I began my graduate program at the University of Cincinnati, I have become actively involved in the advisory board, a board of alumni and other advisors, for Camp Kesem at the University of Cincinnati. Recently, I have also become a member of the advisory board for Camp Kesem at Virginia Commonwealth University as well.

What inspired you to pursue this career path?

On May 9, 2004, my father was shot and wounded. Physician after physician told my father and my family that there was no way to repair his wounded hand which would allow him to return to work — serving his community as a police officer (he was a Richmond sheriff's deputy at the time of his injury, but he is now a Richmond police officer). However, my family was finally introduced to Dr. Jonathan Isaacs, a VCU physician-scientist who through five novel surgeries he pioneered through his research, completely repaired my father’s shattered hand and allowed him to return to his life’s passion. Dr. Isaacs took his time to effectively communicate the science underlying the five surgeries that he would perform on my father.  

Because of my overwhelmingly positive experience with exposure to research through a physician-scientist who saved my father’s livelihood, I sought to pursue a career as a physician-scientist as well. Throughout all of my research experiences in college and during my post-baccalaureate studies and work (I worked in six biomedical research labs in total, completing two research theses and presenting multiple times), I discovered that I very much wanted to add a clinical aspect to my career, much like Dr. Isaacs, in order to one day be able to practice the same medicine that I helped enhance through my research. From these experiences, I gained invaluable research skills from them, and I learned that clinical science was my passion. I aimed to pursue graduate and medical studies in biomedical science and medicine.

Are there any particular experiences or people who influenced your journey towards biomedical research?

In addition to Dr. Isaacs and my experiences in Camp Kesem (at VCU and UC), I would most definitely say that my mentors at VCU had a huge impact in my success! Jennifer Fettweis, Ph.D. (VCU Life Sciences and School of Medicine), Sarah Golding, Ph.D. (VCU Dept. of Biology), John Ryan, Ph.D. (VCU Dept. of Biology) and Marilyn Miller, Ed.D. (VCU Dept. of Forensic Science) all had very large positive impacts on me as a scientist and aspiring physician!

What does receiving a Fulbright research award mean to you?

It is truly a blessing and privilege to be able to return to my homeland, learn as much about my culture as possible, while also representing the USA, VCU and UC! It is truly difficult to put into words the gratitude and joy I felt — and still feel — at being selected to be a Fulbrighter, especially one going to my homeland!

How did your experience at VCU impact your approach to your current research?

Upon entering my undergraduate institution, Virginia Commonwealth University, I was awarded the VCU Provost Scholarship, a scholarship covering the full cost of my tuition, books and fees for four years. This scholarship aided me immensely as I tried to utilize the very limited financial resources that my family had to support me through college. Having this scholarship allowed me the flexibility to pursue my passion and so I sought out numerous opportunities to conduct undergraduate research. Through my strong efforts, I was exposed to diverse fields in biomedical research. Of the five laboratories that I have trained in, three of these experiences stood out and shaped my desire to pursue a career in biomedical science and medicine.  

I applied to, and was accepted into, the Research Alliance for Microbiome Science (RAMS) Undergraduate Scholars Program as a junior in college. Through this program, I worked full-time for a summer in the laboratory of Dr. Jennifer Fettweis, in the VCU Department of Microbiology and Immunology, studying the human vaginal microbiome. After the initial summer, Dr. Fettweis allowed me to stay in the laboratory for an additional two years working on multiple projects. I worked independently during my main project in which I utilized bioinformatics methods to analyze the presence, abundance and metabolism of Bifidobacterium scardovii in the human vaginal microbiome. I used this work to complete an honors undergraduate senior research thesis. This experience was formative for me, as it was the first independent research project that I had undertaken. Having full control and ownership over both the successes and setbacks of the project prompted a new level of passion and enthusiasm for my research and the basic science approach that I used to uncover new metabolic pathways of B. scardovii in the human vaginal microbiome solidified my desire to pursue this career field. 

I was fortunate enough to be able to present my research conducted in the Fettweis laboratory on four separate occasions — two local conferences and two national conferences. These were all presented in the form of a poster, except for my oral presentation at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Virginia Undergraduate Research Conference. Moreover, my work on a separate project investigating the metabolic competitiveness of B. breve in the vaginal microbiome also led to me being a contributing author on a manuscript from the Fettweis laboratory that is currently in preparation.

Nearing the end of my undergraduate studies, I had the incredible opportunity to work with the researcher who saved my father’s livelihood, Jonathan Isaacs, Ph.D. Under his direct training, we studied the effects of three different treatment types on nerve allograft repair models in rats. This was my first experience in conducting the research of a physician-scientist, and this reinforced my passion for both medicine and biomedical science. In addition to assuring me of my passion in biomedical science, my work and dedication to our project afforded me authorship on a publication. 

Following my graduation, I applied for, and was awarded, the highly competitive NIH Post-Baccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA). This award allowed me to train and work as a full-time IRTA research fellow at the NIH for a year in the laboratory of Adrian Wiestner, M.D., Ph.D. studying lymphoid malignancies. I studied the potential mutational causes of acquired resistance to the small molecular inhibitor drug ibrutinib in patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). My work at the NIH allowed the opportunity to present my work twice at local conferences in the form of a poster. Like my experience in the Isaacs laboratory, while I learned invaluable benchwork skills and techniques, my study on developing therapies and identifying mechanisms of acquired drug resistance for CLL patients made it very clear to me that clinical science was exactly what I wanted to pursue as a career. 

What advice or insight do you have for VCU alumni and students interested in your research field?

Even if it seems impossible to find, there are always opportunities to gain experience and exposure to your field of interest — and there are always mentors that believe in you, even if they seem difficult to find! Reach out to those that have walked the path that interests you and ask for advice. Everyone needs help, and no one got to where they are by themselves, so forming connections with mentors is more valuable than I can put into words. I would absolutely not be where I am today without the guidance, support and motivation from my mentors and my family — especially my parents!

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