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Student’s rise as a researcher takes her from law school in Brazil to an NIH lab

Sarah Izabel discovered Virginia Commonwealth University one frigid day when she just wanted to come in from the cold. Bundled up and shivering, she and a friend were walking near VCU in the winter of 2010 when they stumbled upon the University Student Commons and stepped inside to warm up. Izabel and her friend were both from Brazil, and were in the United States to improve their English and explore opportunities in the country. Unfamiliar with the area, they had never heard of VCU and didn’t understand what it was, but Izabel found herself immediately drawn to it.
Sarah Izabel

“There were groups of people in there laughing and having a good time, and I thought, ‘Who are these people and what is this place?’” Izabel said.

Four years later, Izabel would remember the day when she was living in Richmond and pining to return to college. Izabel had gone home to Brazil for a spell but later decided to return to the U.S. By then a mother of a young son named Noah, Izabel had studied law at a college in Brazil, but ultimately decided the legal profession was not for her. She wanted to try college in the U.S. and find a better fit — she wanted to discover what her interests were. She enrolled at VCU with plans of pursuing a degree in criminal justice, figuring that best aligned with her previous studies and would be a natural place to restart her academic career.

In the years since, Izabel’s academic path has taken some surprising twists and turns, but the path has traveled steadily upward. She is now majoring in biology and psychology and minoring in chemistry with a concentration in life sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Also a member of the Honors College, Izabel has unearthed a talent for scientific research that works in tandem with her natural doggedness to make her a formidable researcher. Although she doesn’t graduate until May 2020, Izabel has already earned a raft of prestigious research opportunities and won a variety of awards, grants and scholarships.

Perhaps most impressively, Izabel last year was selected for the National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholarship Program. The scholarship pays for Izabel’s final two years at VCU in return for her commitment to attend a 10-week training session at the NIH this summer and to work for the federal research center for two years following graduation.

Sarah Izabel in a lab
Sarah Izabel's academic path has taken some surprising twists and turns, but the path has traveled steadily upward. Last year she was selected for the National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholarship Program. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Izabel hopes to pursue a dual M.D./Ph.D. after her scheduled time at the NIH. The Ph.D. will be in neuroscience. She always has loved research — she published three law papers as a student in Brazil — but she never dreamed scientific research was a field that would bring her such a sense of satisfaction. When she started at VCU, she wasn’t even sure what neuroscience was.

“I can’t think of not doing scientific research now,” she said. “It can be so frustrating because you’ll run an experiment and it won’t work and you won’t know how to fix it and you’ll want to just cry about it. When that happens, I’ll find myself asking, ‘Am I even cut out for this?’ But then there will be these moments of pure, total bliss when there’s nothing better in the world. Even when you’re struggling, there’s a feeling that you’re moving forward and working toward something bigger than the experiment itself — something that will make people’s lives better.”

Those moments of bliss can come without a stunning breakthrough or even a small hint of success. They can come in the process itself. Izabel recalls one Sunday this fall when she was scraping cell plates to collect protein for research into multiple sclerosis as part of her regular work in the lab of Jeffrey Dupree, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology in the School of Medicine. She was alone. The lab was empty. In fact, the entire building was largely empty. Her task that day was essential but repetitive, the kind of work that is necessary but hardly wondrous on the surface. And yet Izabel found herself thinking as she labored away, “God, this is perfect.” 

“I had this realization being there, doing that work, that there was nothing else I’d rather be doing than that,” she said. “I knew that this is what I want to do over and over again for the rest of my life.”

Izabel’s rise as a researcher came with surprising speed. In one of her first classes, she wrote a paper on transgender suicide, and her teacher, Awendala Grantham, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies, encouraged her to contribute a poster to the upcoming Undergraduate Student Research Symposium and then helped her fashion it. At the symposium, Izabel met Sarah Golding, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of undergraduate research in the Department of Biology, who told her about the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development Scholars Program, which provides research training in the biomedical sciences for individuals from groups traditionally underrepresented in biomedical research. Izabel applied for the scholarship and ultimately was selected to join Dupree’s lab.

Among Izabel’s subsequent research opportunities have been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Fellowship, which provided her with the chance to serve for two months in a lab at the University of California at San Francisco, and an undergraduate research assistant position with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. She published two biomedical research articles as a result of those experiences. 

Golding said Izabel has developed into an accomplished researcher through sheer force of will. She not only excels in the lab, Golding said, but also is a stellar presenter, writer and instructor.

“There are studies showing that the best indication of your ability to succeed in a scientific career is what they call ‘grit,’ which is a mix of resilience and a belief in yourself and your ability to get back up. Sarah has got that,” Golding said. “She’s not fazed by how hard the sciences may be. She’s always pushing forward and looking for answers. She’s just very determined and no matter what she never stops trying. She’s always going to get back up.” 

Savannah Benusa, a Ph.D. candidate in Dupree’s lab, is one of several mentors Izabel credits for her growth at VCU — a list that also includes Golding, Grantham and Dupree, among others. Benusa said Izabel is rare among undergraduates in her skill and ability to work on her own in a lab. Benusa said Izabel has become so expert in tissue preparation and sectioning that she is enlisted to train postdoctoral fellows and Ph.D. candidates in the technique. She also is forever driven to find solutions.

“She will always go to try and find the answer for herself when there’s a problem or challenge,” Benusa said. “She never waits for someone else to give her the answer.”

Sarah Izabel receiving the Board of Visitors Award at VCU's spring commencement ceremony in May. The award is given to an undergraduate student for outstanding academic achievement, leadership and service.
Sarah Izabel, center, receiving the Board of Visitors Award at VCU's spring commencement ceremony in May. The award is given to an undergraduate student for outstanding academic achievement, leadership and service. (University Relations)

Izabel’s successes have come despite a variety of challenges away from campus. She had to withdraw from her classes during her first semester at VCU because she and her son became homeless. In fact, they have repeatedly experienced homelessness during her years at VCU, living at times at friends’ houses and in a camper with no running water. 

Izabel said the news of the NIH award in the fall came at an opportune time and gave her the kind of peace of mind she has been dreaming of.

“I was so excited because I knew I’d be able to pay my rent and I had come to a point again where I had no idea how I was going to pay for anything,” she said. “It was really scary, so being selected for that was a huge blessing.”

Izabel and her son have lived with Benusa occasionally. Benusa said she’s particularly amazed at her friend’s reliably even keel in the face of hardships and she expresses admiration for Izabel’s steadfast commitment to her son. 

“She has had to deal with a lot of challenges that the majority of college students haven’t,” Benusa said. “But she puts an amazing amount of work in, and she never freaks out about any of it. She’s an incredible parent and is teaching her son a really valuable lesson — that you’ve got to work hard for the things that you want.”

Izabel has been an active participant in VCU life beyond the lab and the classroom. She is a student representative to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, has been a member of a student advisory group to the VCU Board of Visitors, developed and implemented an undergraduate research ambassador program, visited VCU School of the Arts in Qatar as part of a leadership exchange, and founded the Honor Society at VCU, among many other initiatives. Her work also has included mentoring and tutoring fellow undergraduates.

She considers it all part of the college experience. Her many honors at VCU include a Virginia’s Caring University Scholarship and the Board of Visitors Award, which she received at the university’s 2019 spring commencement ceremony. The BOV Award is given to an undergraduate student for outstanding academic achievement, leadership and service.

“VCU has given me everything — it has given me a direction in life that I never would have found on my own,” Izabel said. “I want to pay that back in some way. It’s also so much fun.”

When Izabel now recalls that first, accidental visit to VCU, she finds herself amazed at what has transpired since.

“It felt like somewhere I should be,” she said. “And it was.”

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