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Postdoc to Faculty Transition Fellowship’s competitive first class includes two spots for Wayne Medicine

November 20, 2017

Six new postdoctoral fellows were welcomed to campus this fall as part of a major initiative to create a pipeline of early career scholars to bolster diversity and academic excellence at Wayne State University.

They include new School of Medicine postdoctoral fellows Amina Wofford, Ph.D., a graduate of Tuskegee University, and Joi-Sheree Knighton, Ph.D., a University of Kentucky graduate, who are among the first cohort of the new Postdoctoral to Faculty Transition Fellowship, a program of the Office of Scientific Training, Workforce Development and Diversity, housed within the Office of the Provost. They were selected from a highly competitive national pool of recent doctoral candidates based on their scholarly accomplishments and potential for academic careers, and come from universities across the United States in an array of disciplines, including theoretical physics, nanomedicine, substance abuse disorders and cognitive aging.

The program offers intensive mentoring, professional development activities and grant-writing workshops. Fellows are expected to compete at high academic levels and secure research grants, present at national conferences, publish in academic journals and mentor undergraduate research projects. Mentors take an active role in helping a fellow plan and achieve research goals, assist them in establishing a visible presence in the department and facilitate opportunities for the fellow to participate in national and international research conferences.

Upon completion of a set of rigorous program milestones, PFT fellows, including Drs. Wofford and Knighton, will be eligible for consideration for tenure-track faculty positions at Wayne State.

“I wanted to participate in this opportunity because I believe in and support its mission,” Dr. Wofford said.
“Additionally, I wanted to participate because of the commitment the university was willing to make to assist aspiring researchers in achieving their professional goals; the wealth of knowledge and experience I knew this program would provide; and the opportunity to work with and receive mentoring from subject matter experts at a world-class research intensive university.”

Dr. Wofford’s doctorate is in Integrative Biosciences, Molecular Virology and Nanotechnology. She is mentored by Philip Pellett, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry, and a renowned researcher in examining the biology of human herpesviruses and improving clinical outcomes of infections. He registered as a potential mentor after she reached out to him because of her familiarity with his work.

“After speaking with Dr. Pellett initially, I knew I wanted him to serve as my mentor because of his breadth and depth of knowledge and experience and his willingness to help me achieve my goals,” she said. “Through participation in this program I hope to gain additional scientific and professional skills that will help propel me to the next stage of my career, where I am a competitive candidate for a faculty position and can conduct independent research while serving as mentors to both undergraduate and graduate students.”

For Dr. Knighton, a Detroit native who moved to Kentucky to earn a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and a doctorate in Counseling Psychology, taking a post-graduation position on a research team led by Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences Mark Greenwald, Ph.D., also means coming home to the city in which she grew up.

She is interested in examining HIV, the opioid crisis and mental health.

“Personally, it is extremely rewarding to be able to return to the city I was raised in, and be a part of something that may have significant health implications for so many people. I am grateful the PFT will allow a unique opportunity to pursue both goals,” Dr. Knighton said.

She chose WSU over other offers from tier-one research universities because, “When I came for my visit, the mission was very clear to me. The administration was fully committed to expanding the diversity among their faculty and staff, and committed to addressing health disparities so prevalent in underserved cities, such as Detroit,” she said. “I also got the sense my work examining health-related outcomes among exclusively African-American samples was valued and I wouldn’t have to compromise my professional goals to be a part of the Wayne State team.”

The opportunity to work with Dr. Greenwald was another factor in her decision. “He is a well-established, respected and funded researcher, and our interests align very well. I was also inspired by his continued passion for the type of work we do and commitment to my success. I’m also looking forward to expanding my mentor network, and he has been very supportive in connecting me with inter- and intra-disciplinary scholars,” she said.

For Dr. Greenwald, Dr. Knighton’s aspirations align well with a mountain of research data already collected that could lead to several academic papers, and a scored but not funded training grant he and co-principal investigator Stephen Ondersma, Ph.D., professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences and of the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute, are recommending she repurpose as something “closer to her own heart, tailored to her interests and goals,” he said.

Dr. Greenwald, director of the WSU Substance Abuse Research Division, also appreciates her interest in engaging the community and, in turn, fighting social injustice and poverty.

“The more individuals we have like her, the better we’ll be at community-engaged research,” he said. “She’s got the potential to integrate those themes, and with team support, encourage her to achieve the promise she has.”

Dr. Knighton’s primary goal is to secure extramural NIH funding to support her research training and future studies. She will be focused on disseminating findings from funded projects and collaborations with other scientists.

“Eventually, I hope to develop a culturally-adapted substance use intervention and become a respected and funded independent drug abuse investigator and tenured professor. A secondary goal is to mentor historically underrepresented students who have an interest in the STEM fields,” she said.

Drs. Knighton and Wofford began their three-year appointments Sept. 1.

The 2017-20 fellows also include DeAnnah Byrd, University of California at Los Angeles; Jennifer Gomez, University of Oregon; Megan Hicks, University of Georgia; and Sidi Maiga, Howard University. Read more about the 2017 cohort.

The program is managed by Graduate School Associate Dean for Professional Development Todd Leff, Ph.D., associate professor of Pathology in the School of Medicine. In this role, Dr. Leff will organize and manage the PFT activities, including professional development programs, and grant-writing and management training. In addition, he will oversee the general progress of each of the fellows through the program.

The PFT is part the of the broader STWD initiative, which seeks to engage people from diverse backgrounds and help them succeed in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. The STWD positions Wayne State as a hub for training programs through use of a training continuum model to drive the pipeline from K-12, undergraduate and post-doctorate to early career faculty.

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