Student Makes USU History as MCB Program’s First Black Graduate

By Vivian Mason

“Your body is a magnificent machine,” says Kelsey Sheard, a research associate and graduate student in the Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) Ph.D. program at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU). “There are just so many things that go on in your cells. Every minute of the day, it knows exactly what to do to keep you alive, to keep you breathing, to keep you walking…Every single person has to do the same thing over and over again to be a functional human being.”

Sheard’s fascination with the body and cell biology has been constant throughout her life, and, this May, it will manifest into a unique distinction: Sheard will graduate as USU’s first Black MCB graduate student to successfully defend her thesis, “Clueless is a Novel Mitochondria-Associated Ribonucleoprotein Particle.” 

It’s taken about 5½ years for Sheard to finish the program and get to this high point, but even before USU, this Georgia native had always planned to get her Ph.D. Sheard graduated from Georgia Tech and, right after college, she completed a fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then, she worked in a Newborn Screening Quality Assurance program for four years.

Sheard notes that she chose USU because it offered both molecular biology and cell biology programs, whereas the other schools she applied to only had one or the other. USU also offered her the opportunity to study in a variety of areas, such as immunology, genetics, developmental biology, biochemistry, virology, cancer biology, neuroscience, and military medicine. “Every one of [those fields had] a molecular and cellular component that [could] be applied to whatever I [studied],” she adds. Undecided on what to specialize in, this was a huge selling point for Sheard.

After getting her acceptance to USU, Sheard found herself as part of the Molecular and Cell Biology Ph.D. program, following her passion with inquisitive determination. The MCB program provides an educational experience that nurtures the student’s ability to develop as a professional scientist and carry out research. The program consists of structured classroom training and original hypothesis-driven biomedical research. Students receive comprehensive didactic and laboratory training in all areas of contemporary biomedical research. Coursework is performed during the student’s first two years and involves lectures and discussion classes, as well as lab rotations. 

Illustration depicts a dorsal view of the common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. (Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
"Basically, we worked with flies," explains Kelsey Sheard, research associate and graduate student in the Molecular and Cell Biology Ph.D. program at USU.
Drosophila melanogaster refers to the scientific name for the common fruit fly. (Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Sheard acknowledges that the MCB program is one of those things that you really have to think about before you commit to it. 

“You definitely struggle with motivation every so often,” she says. “I was involved with a project that had certain milestones to meet. Even though it felt impossible on occasion, each time I’d finish one milestone, I’d tell myself that’s just one more thing I can scratch off my list. You have to build in small rewards for yourself along the way.”

Students of the MCB program then advance to Ph.D. candidacy after completing the required coursework and passing a qualifying examination. To earn a Ph.D., candidates must complete an original research project, write a dissertation, and defend their work before a faculty committee.

Sheard’s thesis project involved working in a Drosophila lab along with her principal investigator and mentor, Dr. Rachel Cox, associate professor and vice chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at USU. 

“Basically, we worked with flies,” explains Sheard. “I was investigating a protein called Drosophila Clueless (Clu). It’s a mitochondria-associated protein that the lab has been studying over the years. The main focus of the lab is to discover the exact molecular function of the protein and how it impacts mitochondrial function.” 

Her goal in this particular project was to investigate why this protein forms particles in the cell. Sheard questioned the nature of these particles, adding that “from prior data produced in our lab, we hypothesized that these particles are actually what’s important about the protein and that their presence might be impacting the mitochondria.” That would raise a lot of questions to guide her research. 

In addition to her inquisitive mind, Cox believes that there are several traits that make Sheard a good scientist. “[Sheard] is always calm in the face of adversity and persevered, which is important because experiments often don’t work according to plan. She is also a very good scientific writer. Her presentation style and aesthetic make her seminars clear and easy to follow, which is always important when conveying complicated ideas to others.”

Sheard admits that defending her thesis was very stressful. “I was very anxious because it was a lot of pressure. But, the other half of me was calm because I had been doing this work for 5½ years, and I had discussed my project with my thesis committee many times. So, I felt prepared. I was stressed, but confident that I could get through it.” 

Sheard will graduate this May with the distinction of being the first Black MCB graduate student at USU to successfully defend her thesis. (Photo credit: Kelsey Sheard, USU)
Sheard will graduate this May with the distinction of being the first Black MCB graduate student at USU to successfully defend her thesis. (Photo credit:
Kelsey Sheard, USU)

Sheard was also be credited as lead author (with Thibault-Sennett, Sen, Shewmaker, and Cox) on the article “Clueless Forms Dynamic, Insulin-Responsive Bliss Particles Sensitive to Stress,” and worked with her mentor and PI, Cox, to publish an academic article titled “Visualizing the Effects of Oxidative Damage on Drosophila Egg Chambers Using Live Imaging.” 

Having the opportunity to work alongside Cox, Sheard feels fortunate to have found an excellent mentor and advisor who had a wealth of knowledge that she freely shared. “Her strong mentorship in the lab was a big attraction for me,” Sheard adds. “She was the main reason I was able to get through the MCB program.”

Just as well, Cox acknowledges that Kelsey Sheard was a wonderful addition to their research group and was an outstanding graduate student. “[Sheard] tackled a difficult project that moved her thesis project forward in interesting ways.”

Sheard now finds herself in the process of trying to figure out her future career plans, noting that there are many different opportunities outside of academia. “I’m currently trying to decide on the most suitable path for myself. I’m looking for opportunities that match up with my strengths and interests.” 

To incoming students to the MCB program, Sheard recommends finding a mentor to connect with and “who complements you in terms of completing your time in the program.” Sheard also adds that “finding a science community that will support you, keep you motivated, and keep you accountable is very important. If you have those things, the rest will fall into place.”