Meharry Research Student Awarded Distinguished Fellowship

Kelly HarrisKelly Harris, M.S. and a Ph.D. candidate in the Biochemistry and Cancer Biology Program, has received the Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Fellowship (F31) in the amount of $85,352 from the National Institutes of Health. These funds will fully support her Ph.D. training for the next two years in the School of Graduate Studies and Research at Meharry Medical College.

Harris is a student in the laboratory of Aramandla Ramesh, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Cancer Biology. “Dr. Ramesh is a great mentor and our lab teams are not just ‘coworkers’ to each other,” said Harris. “When you have to spend long hours with individuals, you tend to become more of a family and it's that type of environment that helps with the long days in the lab and the stress that comes with obtaining a Ph.D. You know you have family in the lab that are in it for the long haul with you.”

Kelly Harris and Aramandla Ramesh, Ph.D.Dr. Ramesh describes Harris as an outstanding student and knew her work would be hard to beat in the competition for the Fellowship. “The criterion for the Fellowship this year was more stringent than it ever has been,” said Ramesh. “Without question, I knew Kelly was up to the challenge and was not surprised when she was awarded the Fellowship.”

The Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Predoctoral Fellowship is a highly competitive fellowship awarded to promising predoctoral students and provides funding to train individuals to conduct research and prepare them for research careers.

Harris’ research focuses on how exposure to environmental toxicants accelerates the development of sporadic colorectal cancer caused by the consumption of fatty foods. She is studying the contribution of a known cancer causing environmental toxicant, benzo(a)pyrene, that is found in red meat, a main staple of the western diet. Harris chose this area of study given that colorectal cancer disproportionately affects minority populations. Her goal is to continue to contribute to the elimination of health disparities.

Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of new cancer cases. According to the American Cancer Society, African-American men and women show increased rates of new cancer cases and higher rates of cancer related deaths in comparison to Caucasian individuals. It is imperative that the interaction of dietary habits and the environment are studied in relationship to health disparities.

Harris’ award will pay for her tuition, fees, supplies and her travel expenses as she presents her results at national and international scientific meetings. In addition, the fellowship will help strengthen the clinical and scientific foundations she has developed at Meharry. Her goal is to pursue a career as an independent investigator.

A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Harris graduated from the University of Tennessee at Martin in 2004 with a Bachelor’s Degree in biology. While others may view her vocation choice as a bit depressing, Harris enjoys it and sees it as quite a challenge every day and her mission. “It’s one of those areas where the closer we get in making strides, the less we know,” she said. “But, there’s always that drive that pushes you to keep trying. Even if I don’t see a cure for cancer in my lifetime, hopefully the work I leave will help.”

Harris has received numerous professional awards including the Society of Toxicology Graduate Student Travel Support Award, the American Association for Cancer Research Minority Scholar in Cancer Research Award and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Travel Award/MARC. She is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Scholar and also the recipient of the James and Virginia Merrill Foundation Scholarship and the Clare and William H. Newman Endowed Scholarship. She is well published with several articles published in peer-reviewed journals and abstracts relating to her field of study.

Harris is slated to obtain her Ph.D. in May 2016.