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The Catalyst

Distinguished graduates share career-defining experiences

By Cindy Abole
Public Relations

MSTP students Drs. Anna-Maria De Costa and Daniel Grass are two of the three recipients of the College of Graduate Studies’ Distinguished Graduate of the Year Award. photo by Cindy Abole, Public Relations

For the College of Graduate Studies, three was a charm when it came to selecting its top, most distinguished graduates.

Three graduates: Anna-Maria De Costa, M.D., Ph.D., and Daniel Grass, M.D., Ph.D. and Jacob Beckley, Ph.D., were named the recipients of the College of Graduate Studies Distinguished Graduate of the Year Award. The awards were presented May 15 at the college’s hooding ceremony at St. Luke’s Chapel.

Perry V. Halushka, M.D., Ph.D., Distinguished University Professor and director of the Medical Scientist Training Program, praised these students for their achievements and successes with the program.

“All three are truly outstanding students and individuals for their contributions and dedication to their medical and research careers. They’re great role models and I look forward to following their careers as they enhance biomedical research and medicine through discoveries,” said Halushka.

The co-recipients of this award shared common themes as it related to their attraction to continuing their studies at MUSC. For dual-degree graduates De Costa and Grass, both were attracted to the cohesiveness of the program and flexible schedule during their training to become physician-scientists. In addition, Grass liked the ability to conduct translational research and the campus’ collaborative atmosphere which provided a variety of rich opportunities. Likewise, Beckley chose to pursue his interest in drug abuse and addiction research and knew that MUSC’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health offers one of the country’s premier drug and alcohol basic science research programs.

Lowcountry native achieves success
De Costa grew up in North Charleston and is a 2006 graduate of Wofford College. She started that same year in the MSTP. She became interested in conducting immunotherapy of head and neck cancer research after meeting with M. Rita Young, Ph.D., professor of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery and associate chief of staff for research and development at the  Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.

“Without the guidance of my mentor, Dr. Rita Young, I would not have gained all that I have out of the past eight years. She has given me the right amount of freedom to learn self-sufficiency and the right amount of direction to be focused and actually get to where I am and graduating. She is fantastic and I am indebted to her,” said De Costa.

De Costa’s research looked at the process of cancer immune-editing and how the alterations in local and systemic immune responses during development of oral squamous cell carcinoma. Her dissertation work also involved the development of a vaccine used in the premalignant stage in the development of oral cancer.  

According to De Costa’s mentor, there are two components that should come from the Ph.D. experience. First, the student must gain expertise in a scientific field, master methods to conduct studies in that field and begin scientific writing to include grants and manuscripts. Second, a student must gain an understanding of the philosophy of research which includes the ability to identify what questions research has not yet answered as well as how to ask a scientific question in a way that it can be scientifically answered. Young said.

“It’s important to let a student pursue their own ideas and learn from their mistakes (while still being able to pull the student back if they stray too deeply into trouble). It’s also important that they relish in their successes that they have discovered on their own.” Young said of her work with De Costa.

But finishing the eight-year, MD-PhD program did not come without surprises and typical life events.

At the time of De Costa’s research dissertation defense on May 2, 2012, she was eight months pregnant and on bed rest. She successfully completed her defense and gave birth to son, Benjamin, a month later on June 8.

As she returned to her medical training and studies, she quickly got first-hand experience managing the challenges associated with balancing work-life and personal life as she worked hard to parent her son during two years of clinical rotations.

“It was incredibly challenging, but I had received wonderful support from program staff, fellow students and others.  The experience helped me learn to multi-task and manage my time like never before,” De Costa said. Her mentor shared invaluable advice. Young told her to make the best of the time that she has with her family and with work rather than constantly struggling to catch up. “Don’t waste precious time,” Young advised.

Following graduation, she and her husband, Brian, and Benjamin will have precious time to themselves until she starts her yearlong surgery internship at MUSC, followed by a four-year radiation oncology residency at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

For De Costa, the community of support she received at MUSC throughout her time spent completing the program were invaluable to her success.

“Without these people I would not have been able to be a good mother and a good student at the same time. I think it’s very important to surround yourself with people who will be the catalyst for growth and achievement in your life, and it’s important to be that person for others as well. I’m certainly grateful that I found people like that here at MUSC,” De Costa said.

Dedicated physician-scientist has bright career
As a biochemistry major at Charleston Southern University, Daniel Grass knew he wanted to be a physician-scientist and he knew MUSC’s program would provide him with the best opportunity to reach his goal.

Grass worked during the first two years of medical school in the lab of Bryan P. Toole, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology, before transitioning into the MD/PhD program. At that time his mentor saw in Grass an innate eagerness to learn combined with a cooperative nature and strong work ethic.  

He credits his graduate school training with preparing him to handle the hurdles he will face while providing patient care or conducting research in a lab. “My mentor, Dr. Bryan Toole, made a great investment in me with his time and support, while also teaching me how to navigate the harsh waters of basic science research. I hope to emulate the leadership and scientific prowess I have witnessed in him as I continue my future endeavors.”   

Working with Toole and his team, Grass’ research focused on how breast cancer cells spread or metastasize to other areas in the body. He discovered how a protein called ‘emmprin’ and a sugar called ‘hyaluronan’ influence breast cancer cells to form tentacles, which allow cancer cells to metastasize. His research has identified novel targets, which can lead to new therapeutic options for patients diagnosed with breast and other cancers.

“Dan understood that successful translational medicine requires solid basic science knowledge. Patient care also requires focused, knowledgeable analyses and Dan learned to be good at that, which will strongly benefit his clinical skills,” said Toole.

Toole predicts that his mentee will have a strong future in medicine and he looks forward to following his developing career. “Dan is my last graduate student and I am very proud that he has made such strong accomplishments and developed into a mature investigator with a bright career and life ahead of him.”

Reflecting back, the 31-year old could not be happier with his experience and training at MUSC. “I am moving forward with confidence to treat patients compassionately and effectively while also being able to approach research questions intelligently,” Grass said.

Following graduation, Grass will start an internship in internal medicine at Greenville Hospital System and then head to Tampa, FL with his wife, Kate, to finish a four-year residency in Radiation Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center.

Colorado native drawn to Research

Beckley, a native of Boulder, Colorado, came to MUSC with an extended background in behavioral neuroscience, but felt he was lacking the necessary foundation in the basic sciences, especially molecular biology and biochemistry. The College of Graduate Studies first year curriculum provided him with a strong foundation in the biomedical sciences.

Dr. Jacob Beckley

Beckley worked with mentor John Woodward, Ph.D., a professor with joint appointments in the Department of Neurosciences and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science.

In his research, Beckley focused on toluene, a volatile solvent found in products such as spray paint and glue, that when voluntarily inhaled for intoxication purposes, alters neurotransmissions in regions of the brain that are involved in the development of addiction pathology.

Beckley also collaborated with other MUSC neuroscience research faculty and postdocs, providing him numerous opportunities to learn how to conduct effective and novel research using cutting-edge techniques.

Beckley completed his degree requirements in June 2013 and was granted his doctorate degree in August.

Beckley currently works as a post doc in the lab of Dorit Ron, Ph.D. in the Department of Neurology at the University of California–San Francisco.

“My graduate research experience at MUSC exceeded my expectations. I was able to work with scientists who are on the leading edge of my research field; developed friendships with some great people; and directed a research project that yielded interesting and important results,” said Beckley.

Asked about reaching his goals in the next five years, Beckley said he would like to lead his own lab as principal investigator, and research the mechanisms underlying the transition from recreational drug use to compulsive abuse.

Beckley would like to focus his research on drug abuse that receive less research attention but are potently addictive and commonly abused, like volatile solvents and benzodiazepines.
“I’m likely to stay in publicaly funded basic science research and push for changes in the direction of research on drugs of abuse from the inside,” he said.


May 17, 2014



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