At the Crossroads

Sherket B. Peterson, PhD
MMEP, Class of 2002
To me, research is like putting a puzzle together.

Imagine you’ve devoted most of your young life to becoming a doctor.

You earn admission to a high school specially designed to produce physicians. You head to college on a full scholarship and choose a pre-med track. You apply to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Minority Medical Education Program (MMEP, now SMDEP) to get a leg up on applying to medical school, your eyes ever on the prize.

Then, in a startling moment of truth, your dream meets reality.

For Sherket B. Peterson, PhD, that moment came in an emergency room. She and her fellow MMEP students observed as a patient was dying. The doctors went around the room and asked each individually if they should stop CPR.

“It shook me to the core,” Peterson, 31, says quietly. “Who was I to decide to stop fighting for this person’s life?” Her voice falters; more than a decade later, the memory is still fresh.

She wanted to make a difference in medicine. Could she do that if she couldn’t disengage her emotions?

The quest for an answer planted a seed that would reach full flower over the next several years—and transform Peterson from prospective physician to biomedical investigator.

Solving Problems and Puzzles

The ER experience prompted Peterson to do some soul searching. Under the guidance of Maureen Cullins, director of the MMEP Duke University site, she began to look beyond the parameters she had set for herself in medicine. Cullins introduced her to the director of Duke’s Division of Infectious Diseases, John Bartlett, MD, and in the process expanded her world.

“That was the first time I had met a research scientist. I never even knew their duties or job requirements,” Peterson says. “I’d always thought I wanted to pursue medicine, but Dr. Barrett inspired me to consider something new.”

Returning to her undergraduate studies at Norfolk State University, Peterson’s focus was still on medicine—but she stayed in contact with Bartlett, calling him regularly to chat about the AIDS research Duke was conducting in Tanzania. “The incident at MMEP cooled my interest in medicine only slightly,” she explains. “Talking with Dr. Bartlett, however, I became more and more fascinated by research.”

Maureen Cullins suggested seeking out a research internship to test the limits of that fascination. Following her junior year, Peterson was accepted into the highly competitive Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program at Rice University, in her native Houston. She found the experience enjoyable but inconclusive.

As she prepared to graduate from Norfolk State the next year, Peterson asked her IGERT adviser, Jane Grande-Allen, PhD, to hire her full time. “I also shared my struggle over pursuing med school versus graduate school,” she says. Based on that conversation, Grande-Allen offered assignments to help her reach a decision.

Two years later, after working in a clinical setting with heart-failure patients and in a laboratory on glycobiology and bioengineering projects, Peterson had her answer.

“I opted for research over medicine because I found it more fulfilling,” she says. With her choice made, the rest of the pieces fell into place; she went on to complete her PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Now a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Biological Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University, Peterson is studying the factors that lead to the progression of diabetic nephropathy, a complication of diabetes that can lead to end-stage renal failure and death. Having fully embraced biomedical research, she enjoys what she calls “the novelty of it.”

“Every day I get the opportunity to learn something new,” she says. “And I’m a good problem-solver, so to me research is like putting a puzzle together. You have to come up with different techniques and ideas to figure out the big picture. I spend every day discovering.”

No Excuses

In addition to her research work, Peterson is an active member of the SMDEP National Alumni Advisory Board and an evangelist for the program, spreading the word at universities, conferences, and career fairs across the country. She will give the closing keynote speech for the 2014 cohort at Duke.

“So many of the scholars I speak with feel hampered by their background. They think they are at a disadvantage because they didn’t have two parents or came from a poor family,” she says. “I tell them, ‘Don’t use that as an excuse—use it as motivation. You can’t let where you came from determine where you end up.'”

“You can’t take advantage of opportunities that you don’t know exist.”

She stresses the benefits of SMDEP for students from underserved populations, saying, “You can’t take advantage of opportunities that you don’t know exist.” Like Peterson herself, most of the students she meets had never heard of research.

“They tell me, ‘It’s nice to see someone I can relate to who’s made it this far because it lets me know I have that chance as well.'”

Yet even as she encourages students to explore research careers, Peterson is keenly aware that the environment for scientists is changing—and not for the better.

A Multidisciplinary Approach

Despite the fact that biomedical research is the linchpin of discovery and advancement in health care, federal funding—the largest source of seed funding—has declined since 2010, with sequestration prompting the biggest cuts. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) forfeited $1.55 billion, or 5 percent of its FY 2013 budget. While that’s a drop in the $3.7 trillion federal spending bucket, the reduction has been consequential to researchers who rely on NIH grants. The agency estimated that the cuts would result in approximately 640 fewer competitive research project grants.

The field has also seen a decrease in the number of jobs available. According to a 2012 NIH report, “the numbers of positions available for biomedical PhDs that take advantage of their long training are less than the number of PhDs produced each year.”

“Running a lab is just like running a business. You need to have strong interpersonal skills, strong presentation and management skills.”

The situation has spurred Peterson to advocate a multidisciplinary approach to research training. “Many grad students and postdocs say they weren’t informed about the current job shortage,” she explains. They feel their universities could have done a better job of preparing them for the realities of the job market.

“Traditional thinking is, ‘We are a science program; our job is to train scientists,'” says Peterson, adding that this approach fails to incorporate other skills that could be translated into different professions should students decide research isn’t for them.

“Running a lab is just like running a business. You need to have strong interpersonal skills, strong presentation and management skills,” she insists. “These skills translate into any field, not just science.” She believes that offering a business or policy class in concert with biomedical training curricula could give graduates a competitive edge no matter where their careers take them.

Musing about government’s role in improving the odds, she says, “Hiring a labor economist to evaluate the employment and wage data of different scientific fields within the market would ensure that the supply of scientists keeps up with the demand of the current job market.”

But that doesn’t exempt students from preparing themselves. “If you don’t do the work to set yourself apart, you won’t be able to find the position you want,” Peterson says. “You should pursue as many viable interests as possible. Not only will it make you more qualified and a well-rounded person, but it will also allow you to create your own opportunities.”

Shaping Careers, Changing Lives

To be sure, Peterson has created her own opportunities. But she gives credit where it’s due: to her family—perhaps her biggest motivators—and to people like Maureen Cullins at Duke and Dr. Jian Liu at the University of North Carolina, where she did her graduate work.

“I never would have found my place in research if not for Ms. Cullins. And Dr. Liu helped me to learn fundamental skills I needed as a scientist. He taught me how to love research and take pride in it.”

She also applauds RWJF and SMDEP for creating opportunities and increasing diversity in the health professions. Those inroads have expanded the landscape and opened more doors.

“There are many more people from underserved populations who want to pursue health careers than when I was in school, and in a wider range of disciplines,” she says. “Every time I speak to underrepresented minorities who want health careers, they are familiar with SMDEP.”

Reciting the program’s mantra, shaping careers, changing lives, Peterson reflects, “And that’s what SMDEP does. Without question, it did so for me.”