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Undergraduate ResearcHERS: Synphane Gibbs

Written By: Daphne Fauber (Guest Writer)

Synphane Gibbs, a 2020 graduate in Biology from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University and first-generation college student did not know that “scientist” was even a possible career path when she first started college. However, that did not stop her from becoming involved in research initiatives and beginning her Ph.D. in July 2020.

During high school, Gibbs moved often and never felt like she had a chance to learn what she was interested in. She began to read books about biology for fun and as a means of supplementing her education. Through reading, Gibbs found a passion for science and biology that her high school experience was otherwise not cultivating.

Despite a discouraging high school experience, Gibbs knew she wanted to pursue higher education. “My mom always wanted to be a lawyer, but she never got the chance to, so she really encouraged me to follow my dreams and go to college. I really wanted to go to an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and, after a college tour at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, I was sold on going to college and getting an education in STEM because they have great programs for it.”

Gibbs began her college experience by joining the Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement (RISE) program, a National Institute of Health (NIH) funded initiative that supports historically underrepresented students in research projects and professional development. At North Carolina A&T, the program involved participating in a pre-matriculation session that taught basic lab skills to participants and prepared them to spend up to two years in a partner lab.

In Gibb’s first lab, she studied protein signaling disease pathways. In this lab, she ran reactions, did titrations, and managed her own project, which examined the extent of the reaction certain chemicals have with a protein that can change its structure. After spending time in this position, Gibbs found a passion for research and changed her degree track from pre-med to one that was more research-focused.

After spending two years in her original lab, Gibbs transitioned to the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, another NIH-funded initiative supporting historically underrepresented students in research. Gibbs stayed in this new lab for the rest of her undergraduate career, performing structural analysis on variants in a human enzyme that alters amino groups and identifying how mutations alter the structure and activity level of the enzyme.

For those anxious about becoming involved in research, Gibbs says, “All you need to start off with is a curiosity and persistence. There will be MANY failures, and those failures will make you think that you may not belong because you are already dealing with other societal pressures/disadvantages -- but when you're passionate about something, achieving your research goals makes it all worth dealing with the failures.”

Gibbs has just started her new degree path at the University of Virginia in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate (BIMS) Program. After she receives her Ph.D., she is not sure where her career will go, but she hopes to use her work to help disadvantaged people.

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