Today, the Honors College has about 800 students, and nearly 100 graduates each semester. Since 1988, many Honors graduates have gone on to do great things. It is our honor to showcase their accomplishments below with alumni spotlights and alumni notes.
ALUMNI SPOTLIGHTS: (available below)
Spring 2019: Dr. Katelyn Bruno Stafford, 2011
Fall 2018: Dr. Melissa Alvarez-Downing, 2000
ALUMNI NOTES: (available in The Dialogue)
Spring 2019 The Dialogue, pages 3-4 (coming soon)
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Alumni Spotlight Spring 2019
Young Investigator of the Year Award: Basic and Translational Science Competition awarded by the World Congress on Acute Heart Failure and Heart Failure Association of the European Society of Cardiology Joint Meeting in Athens, Greece
Dr. Katelyn Bruno Stafford, Ph.D. (2011)
Dr. Bruno graduated with a Bachelor’s of Criminal Justice and Chemistry from Sam Houston State University in 2011. She went on to earn her Ph.D. from John Hopkins School of Public Health by researching myocarditis and currently works as an instructor and lab manager at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. She is also an adjunct faculty instructor at the University of North Florida.
Question & Answer session with Dr. Bruno. Recorded May 2019.
Q: You were a member of the Honors Program during your time at Sam. Did this affect your studies in any way?
A: Yes, I was in the Honors Program during my whole time at Sam including as an Honors Ambassador and graduating with Highest Honors. In response to your next question I will describe my journey getting into the Program. I was lucky to be very involved with the Program and had some unique experiences in my studies due to being an Honors Student.
I really enjoyed taking some of my core classes as Honors courses because I feel that I gained even more knowledge on the topics because the classes were formatted in a more integrative interactive way. I had three unique class experiences with my honors classes. The first of which was taking a Criminal Law course as an Honors Contract class. I worked directing with my professor in order to adjust my class work to fit the criteria as an Honors class. In this class of around 100 students I was the only one taking it as an Honors class. Since he knew about my passion for the sciences (I was a double major for Chemistry and Criminal Justice) we designed a project for me in which I had to research and write a paper on the use of retrospectively determining blood alcohol concentrations in criminal cases. The second Honors Contract class I took was actually my Calculus 2 course. This professor also knew of my interest in criminal justice so he designed a project in which I had to use calculus tools in order to solve a CLUE game like puzzle and determine who a murderer was. My last unique Honors class experience was in my Honors Seminar. I was able to contract a seminar during a mini-semester. One summer I did a 2 week mini-semester led by Dr. Young, tent camping all over the State of Texas. This class was a joint History and English class where we read books and then visited the exact sites that these books were based off of. I have never heard of another person at Sam or at other institutions who had the chance to get so involved physically in something they were learning about.
Another way the Honors Program affected my studies is that due to my involvement in the Program and my commitment to my education my freshman year I was awarded The Sammy for the Best First Year Student. During my second semester of my freshman year I had the honor of being selected as an Honors Ambassador, being selected so early in my education was an honor and the opportunities I had as an Ambassador positively affected my whole college experience.
I always tell people that going to Sam Houston is the reason I am where I am today because going to a smaller school and being part of the Honors Program gave me one on one attention from my professors that I would not have gotten over wise. I got involved with research during the summer after my freshman year because of mentorship I received from Drs. Young and Holmes, and due to my participation in research I was able to attend conferences to present my work. The Honors Program funded some of these trips and one of the trips that they funded was the trip that I met the professor from Johns Hopkins who recruited me.
One funny story of how the Program affected my studies was at Graduation, Dr. Eglsaer stopped and hugged me as I walked off stage and made the joke that I extended the program by 5 minutes. The reason he made this joke was because I took advantage of every opportunity the Honors Program gave me and therefore had numerous Honors read after my name was called as I received my diploma, more than anyone else that graduated that day.
Q: What was most memorable about the Honors Program?
A: One of the most memorable things about the Honors Program to me is the fact that I didn’t get into the Honors Program. When I was applying to undergraduate programs the high school IB programs were just becoming known and schools didn’t realize that they were advanced programs that were significantly more difficult than traditional high school classes. The group I applied with was very strong and because the IB program wasn’t known I did not look like as good of a candidate as other students, so I got a rejection letter for my application to be a part of the program. BUT, I knew that the Honors Program was where I was meant to be and that being a part of the Program would be an incredibly important part of my college education. So I appealed, I drove up to Sam on my summer break and set down with Dr. Young for 2 hours and was able to prove to him that the Honors Program is where I belonged. Taking that risk to try again after rejection was the best thing that I ever did and that moment has made me the scientist, teacher and mentor I am today.
The most memorable event I participated in while apart of the Honor Program was “Let’s Talk”. My freshman year was the first year they did Let’s Talk and I was able to attend every year due to being an Honors Ambassador. The reason it was memorable wasn’t the amazing food or people that I got to meet it was the fact that a large portion of the speakers were alumni of SHSU. I made it my goal at that very first Let’s Talk that one day I would make a difference in the world and would be invited to be a speaker myself. This is still my goal and would be the highlight of my career and I am working towards that goal everyday through my science.
Q: Would you encourage others to join Honors whether it be at SHSU or at any university?
A: I would and do encourage students to apply to Honors programs at their schools of interest because I know how much of a difference the Honors Program made in my life and how much it increased my college experience and led me to be as successful as I have been today. As an adjunct faculty at a local undergraduate university and a mentor for numerous students each year in the lab I do talk to them about how they can improve their current educational experience as well as what are things that will set them apart when applying to medical or graduate school, and Honors Programs are one of those things.
Q: You recently received your PhD in 2016 from John Hopkins School of Public Health. What made you decide to pursue a PhD? Do you have any recommendations for undergraduate students in regards to graduate school?
A: I always knew that I wanted to go to graduate school even as early as middle school, I knew undergraduate education wasn’t the endpoint for me. When I first started at Sam I thought that you had to get a Masters to go on to get a PhD but I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that competitive candidates could go straight into a PhD from undergrad and actually most PhD programs prefer that. I had been told by my teachers in high school and my professors in college that if I only got an undergraduate degree that I would end up sitting at a lab bench doing the same thing every day as a technician. I didn’t want that, so I decided a PhD was the way to go, so that every day was different and every day I got to discover something new even if that new thing was my experiment failing.
My biggest recommendation for students looking to get a PhD in the biological sciences or to get an MD is get involved early! Get involved in research, volunteering, leadership… become passionate... take chances and show them what sets you apart! Yes, having good grades and a high GRE/MCAT score is important but what is most important is YOU! Your personal statement, your recommendation letters and your interview are what tell programs if you will be successful, so do the things that will make those strong. Personally at Sam some of the things that set me apart was starting research my freshman year, serving as a TA, being an Ambassador, doing an internship, presenting at conferences, ect. If you are reading this you are already in the Honors Program or considering it so you have already taken your first step.
In biological PhD programs the most important aspect is your thesis research. So my biggest advice is always about picking your PhD mentor/boss/advisor/PI. What I tell people is “do not pick a mentor because you want to do research in specific field, they are Nobel Prize Winner, have 15 papers in Science, they have cool instruments, or they have a lot of grant money…. Pick a mentor. Pick a lab purely based on the person you are going to spend the next 5 years working under. You can become passionate about anything but if you have a mentor that doesn’t mentor you, that you do not connect with, then you will be very unhappy and most likely unsuccessful.”
Q: You are heavily involved with the Myocarditis Foundation and have done research in the field. Could you tell us more about this? What got you interested?
A: My involvement with the Myocarditis Foundation happened because my PhD research was on myocarditis. I went into my PhD thinking I wanted to do cancer research because my dad got cancer (I changed directions completely, threw criminal justice degree out the window, to go into medical research. But, I met a mentor who was the Ying to my Yang and her area of research was myocarditis so it became my area and my passion. As a PhD we do not see patients and we miss out on that patient contact motivation. So when I was given the opportunity to get involved with the Myocarditis Foundation I jumped at it. The Foundation is a nonprofit with a mission to fund research, support families, and educate the public and the medical community. Getting involved allowed me to interact with families who lost their loved ones, like a 6 year old active boy who was playing outside and walked inside collapsed in his mother’s arms and died instantly. These interactions made and make me work that much harder to give them answers and being involved with the Foundation gives me opportunities to interact with physicians and nurses to help educate them to recognize a disease that devastates families.
Q: You are an instructor and lab manager at Mayo Clinic where you also continue your research. How did this come about?
A: I have many titles and a unique career progression. I am current an Instructor of Medicine at Mayo Clinic in the Cardiovascular Medicine Department and I manage my boss, DeLisa Fairweather’s laboratory. This involves managing and mentoring 15 students and staff, planning experiments, analyzing data, writing grants and papers and much, much more. I have worked with DeLisa Fairweather since 2011 and we have become an amazing team and are working towards running the laboratory together as Co-PIs, as equals. I am also an Adjunct Faculty Instructor at University of North Florida. Mayo Clinic doesn’t have an undergraduate program and I am passionate about teaching, which started at Sam. I have the opportunity to mentor numerous students at Mayo Clinic but I enjoy teaching one class a year at UNF to continue to grow as a teacher.
Q: Have you received any awards/recognition for your research? Where do you plan to take this research in the future?
A: I have been extremely lucky and honored recently to be recognized for a number of my achievements. I am still very early in my career and somewhat behind due to moving institutions and prioritizing starting a family, but since graduating from SHSU, I have won multiple poster awards for best poster presentation, numerous travel awards to attend conferences all over the world. I have been selected as a Young Investigator of the Year Award Finalist for the Mayo Clinic Angiogenesis and Tumor Microenvironment Symposium, Heart Failure Society of America and American Heart Association: Basic Cardiovascular Sciences. Recently I was also selected as one of the 2018 American Pediatric Association (APA) Environmental Scholars and as one of the 2019 Future Leaders in Heart Failure. The highest honor thus far I received last week while in Athens Greece at the World Congress on Acute Heart Failure and Heart Failure Association of the European Society of Cardiology Joint Meeting. I competed and was awarded First Prize in the Young Investigator of the Year Award: Basic and Translational Science Competition.
I plan on staying in this field and continuing my research in myocarditis and heart failure. I absolutely love what I do and I know that the reason that I am where I am to do making a difference in the field I am in is due to my time at Sam and in the Honors Program.
Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
A: Other than these most recent awards honoring my potential in the heart failure field my biggest accomplishments are those of my students. Every great scientist has won awards but our biggest accomplishments are the accomplishments of those we mentor. Recently I have gotten amazing news of my students getting in Medical School, winning awards for best presentations at conferences and so much more. I honestly believe their success is my biggest success.
Alumni Spotlight Fall 2018
SHSU Outstanding Young Alumni Award
Dr. Melissa M Alvarez-Downing, MD (2000)
Most college students inherently believe that they have the potential to effect change in a positive way, but often question if they are on the right path. For Dr. Melissa Alvarez-Downing, she always knew her career trajectory would lead her to help others.
Today, the mother of three is an Assistant Professor of Surgery at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, New Jersey, specializing in colon and rectal surgery. One of the youngest surgeons in her field, she is truly a rising star according to her colleagues and credits Sam Houston State University professors for steering her trajectory.
Being as athletic as she is whip-smart, Dr. Alvarez-Downing excelled in science and sports from a young age. One of five children, she followed her older twin sisters to SHSU and received both academic and athletic scholarships. Taking honors classes through the Elliott T. Bowers Honors College, she was an Orange Key, ran cross country and track for all four years and graduated Magna Cum Laude with honors in 2000. Today, she stays connected to her alma mater as a Life Member of the Alumni Association.
The choice of path you take can have a significant impact on your destination in life, as Dr. Alvarez-Downing knows. She planned to earn a PhD in Chemistry, not an MD, and then teach – a goal of hers for as long as she can remember. However, faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences convinced her to consider a career in medicine.
Dr. Mary Plishker, the head of the Chemistry Department at the time, mentored Dr. Alvarez-Downing and encouraged her to pursue medicine due to her outgoing personality and academic aptitude. However, it wasn’t until her Biology professor placed an application for a competitive summer medical program in front of her, that she truly considered a change.
Dr. Alvarez-Downing was accepted into the program and from that point on, she knew she wanted to be a physician. After graduating from SHSU with honors, Dr. Alvarez-Downing attended the prestigious Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, and received Board Certification from the American Board of Surgery in 2011 and the American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery in 2015.
When describing this up-and-coming surgeon, colleagues portray her as personable, enthusiastic and committed.
Dr. Anne Mosenthal, chair of the Rutgers NJMS Department of Surgery commented, “She is well-trained and has a wonderful bedside manner. I’ve had the opportunity to partner with her, taking care of more complicated patients. The patients love her, the families love her.”
Dr. Anastasia Kunac, program director for Rutgers NJMS General Surgery Residency echoed those sentiments, noting that Alvarez-Downing is “both passionate and compassionate, caring for patients and their families with incredible enthusiasm,” adding, “…I think for years to come she will be a role model.”
“And, that is true of Melissa as an educator as well,” Dr. Mosenthal added, “She is particularly interested in education and training the next generation, and that is what we are about here.”
As a top-performing young professional, not only does Dr. Alvarez-Downing exemplify a focus on academics, excellence and rigor that define Rutgers NJMS, she personifies what it means to be an Outstanding Young Alumna at SHSU, emulating the university motto of “A measure of a Life is it’s Service,” through her teaching, education and philanthropy.
“I found that throughout all steps of my training, were it medical school, residency and even fellowship, that having someone you identify with, who encourages you, and reaches out and supports you is just so important. So, that’s been an important part of my professional life - to give back that way,” she said.
Dr. Alvarez-Downing is a Life Member of the SHSU Alumni Association and provides support to the Department of Chemistry and the Elliot T. Bowers Honors College.
Story accessed from: https://www.shsu.edu/dept/office-of-alumni-relations/distinguished-alumni-gala