Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Debra Garvey

MET alumna Debra Garvey (PHD ’19, Ahmad Lab) spoke with Mark Marohl, describing her time in the program and what she’s been up to since she graduated.

Dr. Debra Garvey (PHD ‘19, Ahmad Lab) transferred to the MET Graduate Program from the PharmSci PHD Program. Following the successful defense of her PHD dissertation, she moved to a postdoctoral position in the lab of Dr. Will Ricke. She has found success in this role, recently appointed on the “CAIRIBU Trainee & Early Investigator Committee” within the O’Brien Center. Mark Marohl had the opportunity to catch up with Debra about this role, her current research, and a gaze into the crystal ball.

Could you tell me a little bit about your background? How did you end up UW-Madison?
I completed my Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) which is my home country. I enjoyed doing research year-round at UVI and some of the research involved investigating various ethnobotanical preparations for anti-cancer effects but also toxicology assessment to ascertain the potency of the preparations and disseminate the findings to the locals as part of a health awareness goal.

I learned about UW-Madison from the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) while I was an undergraduate at UVI. There were booths set up for different schools and I had the pleasure of meeting the dean of continuing studies for the PharmSci PhD Program. After speaking with him I was intrigued by UW-Madison and I wanted to live somewhere different from home to expand my horizons.

Could you talk a little bit about your research when you were in MET?
In the lab of Dr. Nihal Ahmad in the department of dermatology my thesis work focused on the potential involvement of a polo-like kinase, PLK4, in the development of the non-melanoma skin cancers (NMSCs), basal cell carcinoma and cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma. My work was primarily conducted using in vitro models and inhibiting the function of PLK4 using small molecule inhibitors or CRISPR technology to disrupt the function of the gene. We found that inhibiting the function of this protein hindered the proliferation of skin cancer cells and delayed the onset of tumorigenesis.

You moved into the postdoc position with Dr. Ricke shortly after you graduated. What does your research there involve? Is it very different from what you did during graduate study and how does that help or hinder?
From a research perspective, it is quite different as I went from primarily cancer work to benign research. I work more with in vivo models and use animal tissues to investigate whether fetal exposure to dioxin can worsen the development of lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTS) associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) for men later in life. I also investigate the role of hormones and their receptors to induce BPH/LUTS.

The research in this new lab has helped me to expand my experience because I know how to handle mice now and I am learning new techniques. Due to my initial lack of experience, there was a learning curve but with time it became second nature and now I can help other members of the lab with their mouse work. In graduate school many soft skills are acquired such as how to address a problem or research question. Also, from graduate training you learn to be meticulous with your techniques and the importance of rigor and reproducibility which continue to aid in my growth as a post-doc.

Lastly, I was recently awarded a NIEHS R01 supplement to continue my research in the Ricke Lab and acquired Drs. Dick Peterson and Chad Vezina as mentors which will only further deepen my understanding of this new research area.

I will admit for me, I am not very familiar with the O’Brien Center. Could you talk to me a little about that?
The George M. O’Brien Urology Research Center is a multi-site research cooperative between the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Massachusetts-Boston, UT Southwestern and the National Institutes of Health. Here at UW we are focused on research for improving urologic health in aging men. Our lab is focused on the role of estrogens in collagen synthesis to drive fibrosis and lower urinary tract dysfunction.

You were recently appointed to the “CAIRIBU Trainee & Early Investigator Committee” and the “2021 CAIRIBU Meeting-Trainee Event Planning Committee.” What is that and what are your responsibilities?
I will serve on both committees as the O’Brien representative and work with representatives from different program such as the K12 program and P20 center to foster research relationships and collaboration. We meet monthly for the Trainee and Early Investigator Committee to learn from each other, discuss research and host invited speakers. The purpose of the Trainee Event Planning Committee is to develop a plan for the trainee event of the 2021 CAIRIBU meeting to be held in December in Washington, DC. Usually at this event trainees may interact with more established researchers for a career panel or a workshop can be held addressing a topic such as grant writing.

Have you begun thinking about and otherwise planning for what comes next following your postdoc?
Most definitely, my wheels are always turning for the next steps in my career. My initial thoughts were moving into a branch for government, but as I continue my research I believe the next steps are either industry or staying in academia. I have spoken to my PI and we have discussed the idea of submitting a K01 next year, which is a grant for early investigators on a career path to independence. I am constantly browsing the different industries and getting familiar with the currently available positions to keep myself abreast of what qualifications those positions require. One thing I am certain of at this moment, is that I will remain in a job that is toxicology focused because I plan to apply to write the American Board of Toxicology exam in 2022-2023 and get my DABT.

Any advice that you have for current graduate students as they make their way towards degree?
Never and I do mean never compare yourself to others. Stay focused and diligent and you will prevail over any obstacles to achieve success. Keep your options open for positions after attaining your degree and use each job as an opportunity to learn something either about the work or yourself and continue to grow professionally and personally. Stay curious, ask questions and do not be afraid to speak your mind when it comes to your research interests and what you would like to focus on for your career growth.

It’s been great catching up with you, Debra; thank you for taking the time!