Meet Lanazha Belfield. A self-proclaimed “science nerd” who’s “pretty much living in Biotech Place” these days, exercising mice and working toward a Ph.D. from Wake Forest University.
If you’d asked her about her career ambitions a decade ago, she’d have told you that she was accepting her dream offer to attend UNC-Chapel Hill and would become a medical doctor—until one letter and a full academic scholarship to Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) had a different story to tell.
We sat down with Lanazha to get a glimpse of that story. One where she’d go to school for free, find incredible mentorships, join WSSU’s Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, get paid to discover what fulfills her, develop her professional STEM network, get into grad school (also for free) and lead by example to open more doors for minorities in research.
Innovation Quarter (iQ): Tell us about your experience in Winston-Salem State’s MARC program.
Lanazha: I was a MARC affiliate my junior year. As an affiliate, I was associated with the program, but I wasn’t a scholar. I was paid to do research for up to 10 hours a week in my research mentor’s lab. I had the opportunity to meet with the MARC group when they had people come to talk about graduate school—how we would want to get there or what would be our next step after undergraduate. Even as a MARC affiliate, you get the opportunity to attend the sessions and talk to people and make the connections, but you don’t get as many of the scholar benefits such as a half-price discount on taking the GRE, a stipend or free grad school applications.
Those things that come with being a scholar just were unparalleled; I couldn’t match it anywhere else. I wanted to become a scholar because I’ve always been a person who’s chased the scholarship and have seen that there’s money out there for education. Going into my senior year, three of the four scholars had actually graduated, which allowed us to have one or two more slots available. Therefore, I applied and interviewed for the scholar position, and that’s when I was moved up to a scholar level versus affiliated.
iQ: How did you know about the MARC program? What inspired you?
“It was word of mouth—and like in the real world: who you know makes a huge difference.”
Lanazha: The summer before my freshman year, I did a summer science academy at WSSU, which allowed me to get some general education on qualifications for chemistry or mathematics to help me place out of those classes. One of the professors in charge of the summer program was Dr. Mamudu Yakubu, who was very well connected in the WSSU chemistry department. He really wanted me to do research in general, but he knew that MARC wouldn’t allow me to do research until I was a junior. He put me into a program called RAMS Scholar, which allowed me to do research and get paid for it as well.
During my sophomore year, the mentor I worked with through RAMS Scholar, Dr. Tennille Presley, told me I should apply for MARC. She kind of pushed me to apply for MARC to allow me to keep working in her lab and still get paid for it. It was word of mouth—and like in the real world: who you know makes a huge difference.
iQ: How did participating in the MARC program impact your decision to go to grad school?
Lanazha: It was my decision (laughs). I come from a small community, where if you’re smart, you’re either a lawyer or a doctor. I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor until I got rotated with a medical doctor and thought “this is not like the show on TV. I am not feeling this, this is not what I expected.” I wanted to figure out exactly what I wanted to do. My mom’s a principal, so she’s been an educator my entire life. Education has always been a huge part of who I am and what I want to be. I think education is so important, especially for the minority community since there’s such a huge gap.
One of my professors, who is another MARC mentor, thought I had the right skill set to be a professor: He said I was smart, worked well with other students, and was an amazing tutor. He broke things down to me, and I thought it actually sounded interesting, so I asked about what I’d have to do for that.
I was already doing research and summer science camps and academies at other institutions like UVA-Charlottesville, UNC-Chapel Hill and Tuskegee University. I was able to see different research environments, and all of them needed more students of color. It just made me feel very accomplished and fulfilled to step into a space where there aren’t many people who look like me, and I can make the change and open the door for other people. I just enjoyed education in all aspects. I enjoy tutoring. I enjoy curriculum development. I enjoy mentorship. All of those aspects were very interesting to me, and I felt like coming and getting a Ph.D. would set me up for that. I feel like sometimes you need that degree to even sit at the table. I knew that I would have to put in the work to get that degree because I want a seat at the table, and I will have a seat at the table.
“I was able to see different research environments, and all of them needed more students of color. It just made me feel very accomplished and fulfilled to step into a space where there aren’t many people who look like me, and I can make the change and open the door for other people.”
iQ: How well do you feel like MARC prepared you for grad school?
Lanazha: You’re constantly surrounded by your mentors—who are Ph.D.’s nine times out of 10—who went through these experiences and will drop gems of advice on you. Or, if you have any questions, they’ll help guide you. When I was in MARC during my upper-class years, I felt less like a student and more like a friend, because they see that you’re serious about research and you’re serious about schooling. So, they’re going to be a little more transparent with you about their lives, journeys, income, and everything so you can just be prepared.
MARC also prepared me for the application process. We had people who looked over our application from top to bottom. They helped us by providing recommendation letters and editing our personal statements. I don’t know if anybody can prepare you for the actual research classroom part of graduate school. Only being exposed to those things can prepare you for that. But I definitely feel like MARC gave me a leg up when it came to the application and interview process. We had mock interviews with MARC, and they would sit down and interview us as if we were going to a school to talk about our research. They did a lot of that preparation with us beforehand.
iQ: Can you share a high-level overview of what you’re working on now?
Lanazha: I look at how Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) affects the skeletal muscle of patients while they’re in the intensive care unit (ICU). Acute lung injury, or ARDS, is typically associated with a critical illness. When patients are on these mechanical ventilators, they’re not moving. They have this increase in inflammation in their body, and the first place that gets attacked is the muscles. Your skeletal muscles have this huge protein reservoir, and because of this protein reservoir, they are attacked first to provide energy for the rest of your body—such as your vital organs—to continue working properly.
So when these patients are removed from the mechanical ventilator and sent out of the ICU, they have these long- and short-term functional outcomes that are greatly damaged, such as their breathing ability or their ability to walk. Everyday life things are not the same. My research looks at how glucocorticoids affect this process in acute lung injury. I utilize mice and exercise them during acute lung injury, and we’re pretty much trying to see that exercising during acute lung injury can protect the skeletal muscles. I’m looking at the molecular level of how we can improve that and then translate that into the ICU.
iQ: Have you had any overlapping experiences with other Innovation Quarter tenants or affiliates?
Lanazha: I’m always in these buildings. If you’ve had an event in these buildings, I’m pretty sure I’ve been to it or been by it in some form—celebrating Cinco de Mayo, the Olympics or donut day when they had Duck Donuts everywhere. I think all those events are super cool. They make you feel less like you’re in a workplace and more like you’re in a place where you can let out a breath and relax, so I do enjoy those things.
iQ: In your eyes, what impact do you think institutional programs like MARC have on the greater community?
Lanazha: I feel like programs like that are the core of why you see an increase of minorities in STEM. Most of the people I know who are Ph.D.s, specifically with an African American background, did some form of MARC. If they didn’t do MARC, they did RISE, an associate program to MARC. I feel like if we don’t have programs like that, we’re going to revert backwards when it comes to increasing diversity in the STEM world. But because we have programs like that, it’s a continued move to where it feels less like I’m the only person here to there being a whole cohort of people of color coming to get a Ph.D. And I feel like MARC gives you the ability to think that you can do this. They baby step you into the process where you can understand what research is and how it impacts the world. It sets you up with small things that you might not get in the classroom, and you’re not going to experience in a two-hour biology lab. They give you greater experiences than that.
“Because we have programs like [MARC and RISE], it’s a continued move to where it feels less like I’m the only person here to there being a whole cohort of people of color coming to get a Ph.D. And I feel like MARC gives you the ability to think that you can do this.”
I feel like they’re super important for the community and minorities of any aspect. We all were exposed to research through MARC in some format, even if it was just research conferences. MARC gave me the confidence to know that no one knows your project more than you. No one knows your science more than you do. And you will never get on a stage and present data that someone knows more about than you do. I really feel like MARC gave me a different confidence. People in my program now say I speak so well, that I’m so polished when I talk about science. It’s because of MARC. MARC gave me the opportunity to practice my scientific communication for so long that it’s kind of like a second language. I just do it while I’m asleep at this point because I’ve been doing it for so long. It allowed me to develop my skills early and just keep growing them over time.
iQ: You mentioned several opportunities that you had through the program. Do you have a favorite or best experience?
Lanazha: My senior year at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) was the best experience ever. It was my first year going to ABRCMS and giving an oral talk versus a poster talk. When you’re giving an oral talk, everyone in the room is pretty much your judge. It was my first opportunity to speak on that big of a stage. I won an award that year, which was one of the most rewarding moments I’ve had in research. Everyone in the room was genuinely interested. And that gave me the confidence to think I can go get a Ph.D. Before then, I just thought I did research. But at that point, I knew I could call myself a scientist, and no one could tell me I wasn’t. So I think that was my favorite moment.
iQ: What advice would you give an incoming MARC or RISE candidate?
Lanazha: Take advantage of every, every opportunity they give to you. If you apply, the worst thing somebody can say is no. I applied for every summer opportunity and every research conference I received information about. I went to those conferences because networking in science is so important. You have to be able to get into the room to even network, and MARC opens the door for you to do that. Just take it seriously—it’s not just meeting on Tuesdays for an hour and a half. The mentors are genuinely trying to give us the tools to be the best people we possibly can be. And to get paid? Who can beat that? You’re doing something that makes your CV look amazing. You’re becoming this great scientist, and you’re doing it through a program that’s through the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of General Medical Sciences—they love MARC; that’s their program. So, anybody who’s been a part of that looks good for them, too.
“You have to be able to get into the room to even network, and MARC opens the door for you to do just that. Just take it seriously—it’s not just meeting on Tuesdays for an hour and a half. The mentors are genuinely trying to give us the tools to be the best people we possibly can be.”
Even people who haven’t applied don’t feel like it’s unattainable. I’ve known people who applied to MARC with no research experience and were still accepted because they showed their devotion to wanting to learn about research. They showed that research is something they want to do. I just feel like if you have any interest in research, MARC is the place to be. MARC would definitely give you the tools and opportunities to get into the research world and see what you like and what you don’t like. And it allows you to do that before you end up in graduate school and completely hate what you’re doing for five or six years. If I would’ve gone to medical school, I would have been miserable compared to research. Not every day is easy, but I know it’s something that fulfills me.