First-generation, New Horizon Graduate Scholar paves the way for others
March 2, 2020
Michelle Dickerson, second-year doctoral student in biomedical engineering and mechanics in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, understands the value of hard work, facing problems head-on, and passing that knowledge to others to improve their quality of life.
“For me, attending grad school could have been a lot harder, a lot scarier, than it was,” Dickerson said. “One of my professors at George Mason was a black male and he encouraged me to go to grad school. That encouragement, and seeing his success as a minority, helped me make the jump. I told myself, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”
Dickerson, a New Horizon Graduate Scholar recipient, became interested in biomedical engineering due to its applicability to the real-world to improve others’ lives. During her high school years, she traveled to Zambia as part of a mission trip. They volunteered in an orphanage where many of the children had HIV or AIDS or the child’s parents had died from the same illnesses.
“There was this 2-year-old girl named Jacquelyn, and we instantly bonded,” Dickerson said. “As I interacted with her and our connection grew, my desire grew to do something to help her and to help others like her. My connection with her sparked my passion for bioengineering. That is what made me want to be in this field in the first place, and my interest has grown from there.”
Dickerson’s research focuses on neuroengineering and nanotechnology, analyzing glial cells in the brain in an effort to understand the mechanisms and pathways that contribute to the short- and long-term complications following traumatic brain injuries. With the doctoral degree, Dickerson hopes to improve the quality of lives for others through neuroengineering, as it relates to engineering drug delivery systems, specifically drugs that decrease inflammation of the brain.
Dickerson also provides mentorship to undergraduate students in biomedical engineering and mechanics Professor Pam VandeVord’s Traumatic Nerve Technologies Lab. As a team, VandeVord and her students investigate molecular changes occurring in cells and the surrounding environment after traumatic brain injury that result in dysfunction.
“Michelle stands out as an excellent student,” Pam VandeVord said. “She is able to balance time between service and research and has passion for inclusion and diversity in the community. She has been mentoring undergraduate students that come through the lab, showing both patience and understanding in teaching them.”
Her passion for improving others’ lives does not end in the biomedical sphere. Due to the challenges she faced as a first-generation student, Dickerson dedicates time to mentoring others and paving a better way for future students and is a member of the biomedical engineering and mechanics’ diversity committee. As a student member of this committee, she plans a diversity and inclusion luncheon for recruitment weekends in effort to showcase the warm and accepting environment. She hopes this luncheon will spur more activities that foster inclusivity in this community.
Involved with the National Society of Black Engineers and Virginia Tech’s chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho, a sorority with the mission of enhancing the quality of life for women and their families through community service, civil, and social action, Dickerson participates in the sorority’s Leaders for Engaging Academic Peers, a service program focused on mentoring in academia and in general wellness topics.
“When I first stepped foot on Virginia Tech’s campus, the environment was so welcoming,” Dickerson said. “I was pretty intent on attending another school for my doctoral degree, but I came to Virginia Tech’s recruiting weekend just to see. I almost immediately felt like this is where I needed to be. I felt like I belonged.”