Breaking Barriers Beyond Science

Student-adviser team awarded UVA's first Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Fellowship.

Nadia Holness, a biomedical sciences (BIMS) graduate student, and her adviser, Sarah Ewald, PhD, associate professor of microbiology, immunology, and cancer biology at UVA’s Beirne B. Carter Immunology Center, were among 51 student-adviser pairs from across the country to receive a 2022 Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The award provides $53,000 annually for up to three years to support the development of graduate students from historically underrepresented populations, who, along with their advisers, are conducting outstanding scientific research and actively working to cultivate a more inclusive and supportive scientific community in and beyond their laboratories. Holness and Ewald are the first-ever UVA team to receive this prestigious and competitive fellowship.

Scientifically speaking, the award will support Holness and Ewald’s immunoparasitology research. Holness, who began her graduate studies at UVA in 2020 said, “I chose the Ewald lab because I wanted to pursue a research project that investigated the interface of pathogen and host interactions. I was excited about emerging innate immune signaling pathways, and I decided to center my thesis project around Toxoplasma gondii recognition.”

Toxoplasma gondii or T. gondii is one of the most common parasites and infects an estimated one-third of the global population (approximately 40 million in the United States alone).  Individuals are typically exposed to the parasite through contaminated meat, shellfish, or water. Currently, there is no treatment for the infection (Toxoplasmosis), and the parasite can persist in the body for long periods, even for life. While it’s mostly asymptomatic, reactivation of latent infection can be fatal for immunocompromised individuals, including HIV/AIDS patients, cancer patients, and organ transplant recipients. It also poses serious health risks to pregnant women.

Holness’s research project will contribute to the Ewald lab’s investigation of T. gondii’s persistence and potential clearing by the innate immune system, ultimately for better treatment strategies. [Learn more about the Ewald lab’s investigation of immune responses to pathogens and chronic diseases at the Carter Immunology Center here.]

Building a Better Community

In addition to recognizing and supporting Holness’s potential as a scientific investigator and leader, the Gilliam Fellowship reflects the ability and commitment of both Ewald, as an adviser, and UVA, as an institution, to develop scientists from historically underrepresented populations and create a healthy and inclusive academic scientific ecosystem. The award includes support for expanding that ability and commitment in two ways. First, as a Gilliam Adviser, Ewald participates in a year-long, culturally responsive mentorship development program designed to empower Gilliam Advisers to disseminate program lessons to colleagues in their labs, departments, and institutions. Second, the award includes modest funding for the Gilliam Adviser and Fellow to use for projects addressing diversity and inclusion at the graduate level. 

Holness and Ewald have chosen to contribute those funds to a new UVA Comprehensive Cancer Center program called the Short-Term Research Initiative for Visiting Educators in Cancer (STRIVE-C), which hosts researchers from minority-serving universities and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) for short-term summer research experiences at UVA. The program began in 2022 and is led by the Cancer Center’s Associate Director for Education Amy Bouton, PhD.  “I am thrilled to partner with Sarah and Nadia on the STRIVE-C program,” said Bouton, "as it will expand our ability to host talented faculty from their home institutions to promote research collaborations and unique mentorship opportunities for our students.” 

Holness, who received her B.S. in biology from renowned HBCU Hampton University, agrees that STRIVE-C presents an invaluable opportunity for graduate students like her to create mentor-mentee relationships with those visiting professors.

“I believe we are products of our environment, and so I want to foster an inclusive scientific community that will generate confident, supportive, and successful scientists.”
Nadia Holness

“As a first-generation college student,” said Holness, “the importance of exposure to educational opportunities and mentors who believe in your ability to succeed resonates with me. Being a person of color of African American descent, I saw a significant drop in students and faculty who looked like me as I matriculated into my graduate career.”

In her Gilliam Fellowship application, Holness described witnessing peers of color struggle to find a sense of belonging within the cultures of their graduate schools. She went on to express a desire to promote the retention of students of varying backgrounds within her graduate program. She said, “I believe we are products of our environment, and so I want to foster an inclusive scientific community that will generate confident, supportive, and successful scientists.” 

Holness found a powerful partner in Ewald, the associate director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Carter Immunology Center. Ewald agreed that her program, which has invested heavily in recruiting trainees from underrepresented backgrounds over the last several years, still faces significant challenges in supporting those trainees’ graduate experiences and career development in part because reliable recruitment from underrepresented populations is relatively recent.

Current students have to look harder for peer mentors and an alumni network with similar life experiences as they advance through the degree program and look towards their career transition,” said Ewald. “These peer networks play a vital role in navigating the hidden curriculum of a graduate program.” [Hidden curriculum is a term used by educators to refer to the implicit values, behaviors, and norms conveyed but not formally taught in an education setting and social environment.]

Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, the number of faculty and graduate advisers from underrepresented backgrounds is low and slow to catch up. Ewald said that while she’s optimistic graduate advisers and faculty can learn strategies to address the unique challenges confronted by trainees from different cultural or socioeconomic reference points, she recognizes that mentors who share elements of their identity and life experiences with those trainees may be better able to predict and provide guidance in navigating those challenges.

With support from the Gilliam Fellowship award, Ewald and Holness want to cultivate mentorship of UVA’s BIMS graduate students by STRIVE-C visiting faculty scholars through organized lunches, student events, and other activities to build and strengthen those relationships. They see these efforts as opening a conduit for those same graduate students to reciprocate by collaborating with, mentoring, and cultivating potential graduate candidates from the visiting scholars’ institutions.

“This is important because the more we can limit the extracurricular demands and stresses on trainees from historically underrepresented backgrounds,” said Ewald, “the more intellectual and emotional bandwidth they have for scientific discovery.”

This article was authored by Katherine Ludwig. 

Click here to see the full Winter 2022 issue of Pulse.

Philanthropy is key to cultivating the next generation of cancer researchers through training and education initiatives like STRIVE-C. To learn how you can support this program or others like it, please contact Corley Raileanu, Executive Director, Cancer Programs, at