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Motivated to understand the mysteries of science, Bryan McKiver shares his journey to becoming a researcher

The postdoctoral candidate in pharmacology and toxicology at VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center advises future researchers to be bold and “move with audacity.”

Three researchers looking at a document in a lab. Bryan McKiver, a Ph.D. candidate, almost did not pursue research as a career, but a mentor saw a lot potential in his skills and encouraged him to take a chance. (VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center)

By Annie Harris

As a high school student interested in science, Bryan McKiver received the standard advice from his high school guidance counselor: get on the pre-med track. It wasn’t until the end of his sophomore year at Virginia Commonwealth University when he realized there were other options available to him than becoming a medical doctor.

“One of my professors, Sarah Golding, Ph.D., had a picture in her office of a tree. The base of the tree, the trunk, is your science degree, and the branches are all the different careers you could pursue out of that degree,” McKiver said. “I had never seen that before.”

McKiver credits that moment in Golding’s class with the realization that his interests lay more in creating and discovering new forms of medicine and ways to treat diseases than in treating patients themselves.

Many other VCU professors, some of whom also work within the VCU Health System, have served as mentors guiding McKiver through moments of transition. For instance, McKiver was considering a career in the corporate business world when a conversation with Hamid Akbarali, Ph.D., helped him change course.

“He encouraged me to strongly consider pursuing a postdoctoral position, especially since I was still on the fence about where my career interests lie,” said McKiver, who then reached out to professors and postdocs to learn more about what that position would entail.

“Through these conversations, I saw that by pursuing this position I would be able to determine exactly where I want to be,” McKiver added. “I learned that many postdoc training programs are geared towards career development in both academic and industrial sciences, and that mentors are available for whichever path I choose to pursue following postdoc training. I’m currently on track to pursue a postdoc in cancer biology with offers from several universities, and I’m extremely thankful for Dr. Akbarali’s advice.”

Researchers looking at a document in a lab.

Bryan McKiver, a Ph.D. candidate, works with his mentors Imad M. Damaj, Ph.D., and Devanand Sarkar, Ph.D. at the VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center. (VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center)

McKiver, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in pharmacology and toxicology, now studies the role of the protein astrocyte elevated gene-1 (AEG-1) in chronic pain, with a specific interest in chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy. He recently earned the Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Science Research Service Award from the National Cancer Institute – a change in funding that signifies a step forward in his path to becoming an independent research scientist.

That path began with a personal interest in cancer research, spurred on by experiences of family and friends with cancer. On top of that, McKiver says, he just likes a good puzzle.

“I really enjoy the mystery of science. There’s always something new to be discovered and to understand, new mechanisms, new interactions…Identifying things that can help people who are already diagnosed with cancer or helping to reduce the possibility of developing cancer,” he said.

The lessons that McKiver learned in the classroom and the lab, through personal experience and mentorship, have helped shape his promising career trajectory. He shares his insight into finding the right path and encouragement to be bold in your academic pursuits.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What drew you to the type of research you’re currently pursuing?

After I realized I was interested in being more behind-the-scenes than in the application of medicine, I took an introduction to cancer biology class with John Ryan, Ph.D., and met a lot of professors on the MCV campus who came to give talks to the undergrads in that course. In the next semester, I was able to get an internship with Zheng Fu, Ph.D., a prostate cancer researcher at VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center. That was my first hands-on cancer lab experience, and I loved it. I thought, “How do I do more of this?”

Now, 9 years later, I’m working to get a deeper understanding of some novel therapeutic targets for chronic pain, namely chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, a disease without a lot of treatment options. I think we’re on the cusp of identifying something that may be a potential therapeutic option; eventually I would love to see this treatment strategy that we’ve developed move out of the lab and into the clinic, and maybe in a couple years even onto the market. That would be very fulfilling, to know that I have contributed something to improve the quality of life of people with cancer. That’s the ultimate goal for where our research should take us – returning it to society for its benefit.

Being a researcher, like any other job, can be daunting or repetitive at times. What keeps you going? What do you do to continue to find passion in your research?

What keeps me going is that there are so many other places I can go and so many different things I can do once I finish my Ph.D. What I’m discovering will help expand the knowledge of society overall, and that is really motivating to me.

What are good qualities people should look out for in mentorships?

In my experience, a good mentor is someone who is kind and gentle, but also firm in their support of you. Encouraging not just in their words but putting you in those spaces where you may be a little uncomfortable, knowing that this is a space where you can thrive.

Two of my current mentors, Imad M. Damaj, Ph.D., and Devanand Sarkar, Ph.D., do just that – push me to expand my knowledge and my experiences, while providing emotional support as well as the practical financial support of funding.

Support is very important to me in terms of having a mentor and having been a mentor. I’ve mentored some VCU undergrads who have come to do research in our lab, and I believe that even if a student is struggling to learn something, they always have a skill set that will complement research in some way. I don’t believe there is anybody who cannot do research, we just need to find what research works best for them.

If you could go back in time and give yourself advice during your first year of college, what would it be?

If I could go back in time, I would give myself two pieces of advice: One, stay focused. College is meant to be fun but maintain your priorities. And two, move with audacity! Don’t be afraid to take the lead or be in charge. That’s something I would have needed to hear back then. I’m lucky to have had mentors who will advocate for me and teach me to advocate for myself. But if I knew that I’d be where I am now, I would be more confident about the moves I would make and I would walk more steadfastly down the path that I’m going.

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