When NithyaPriya Ramalingam and Kevin Pridham don caps and gowns for Virginia Tech’s graduate school commencement Thursday, they are making history as the first two graduates of the translational biology, medicine, and health (TBMH) doctoral program. 

But their impact extends much further than a commencement ceremony.

“These two students represent the breadth of the research focus areas available through the TBMH program — Nithya is highly focused on health implementation to improve quality of life for the elderly, as well as preventing obesity, while Kevin is dedicated to understanding and correcting the molecular process that underly the deadliest form of brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme,” said Michael J. Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and the founding executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI). “These students have carried out research and published the results in multiple peer-reviewed journals. They are on the cusp of promising careers as biomedical and health scientists.”

The program is based on the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology Campus in Roanoke, and it positions students to conduct research in more than 50 departments and institutes across Virginia Tech.

“As we celebrate the success of our first TBMH graduates, we can see that our distinctive and intentional approach to growing health sciences as a cross-university collaborative is working and creating new opportunities for students and faculty,” said Cyril R. Clarke, Virginia Tech’s interim executive vice president and provost.

In the case of the first two graduates, Ramalingam did her research in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences on the Blacksburg campus, while Pridham studied in Roanoke at the VTCRI.

“We designed the program such that graduates develop deep expertise in their specialization, as well as a clear understanding of how to apply their knowledge across multiple fields in order to advance translational research and improve human health,” said Audra Van Wart, the assistant vice president for health science education at Virginia Tech, who co-directs the TBMH program with Steven Poelzing, an associate professor at the VTCRI. Friedlander co-founded and co-directed the program during its first three years with Van Wart.

NithyaPriya Ramalingam

Ramalingam is a native of Wexford, Pennsylvania, who completed her bachelor’s degree in integrated life sciences at Kent State University. She worked under the mentorship of Samantha Harden, an assistant professor and director of the Physical Activity Research and Community Implementation Laboratory in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise at Virginia Tech.

“I started in medical school, but left to pursue research,” Ramalingam said. “As a medical student, I experienced the challenges of implementing evidence-based practices and the gap between health service research and actual practice. This sparked my interest in implementation science, leading me to Virginia Tech, where I sought to explore the reasons for differences in health care delivery in community and clinical settings.”

Ramalingam’s dissertation focused on training those who deliver physical activity programs in the intended practice settings.

“Numerous evidence-based interventions for physical activity promotion have been developed and tested to address the need of the more than 80 percent of adults failing to meet physical activity guidelines. The assumption is that community-based health workers will deliver this programming,” Ramalingam said. “However, there is little detail on for whom, under what conditions, and how to effectively and sustainably train these individuals in practice.”

A social scientist, Ramalingam worked directly with health educators within the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service to quantify the importance of a collaborative approach to adapt training for physical activity programs, as well as the specific characteristics, skillsets, and knowledge that trainees bring to specific programs.  

“Nithya joined the health implementation focus area in the TBMH program where she has carried out research throughout the state on improving health of the elderly and preventing obesity,” Friedlander said. “She carried out impactful research and published five peer-reviewed papers in her four years as a doctoral student.”

As for what’s next, research will continue to play a role in Ramalingam’s life.

“My long-term research goals are to understand for whom, under what conditions, and why specific training strategies are working in the community, clinic, and the academy and how these strategies can have a direct impact on population health outcomes,” she said. “I’m also interested in developing pragmatic tools to rigorously evaluate the feasibility, acceptability, and appropriateness of training strategies in the field.”

Kevin Pridham

Pridham hails from Myersville, Maryland, and earned his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Loyola University Maryland. He conducted his dissertation research in the laboratory of Zhi Sheng, an assistant professor at the VTCRI. Sheng is also an assistant professor of biomedical sciences and pathobiology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the United States and the world, despite years of research and the development of different treatments,” Pridham said. “Cancer cells survive through adaptation to their environment and through aberrantly activated growth signaling.”

Pridham focused on two major projects during his graduate studies. In the first, he used high-throughput screening techniques to identify genes responsible for regulating the survival of cancer cells in glioblastoma, the aggressive form of brain cancer diagnosed in U.S. Sen. John McCain a year ago. In the second, he used another screening process in chronic myelogenous leukemia cancer cells to reveal the genes that regulate the self-eating process of cells, called autophagy, that cancer cells use to survive chemotherapy.

“Taken together, my work addresses the inner-workings of two of these identified genes and the survival pathways they play a role in regulating,” Pridham said. “Our findings show the potential therapeutic benefit of targeting these gene pathways to treat cancer.”

Pridham and Sheng discovered that a particular biological complex, consisting of a gene subunit and a protein product, called PIK3CB/p110-beta, is critical for glioblastoma cell survival. By targeting the complex, they could suppress the viability and growth of the cancer cells in a mouse model. The work holds promise for further developing treatments in human patients.

“Kevin’s work on brain cancer is aimed specifically at developing new therapies to treat patients who will otherwise survive only a short period of time and who frequently have their quality of life substantially compromised during that period,” Friedlander said. “In his four years in the TBMH program, Kevin has not only conducted impactful research and published five papers in peer-reviewed journals, but he has also actively helped build a community for graduate students in Roanoke.”

As for now, Pridham is pursuing career opportunities for research in both academia and the biopharmaceutical enterprise.

“I thoroughly enjoy designing and performing experiments in the lab and hope to continue my training and research toward gaining a better understanding for treating cancer,” Pridham said.