Sarah Izabel Finds Her Passion

Growing up in Brazil, Sarah Izabel was expected to become a lawyer, and started on that track after high school. But a winter spent in the United States working and improving her English changed her plans and eventually brought her back to the university to pursue psychology and biology degrees. And, despite challenges including periods of homelessness, she has gone on to become a stellar researcher with a goal of earning a doctorate in neuroscience. With a husband, a son, and a need to work while taking classes, Izabel is not a traditional Honors College student. But her dedication to what hands-on learning offers typifies her as someone who is Defining Experience.

“I had done research prior to enrolling at VCU,” Izabel explains, “so I started doing research on my own as a criminal justice major. My professor, Awendela Grantham, encouraged me to present my findings in a poster talk.” As a result, Izabel met Sarah Golding, Ph.D., director of undergraduate research in the Department of Biology, who told her about VCU’s Initiative to Maximize Student Diversity, which matches underrepresented students with campus researchers.

Izabel found her place in a lab with Jeffrey Dupree, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology in the VCU School of Medicine. She now studies how degeneration of neuron axons relates to multiple sclerosis. She earned an undergraduate research fellowship in the summer of 2016 from the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP) offered by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “HHMI is synonymous with research excellence,” says Golding. ”To have VCU put beside those letters is a big deal.”

The experience confirmed Izabel’s passion for science. “Despite being a bit overwhelmed by such a big lab at UCSF, I learned that I really love research,” she recalls. “I stayed in the lab 12-plus hours each day! I believe you should spend time in the places you want to reach.”

"I believe you should spend time in the places you want to reach.”

The following summer, Izabel was awarded a National Institutes of Health position to work with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. “I researched the expression of the immune system after Schwann cell transplantation,” she says, as part of an FDA-approved clinical trial aiming to recover the central nervous system of individuals with spinal cord injury. “It was exciting to be part of a project with scientists that are not afraid to tackle issues deemed impossible by some.”

Her husband's struggles with substance abuse have inspired Izabel to understand more about substance disorders. Adding to her busy roster, she has also joined the lab of Dr. James Bjork, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at VCU School of Medicine and the Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies. “We are currently setting up a pioneering protocol to further study the relationship between substance abuse and memory,” she explains. Rather than head off for an awarded position, this summer Izabel will stay in Richmond to advance her projects in neurobiology and psychology.

“Before I joined the Honors College, I didn't know it was important to be active in the school in addition to just getting the educational benefit,” Izabel notes. “VCU is so receptive to your interest in being involved. Knowing that I have its support makes me want to be engaged.”  

One final point of engagement for Izabel has been her service as the undergraduate representative to the VCU Board of Visitors. “It is my responsibility to represent students’ interests and opinions during the meetings and share with the board their outstanding leadership activities,” she explains.