Alexa Salsbury, a first-generation college student and 4th year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biochemistry won an AAUW (American Association of University Women) Dissertation Fellowship. Alexa is the first student in the department to receive this award. This fellowship is awarded to women finishing a graduate degree, in any discipline, who demonstrate the potential to make significant contributions to their field and academic equity. The award will fund Alexa’s final year in the biochemistry Ph.D. program, where she’ll finish her dissertation project on Polarizable Molecular Dynamics Simulations of G-Quadruplexes.

Alexa received the good news in late March when initial stay-at-home orders and state lockdowns were issued as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. For her, the announcement couldn’t have come at a better time. “With the pandemic hitting and everything shutting down, the AAUW fellowship gave me extra confidence and excitement to push my research and finish my last year.” She also recalled feeling relieved, excited, and humbled upon hearing the news. “I’m very happy that this organization felt that my work in the Lemkul lab was important and had the potential to help others.”

Alexa in group photo with other students in the Lemkul Lab
Group photo of the Lemkul Lab. From L to R: Dr. Justin Lemkul, Brian Ratnasinghe, Hao Nguyen, Hemin Chon, Danielle Porier, Darcy Davidson, Alexa Salsbury, Dr. Yue Yu. Photo taken pre-COVID-19..

In Dr. Justin Lemkul’s lab, Alexa researches nucleic acid structures implicated in cancer, neurodegeneration, and mental retardation. She utilizes molecular dynamics simulations to probe these structures on the computer and gain information from novel drug design. 

The goal of her project is to clarify the roles of G-Quadruplexes in diseased states to help develop alternative therapies for chemotherapeutic resistant cancers and difficult to treat neurodegeneration disorders. Alexa was inspired to join the project because of the long-term implications for global good. “Creative drug design makes the drug discovery process much cheaper, so, it could lead to more affordable pharmaceuticals,” she says.

Since 2013, Alexa has been involved in research; She started her research path while she was an undergraduate student at Eastern Michigan University. After graduation, she began her search for medical schools and graduate programs and, while she was admitted to several institutions, she remembers feeling drawn to the biochemistry Ph.D. program at Virginia Tech. “Virginia Tech is a large, reputable university and the department offers a small, personable feel. It’s great to have the community of a small university while also having the support and resources of a large one.” In her own words, Virginia Tech offered the best of both worlds.

When it came time for lab rotations, Alexa chose the Lemkul lab as one of her rotations, even though she didn’t know much about computational work or molecular dynamics simulations, given her undergraduate wet lab experience. Despite this, Alexa says she’s glad she made the decision to join. “Computation was a whole new world of science to understand and I ended up really liking it.” She appreciated Dr. Lemkul’s hands-on teaching and enthusiasm about research as well as his continued support and encouragement, which motivated her to apply for the AAUW fellowship.

“Alexa is an outstanding student who is the driving force behind a critically important project, and this recognition is a testament to this fact,” Dr. Lemkul says. He was ecstatic when he received the news that Alexa received the fellowship. “This prestigious award reflects not only the impact and novelty of her work, but the fact that she uses her platform as a scientist to advocate for important groups and causes.”

Alexa with other students and Dr. Lemkul at a conference
(L to R) Darcy Davidson, Alexa Salsbury, Brian Ratnasinghe, Dr. Justin Lemkul at the Biophysical Society Conference. Photo was taken pre-COVID-19.

As Alexa reflects on why she applied for the fellowship, she says three things stood out: (1) the strong network of successful women in education, (2) the professional development opportunities, and (3) the organization’s social advocacy for minoritized groups. The AAUW’s mission spoke to Alexa and inspired her to do better. “I believe that everyone should be spending their time on building environments that are diverse and inclusive and the AAUW focuses on achieving equity and inclusion in education,” Alexa says. “I spend a lot of my free time outside of the lab attending professional development conferences, webinars, and presentations so that I can be involved and advocate for everyone.” With the support of this organization, Alexa is better equipped to focus on her last year in the Ph.D. program, her dissertation, and long-lasting contributions.

With the date of her dissertation defense approaching in April 2021, Alexa is excited for what the future holds. She’s recently accepted a position with Computercraft Corporation, a women-owned biotechnology company, working at the National Library of Medicine. With AAUW headquarters nearby, she plans to stay involved with the organization and give back to future professionals. She hopes to utilize her teaching and facilitation experience to help researchers harness the power of computation in their scientific communities.

Alexa Salsbury headshot

Before she closes this chapter of her life, she talks briefly about her hopes for the next generation of graduate and Ph.D. students. “I want future graduate students to take a breath and to feel more confident in themselves and their research. They should take time to grow personally and professionally. I want them to know that they don’t have to work in the lab 24/7 to be successful; they need to know that they already are.” She encourages future graduate students to take advantage of other opportunities in graduate school. 

“You’re here to grow and learn. You need to think about the long-term implications of what you’re doing right now and think about how you can get involved and engaged in things that are tangential to your research.” Alexa says that while it’s important to be a good researcher, it’s more important to strive to be a good person and to be globally minded as well as to develop soft skills to take with you after you’ve finished your program.

“Academia has a long way to improve and it’s not going to get better if everyone has tunnel vision or stays in their echo chamber. It’ll improve when people recognize there are ways we can change and do better for ourselves, for our environments, and for those around us.”