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By Hailey Stiehl
Duke Graduate School Communications Intern

Dionna Gamble
Dionna Gamble credits her experience in the
Duke Summer Research Opportunity Program
with giving her the clarity and connections that
helped her through graduate school.

It’s commonly said that getting a Ph.D. isn’t a sprint, but a marathon. Dionna Gamble finished that endurance race at the Duke Graduate School last fall. Before she even stepped up to the starting line, though, The Graduate School helped her find the push and the people who would eventually give her that extra boost in her Ph.D. journey.

Gamble, who received her Ph.D. in Genetics and Genomics in 2020, is currently working in the Intramural Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences program at the National Cancer Institute. She is completing her postdoc training in the lab of W. Marston Linehan, M.D., where she and her colleagues study the genetic basis and therapeutic approaches to kidney cancer.

Gamble wasn’t always sure that genetic research was the path for her, but her experience in the Duke Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) the year before she started her Ph.D. solidified her interest in the field.

“I worked in Dr. Douglas Marchuk’s lab on my first human genetics project,” said Gamble. “Doug along with Carol Gallione, the lab research manager, were awesome and supportive mentors that summer as I took full ownership of my project and developed various technical skills.”

Gamble not only got hands-on experience with genetic research, but also was able to connect with current graduate students and staff to gain a greater understanding of the opportunities and programs that were available at Duke. She was also introduced to support networks such as the Bouchet Society and the Black Graduate and Professional Student Association. Gamble, who later became co-president of the Bouchet Society and received a Samuel DuBois Cook Society Award for her work with that organization, said that both groups became an integral part of her graduate school journey later on.

During her time with SROP, the IDEALS office, formerly the Office of Biomedical Graduate Diversity, stood out to Gamble and was a factor in her decision to ultimately attend Duke.

“I think that office in both of its forms was something that stood out to me about The Graduate School,” she said. “It helped to foster a sense of belonging, bringing together a diverse group of scientists and advocating for inclusion in the biomedical sciences.”

As a part of the network opportunities during her SROP experience, Gamble was introduced to The Graduate School’s Senior Associate Dean Jacqueline Looney and Assistant Dean J. Alan Kendrick. These connections led to some of Gamble’s most memorable opportunities within The Graduate School.

“Dean Looney started a great community called Sisters in STEM where Black women graduate students are able to meet once a month to talk through our challenges, celebrate our accomplishments, and share helpful academic and self-care tips,” said Gamble. “Dean Kendrick, knowing my love for mentoring and giving back, always connected me with incoming underrepresented minority students to share my experience and offer support.”

Within her lab at Duke, Gamble’s mentor Sue Jinks-Robertson, Ph.D., supported her research interests, professional development, and participation in the Bouchet Society and other diversity/inclusion organizations. When Gamble’s family from Maryland couldn’t make it to the Cook Society Dinner, Jinks-Robertson was there.

Looney, Kendrick, Jinks-Robertson, and other mentors both inside and outside of Gamble’s area of research not only provided opportunities, but also offered the meaningful connections that ended up making the difference in Gamble’s path toward her Ph.D.

“Throughout my time at Duke they pointed me to events and opportunities in line with my career development, provided a listening ear when I needed advice, and helped to create an environment where scientists that look like me feel valued and heard,” said Gamble.

To current graduate students, Gamble said that surrounding yourself with those who will be there to encourage you along the way is one of the best ways to give yourself the extra push in finishing the graduate school marathon.

“It is important to build your network and seek out mentors outside of your research area,” she said. “Forming relationships with administrators in The Graduate School and across the university can offer another layer of support and connect you with people that can suggest resources and opportunities to enhance your graduate school experience.”