Meet the Trainees

Graduate Students, Postdoctoral Fellows and Early-Stage Investigators CaRE2 Professional Development at Florida A&M University, University of Florida & University of Southern California

Alford, Nicholas

Florida A&M University

Nicholas is a PhD student at FAMU, in the Behavioral Science and Health Education concentration offered within the Institute of Public Health. He is devoted to the study and prevention of health disparities for African Americans. His research focuses on the social and environmental stressors that contribute to cardiovascular diseases and mental issues in African American men, and he is studying healthcare seeking behavior, chronic disease prevention, long-term care, and rehabilitation. In many communities, there is a disconnect between the people and ideal health practices due to cultural influences and societal barriers. After completing the DrPH program, he wants to serve as a health commissioner so that he will be able to enhance the health and wellness of residents on both the local, state and federal levels, and will be able to develop short-term and long-term strategies that impact the public’s health through policy work whether it is social or environmental. He then hopes to work in academia, where he intends to counsel students and future professionals who wish to work in the field of public health and health sciences. Participating in CaRE2 has provided access to mentors in the field of cancer disparities research and has allowed Nicholas to improve professionally and academically.

Begay, Cynthia

University of Southern California

Cynthia Begay, MPH (Hopi/Navajo/Chicana) is a doctoral student in the Preventive Medicine Department. Under the guidance of her mentor Claradina Soto, PhD, MPH (Navajo/Pueblo), Cynthia’s focus is on community-based participatory projects surrounding cancer disparities among American Indian/Alaska Native communities throughout California. Through her involvement in CaRe2, Cynthia has had the opportunity to network with researchers at the National Cancer Institute and will be utilizing those connections to submit an F31.

Castillo, Jonathan

University of Southern California

Jonathan is a graduate student at the University of Southern California where he studies the molecular origins of lung adenocarcinoma in Dr. Crystal Marconett’s lab. Specifically, he studies how the dysregulation of long non-coding RNAs leads to the progression of cancer. He hopes to use this information to better utilize drug therapies for better survival outcomes. The CaRE2 program has provided him with valuable educational opportunities, such as in clinical trial design and in bioinformatics training. In addition, CaRE2 has provided collaborative opportunities with other faculty to better pursue my research question.

Escobedo, Patricia

University of Southern California

Patricia is a doctoral student in the Health Behavior Research Program in the Department of Preventive Medicine at USC. Her research interests include health disparities, social determinants of health, tobacco control and substance use. As a CaRe2 participant, Patricia has been able to further explore and examine cancer disparities in vulnerable communities through presentations and discussions, now has greater access to training, conference, and scholarship opportunities, and has expanded her professional network.

Fernandez, DJ

University of Southern California

DJ’s research focuses on uncovering details of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) entry into epithelial cells. Considered a novel, ‘macropinocytosis-like’ endocytic mechanism, understand the elusive process of HPV entry into host cells has been a major focus in HPV research for over 30 years. Using novel forms of microscopy coupled with virological assays, his work tackles big questions in virology and cell biology regarding endocytosis of pathogens. CaRE2 has provided exposure to health disparities, something that was very much emphasized the past year with the COVID pandemic.

Ihenacho, Ugonna

University of Southern California

Ms. Ihenacho is a PhD student of Epidemiology at the University of Southern California. She is a recipient of a 2019 Predoctoral Fellowship from the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program, a grant funded through California State Proposition 99, The Tobacco Tax and Health Protection Act. She is developing her dissertation research to evaluate the effects of smoking on breast cancer risk and hormone levels in young women. In the future, she plans to continue to explore risk factors in cancer epidemiology among women and especially projects that reduce health disparities and support tobacco control/cessation efforts.

Jackson, Michon

Florida A&M University

Michon is a PhD candidate studying pharmacy health outcomes within the Division of Economic, Social and Administrative Pharmacy at Florida A&M University (FAMU). She has been thoroughly trained in the execution of economic analyses and the appropriate use of various research methods to aid stakeholders in better decision making, health outcome improvements and the quality assessment of various clinical indicators.  Having completed all required coursework for my degree, she has begun to work in earnest on her dissertation, which focuses on identifying prognostic biomarkers and potential therapeutic targets in women with cervical cancer. 

Her passion for health outcomes research, especially within female and minority populations, led her to focus more specifically upon ways to close the disparity gaps in treatment and outcomes success for women diagnosed with cervical cancer.  Research routinely shows that despite comparable rates of screening via Pap Smear and/or cytologic exam, women of color continue to present to providers with more advanced stages of disease at earlier ages.  Additionally, within the United States, women of color are found to have disproportionately higher rates of cervical cancer-related morbidity and mortality, regardless of treatment modality or stage of diagnosis.  

One of the major tools being used in cancer research today, involves the use of gene expression profiling (GEP) data to identify novel molecular targets of carcinogenesis.  Though invaluable in predicting and detecting cancer at earlier stages, this technology has not been validated for use in a racially diverse population.  As such, cancer mortality gaps have continued to widen.  Her research therefore focuses upon examining the racial/ethnic differences in overall patient outcomes based upon the prognostic value of GEP in women with cervical cancer.  In the future, she hopes that her research may aid in closing the disparity gaps in cervical cancer outcomes, as well as contribute in the process of updating guidelines for the use of GEP data in more racially diverse populations.

Ochoa, Caro

University of Southern California

Carol Ochoa is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California in Health Behavior Research. She earned a BA in Latin American Studies from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and an MPH in Behavioral Science and Health Education from Emory University. She is a member of the American Association for Cancer Research and American Association for Cancer Education. Her research focuses on issues related to health behaviors and the role of social determinants in promoting health and improving health equity among underserved populations, particularly in cancer prevention and control and immigrant populations.

Prior to starting her doctorate training Carol served as the Cancer Survivorship workgroup ORISE Fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where she focused on cancer survivorship research, surveillance, and programs. She has also collaborated with the American Cancer Society to investigate psychological factors that impact cancer health disparities, cancer survivorship, and patient outcomes.

Joseph, Verlin

University of Florida

Verlin is a doctoral candidate in the department of Epidemiology within the College of Public Health and Health Professions.  His research seeks to understand the associations between marijuana use and pain.  Verlin is currently funded by an F-31 dissertation fellowship award through the National Institute of Drug Abuse entitled “Patterns of marijuana use for HIV/AINDS pain management: a mixed methods approach” .  As part of his dissertation, Verlin will identify predictors of severe pain, correlates of cannabis use disorder, and conduct thematic interviews to better understand how individuals are using marijuana to manage pain.  Prior to attending the University of Florida, Verlin received a Masters of Public Health and a Bachelor of Science in allied health from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University.  Upon completing his Ph.D. Verlin intends to acquire a postdoctoral position to further his development as an independent researcher.

Ortiz, Veronica

University of Southern California

Veronica is working on her PhD in breast cancer metastasis in the laboratory of Dr. mi Yu at the Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. She is excited about the opportunity to learn about health disparities and the added networking opportunities.

Ramirez, Cynthia

University of Southern California

Cynthia is a doctoral student in the Health Behavior Research PhD program at Keck School of Medicine of USC. She is part of Cohort 3.

Zeledon, Ingrid

University of Southern California

Cynthia is a doctoral student in the Health Behavior Research PhD program at Keck School of Medicine of USC, working with Dr. Claradina Soto (a CaRE2 ESI) in the Opioid Substance Use Disorder Needs Assessment and Evaluation projects. She has had the opportunity to work with many diverse American Indian communities in CA to understand the perspectives of Tribal community members as it relates to community-based participatory research.  She has been instrumental in the facilitation of youth and adult focus groups, and key informant interviews among health care providers at Indian Health Clinics and urban organizations in CA. Data analysis by Ingrid has included a code book developed primarily by her efforts, coding data, and creating a draft state-wide report to highlight the needs, challenges, and recommendations of the AI/AN communities in CA.  CaRE2 is valuable to Ingrid for the professional development and networking opportunities.

Postdoctoral fellows

Basanez, Tatiana

University of Southern California

Tatiana has a PhD in applied social psychology with specialized training in cross-cultural psychology and media effects. BA in social sciences from ITAM in Mexico City. In the past, she worked as a journalist in Mexico, news anchor at a Hispanic radio station in Los Angeles, subtitling manager, and in phone survey research. Her research interests are cultural factors related to perceived discrimination & sense of self-efficacy on health outcomes, and media effects on attitude change/persuasion and health outcomes. She currently  faculty member at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona.

Carlos, Anthony

University of Southern California

Anthony is funded by a minority supplement to do postdoctoral research at the USC Norris Cancer Center in the laboratory of Dr. Amy Lee. He studies triple-negative breast cancer. He is grateful for the networking opportunities provided by CaRE2 and the connection to NCI to guide him in funding options suitable to him. He plans to submit a K99 application in the spring of 2021.

Ezeania, Adaora

University of Florida

Adaora Ezeani, M.D., is an iCURE Cancer Research Training Award fellow in the Health Behaviors Research Branch (HBRB) of the Behavioral Research Program at the National Cancer Institute. Before joining NCI, Dr. Ezeani completed a fellowship at the University of Florida, which focused on social, behavioral, and genetic risk factors for prostate cancer in Black men globally. Dr. Ezeani’s research interests focus on obesity and prostate cancer such as examining obesity’s effect on prostate cancer progression, prostate cancer treatment outcomes, and the effect of lifestyle interventions on metabolic pathways and prostate cancer risk. She is interested in examining cancer health disparities with the hope of reducing incidence and improving outcomes. Dr. Ezeani is also pursuing a Masters of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.

Gibbs, Lee

University of Southern California

Dr. Gibbs is the recipient of a USC Provost Postdoctoral Scholar grant. He works with a multi-disciplinary team under the guidance of Dr. John D. Carpten in the Department of Translational Genomics at Keck School of Medicine of USC. His goal is to determine the true representation of a disease-specific transcriptome and identify novel tumor-specific isoforms and isoform specific mutations in cancers, particularly those affecting diverse populations within the Norris Cancer Center catchment area.

Roach, Keesha

University of Florida

Keesha is a nurse scientist and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Florida. The overarching goal of her research is to understand a combination of genomic and biopsychological factors related to pain phenotypes in an adults and older adults who have chronic and acute pain. Her fellowship focuses on pain and aging through the Integrative and Multidisciplinary Pain and Aging Research Training (IMPART) and a partnership with the UF Pain Research Intervention Center of Excellence (PRICE) under the mentorship of Drs. Roger B. Fillingim, Diana J. Wilkie, and Yenisel Cruz-Almeida. Most recently, she has been funded through the University of Florida Center for Advancing Minority Pain and Aging Science (UF CAMPAS) for a pilot study examining pain in African Americans. In addition, as a CaRE2 trainee, she has gained the opportunity to work with senior investigators and participate in interdisciplinary cancer research. A current opportunity that she gained is to work with the Florida Academic Cancer Center Alliance (FACCA), which is associated with the University of Florida Cancer Center. This provides the opportunity to explore common measures for cancer pain risk and provides further genomics training where she will examine genetic diversity and ancestral DNA by extracting DNA and RNA from saliva of 100 cancer patients in the North Florida catchment area. Training in this area helped prepare her obtain her K01 (“Contributions of biopsychosocial factors in sickle cell disease pain, K01-HL153210-01) which will pave the way for future research, and an R01.

Smiley, Sabrina

University of Southern California

Dr. Sabrina L. Smiley, Ph.D., M.P.H., MCHES, was first a postdoctoral fellow with CaRE2 and now is an Assistant Professor of Research in the Department of Preventive Medicine and the Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research at the Keck School of Medicine. Her research employs qualitative and quantitative research methods to examine the connections between risk behaviors, socio-environmental conditions, disease prevalence, and health disparities. Major foci of her work include: (1) tobacco marketing in neighborhoods by race/ethnicity; (2) tobacco use among key population groups (e.g., African Americans, American Indian/Alaska Natives, LGBT, low socioeconomic status, youth); (3) tobacco regulatory science and policy; and (4) leveraging technology to identify substance use and HIV risk behaviors.

Early Stage Investigators

Agyare, Edward

Florida A&M University

Dr. Edward Agyare is an Associate Professor of Pharmaceutics at Florida A&M University. His laboratory works with a variety of nanoparticles for imaging and chemotherapy. Dr. Agyare’s CaRE2 collaborative study, with Dr. Jose Trevino at the University of Florida and Dr. Bo Han at the University of Southern California, investigates critical barriers to PCa therapeutics and also define a more personalized therapeutic approach for underrepresented minority PCa patients.

Ali, Jamel

Florida A&M University

Dr.Ali is currently an Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering at Florida A&M University–Florida State University (FAMU-FSU) College of Engineering in Tallahassee. He also holds an affiliation in the Condensed Matter Science group at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. Prior to joining FAMU-FSU in 2018, he served as the Chief Technology Officer at Acrogenic Technologies in Rockville, MD. He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in Chemical Engineering from Howard University, and his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics from Drexel University. His research is focused on the development of self-assembled nanobiomaterials for regenerative medicine, sensing, actuation, and transport applications. He recently received the NSF Research Initiation Award for research on intracellular nanoprobes. In 2021 he was named by Chemical & Engineering New as a Black ‘Trailblazer’ in chemistry and chemical engineering. He is currently mentoring a URM FAMU CaRE2 biomedical engineering Ph.D. student, Annie Scutte.

Booker, Staja

University of Florida

Dr. Staja “Star” Booker is a tenure track Assistant Professor in Behavioral Nursing Science in the college of Nursing at the University of Florida. She is health disparities nurse scientist focused on attenuating disparate health in older African Americans (AAs) by understanding the brain-biology-belief-behavior connections underpinning chronic pain mechanisms and self-management. Her past research has involved identifying disparities in the implementation of best practices for cancer pain management in older adults at the end-of-life, and her current work is characterizing movement-evoked pain and function in AA older adults with knee osteoarthritis. The aim of her program of research is to advance the science of pain by exploring overlapping pain conditions, with the ultimate goal to reduce the burden of the total chronic pain experience in older AAs. Significant contributions include developing the first nursing clinical practice recommendations and a model for pain assessment in older AAs. An engaged scientist, she has contributed to numerous peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, research abstracts, and scientific presentations. Dr. Booker has received several awards that denote the applicability of her research to practice. She was recognized as a “2018 Great 100 Nurses of Louisiana”. Additional commendations include publication awards for best aging papers; Robert Levitt Award for Research in Aging; Dissertation Award from Midwest Nursing Research Society; and Outstanding Young Alumni Beacon Award from Grambling State University. She received a K23 award (AR076463-02) entitled “Investigating movement-evoked pain in osteoarthritic conditions (IMPACT): an observational study to inform culturally-tailored intervention development”

DIABY, Vakaramoko (Karam)

University of Florida

Dr. Diaby is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Outcomes and Policy, College of Pharmacy, University of Florida. He also serves as the Track Director in Applied Pharmacoeconomics for the Online Masters in POP. Dr. Diaby is a subject matter expert in the field of Health Economics and Decision Science. His main research interests are in the field of comparative effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of oncology treatments, with a focus on determinants of health disparities and their integration in value assessments. Dr. Diaby’s research interests also expand to the economic evaluation of pharmacogenomics testing and bridging health technology assessment with shared decision making using multicriteria decision analysis. Over the past year, Dr. Diaby was awarded a grant from the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital Foundation to examine the cost-effectiveness of rapid whole-genome sequencing in critically ill pediatric patients. He recently obtained a grant from Pfizer to examine factors associated with the early discontinuation associated with CDK 4/6 inhibitors in breast cancer patients.

ROACH, Keesha L

University of Florida

Dr. Roach is now a tenure track Assistant Professor in Behavioral Nursing Science in the School of Nursing at the University of Florida. She was funded for a K01 (HL153210-01) entitled “Contributions of biopsychosocial factors in sickle cell disease pain”

Emamaullee, Juliet

University of Southern California

Dr. Emamaullee is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Surgery at the USC Keck School of Medicine and an attending transplant surgeon at Keck Hospital of USC and Children’s Hospital-Los Angeles. She is a surgeon-scientist with a translational immunology lab, with a research focus on immunological phenotypes associated with liver transplant recipients. Dr. Emamaullee’s other research interests include deep analysis of the immune phenotype associated with post-transplant rejection, living donor liver transplantation, disparities in access to liver transplant, Fontan-associated liver disease, and tolerance strategies to improve allograft survival. She recently obtained a K08 award: “Immunological biomarkers of rejection in clinical liver transplantation” (K08 CA24522-10). Dr Emamaullee mentored postbac-CaRE2 student Chante’ Butler.

Farias, Albert

University of Southern California

Dr. Farias is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California. His research is devoted to helping eliminate racial/ethnic disparities in cancer outcomes by furthering the understanding of how the provision of medical care contributes to racial/ethnic disparities in cancer incidence and outcomes. He has applied his academic training with a unique perspective as a first-generation college graduate to 1) explain the existence of racial/ethnic health disparities and 2) identify health inequities in cancer care. 

Fredenburg, Kristianna

University of Florida

Dr. Fredenburg is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pathology, Immunology, and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Florida who specializes in the pathologic diagnosis of Head and Neck and Cardiothoracic diseases. Her goal as a physician-scientist is to impact the treatment and management of head and neck cancer. Her primary research focus seeks to uncover the molecular basis of racially disparate clinical outcomes seen in patients with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Dr. Fredenburg has mentored 2 CaRE2 postbacs, James Menefee and Chayil Lattimore.

Hill, Reginald

University of Southern California

Dr. Hill is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine at USC. He uses novel mouse models, human clinical samples, and newly-established assay systems to elucidate how the microenvironment or inflammation contributes to pancreatic cancer initiation, progression to metastasis, and therapeutic resistance.

Marconett, Crystal

University of Southern California

Dr. Marconett is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Surgery and biochemistry and molecular Medicine at the Norris comprehensive cancer Center at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Her lab focuses on lung cancer research. She utilize bioinformatic and computational science alongside in vitro experimentation to understand fundamental mechanisms of lung adenocarcinoma disease progression. Her lab focuses is on understanding the contribution long non-coding RNAs play in the development of lung cancers. She has characterized a novel role for lncRNAs in mediation of the DNA damage response, and are keen on translating these basic mechanistic understandings into actionable therapeutic options. Dr. Marconett received an ACS Research Scholar 4-year grant (RSG-20-135-01-RMS) and a 2-year DOD grant (LC200203) this year, and a 27% score ina first submission of an R01. Dr. Marconett has mentored postbac Samantha Joseph.

Mason, Jeremy

University of Southern California

Dr. Mason is an Assistant Professor of Research in the Department of Urology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. His efforts are focused on developing predictive models from longitudinal clinical, demographic, and research data to predict disease-related events throughout the course of disease and treatment on an individual patient basis. Simultaneously, he is also a research fellow with the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), where he will apply these techniques to phase 3 clinical trial data for approved cancer therapies.

Scarton, Lisa

University of Florida

Dr. Scarton completed a PhD in Nursing with a minor in Gerontology at the University of Indiana and her post-doctoral training at the University of Florida, College of Nursing and recently accepted a faculty position as an assistant professor. Her long-term research goals are to reduce type 2 diabetes (T2D) and cancer health disparities and improve health outcomes in underserved populations, with a special focus in the American Indian populations. Her research emphasizes the importance of the entire family on prevention and management of chronic illnesses. A strong link exists between T2D and several forms of cancer; therefore, she has extended her research to cancer and T2Ds. Patients with active cancer and T2D face challenges in polypharmacy, treatment complications, and poor glycemic control. Undiagnosed or poorly managed T2D has been associated with advanced stage cancer at diagnosis, higher rates of mortality, and lower rates of long-term all cause survival. Given the associations among T2D and cancer treatment and survival rates it is imperative to detect and appropriately manage T2Ds in persons with cancer.

Smiley, Sabrina

University of Southern California

Dr. Sabrina L. Smiley, Ph.D., M.P.H., MCHES, is an Assistant Professor of Research in the Department of Preventive Medicine and the Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research at the Keck School of Medicine. Her research employs qualitative and quantitative research methods to examine the connections between risk behaviors, socio-environmental conditions, disease prevalence, and health disparities. Major foci of her work include: (1) tobacco marketing in neighborhoods by race/ethnicity; (2) tobacco use among key population groups (e.g., African Americans, American Indian/Alaska Natives, LGBT, low socioeconomic status, youth); (3) tobacco regulatory science and policy; and (4) leveraging technology to identify substance use and HIV risk behaviors. She is planning her R-type grant applications.

Soto, Claradina

University of Southern California

Dr. Claradina Soto is a full-time assistant clinical professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC in the Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research. She teaches undergraduate courses in the Health Promotion & Disease Prevention and Global Health Program and graduate courses in the Master of Public Health program. With more than 15 years working in tobacco control with American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) populations, she has conducted statewide tobacco control work with numerous tribes to provide commercial tobacco education, prevention, cessation services, policy implementation and media campaigns to counter the pro-tobacco influences by the tobacco industry.

Velazquez Villareal, E.

University of Southern California

Dr. Velazquez Villareal’s research is primarily concerned with integrating clinical and genomic data for Precision Medicine. To this end, he applies analyses derived from bioinformatics, statistics, genetics, epidemiology, clinical medicine and public & global health. His current projects include studies of regulation of cellular immunity in humans with specific relevance to understanding transplantation immunity and development of biomarkers for clinical translation that also extend our understanding of immunity and individualized immunosuppressive therapy in transplant patients (pharmacogenomics). In addition to the integrated study of transplantation immunology, he is also involved in highly technical bioinformatics and statistical research, which describes the integration of multiple genome sequencing technologies. Big database management systems is also part of his technical research, it includes the study of NoSQL technologies for the effective management of, heterogeneous and dynamic, clinical and genomic data. As part of all of these research projects, he is  applying cutting-edge methods of analysis using the latest tools of functional genomics and molecular immunology. His functional genomics work include the analysis of whole genome transcription profiling from DNA microarrays to deep mRNA sequencing, alternative splicing arrays, microRNA studies (miRNA-seq), high-throughput next generation DNA sequencing (DNA-seq) including targeted sequencing and whole exome sequencing and transcription factor profiling (ChIP-seq), and the epigenetics of immunology at the level of DNA methylation (methyl DNA-seq). Dr. Velazquez Villareal is the USC PI of the BSM Core and he regularly give lectures on bioinformatics for CaRE2 trainees