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Meet the 2020 Class of Molecular Medicine PhD Students

Ten new students have joined Lerner Research Institute’s Molecular Medicine PhD program, a five-year, degree-granting program that offers traditional class instruction and immersive research experience for the next generation of biomedical scientists.


Lerner Research Institute recently welcomed its 14th class of Molecular Medicine PhD students. The ten new students join 38 current students in the program, which was established in 2007. During the program’s tenure, 55 PhD degrees have been awarded.

The program, part of the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), involves class-based instruction, research rotations and the completion of an independent research thesis project. Core curriculum courses are taught on the Cleveland Clinic campus, with advanced electives available at both Cleveland Clinic and CWRU campuses.

The impressive and competitive group of students is one of the largest classes the program has ever had. The talented group includes:

  • Noah Dubasik has a BS in microbiology with a chemistry minor from Bowling Green State University (BGSU). Some of his research interests include biotechnology, microbiome and microbial engineering, microbiology/immunology and cancer biology. His most recent research experience was with Dr. Jill Zeilstra-Ryalls’ lab at BGSU. While at BGSU, he was also involved in research focused on discovering novel antibiotics.
  • Rachel Hohe received a BS in biochemistry (chemistry focus) from Purdue University. Rachel has had a variety of research experiences including an internship at Land O Lakes: Sure-Tech. Additionally, she studied the function of bacterial effectors in an enzyme research lab at Purdue. Her research interests include cell-pathogen interactions, the gut microbiome and inflammation/immunity.
  • Zhongyi Jiang earned a BS in pharmaceutical sciences from Tianjin University (China) and a MS in molecular microbiology and immunology from University of Southern California. While completing his MS, he worked in Dr. Jae Jung’s lab in the Department of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology at USC and moved to Cleveland with Dr. Jung. Zhongyi’s research interests include host immune response against infection and cancer, as well as its potential clinical application.
  • Lefatshe Lefatshe earned his BS in biology from the University of Missouri. Lefatshe has studied type 1 diabetes and the effects of aspirin dosages on patients with heart disease. His research interests include pathobiology, immunology, cardiology and microbiomes.
  • Stephanie León Quiñonez received a BS in chemistry (biological track) from Texas A&M University and an MS in biotechnology and bioengineering from University of Kent (United Kingdom). She has had a variety of research experiences including working in a lung cancer diagnostics lab and in biochemistry & biophysics. Her research interests include exosomes and cell communication, microbiome and disease, vaccines and exploring virus latency, reporter eukaryotic and bacterial cell lines, as well as bacterial manipulation for diagnostics and therapeutics. She is also interested in other disease areas like cancer and neurological diseases (i.e. Alzheimer’s).
  • Amira Salim has a BS in biomedical sciences with a minor in sociology from University of Washington (Tacoma, WA). Her research experiences range from projects focusing on bioinformatics and biostatistics to an Alzheimer’s disease study. Her most recent research experience was focused on malaria. Amira’s research interests include molecular biology and genetics, specifically using those techniques to study infectious diseases.
  • Johnathon (John) Sturgis earned his BS in biological science with a chemistry minor from University of Cincinnati. Since 2018, he has been working with the Warren County Ohio Health District to study insecticide resistance in mosquitos. John’s research interests include cardiovascular disease and the role that it plays in establishing atrial fibrillation, immune response as it pertains to the importance of vaccine development and the mechanisms by which cancer biology/immunotherapy can be correlated to T cell interferon regulation.
  • Jessica Till: Jessica Till has a BS in biology (pre-health professions) with a psychology minor from Pennsylvania State University (Erie, PA). Jessica’s first research experience started during her freshman year in the biology lab of Dr. Michael Campbell at Penn State. During her undergrad years, she also gained skills in molecular biology techniques with the Lake Erie Regional Grape Research and Extension Center. Her research interests include the intestinal microbiome and its link to neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease), therapeutics/drug discovery for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and the interaction between the microbiome and IBD patients.
  • Tiffany (April) Wang received her BS in biology with minors in neuroscience and chemistry from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her previous research experiences were in Dr. Nate Hathaway’s Lab at the Center for Integrative Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery and at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor in Dr. Angela Elam’s lab, where she worked on a project focused on health disparities in glaucoma. April’s research interests include neurodegenerative diseases and epigenetic therapeutics.
  • Marco Witkowski, MD, joined Dr. Stanley Hazen’s lab in March 2019 as a fellow from the German Research Foundation. During medical school, his research found that post-transcriptional regulation via microRNA plays a critical role in controlling vascular inflammation and coagulation in diabetes. In the Hazen lab, Dr. Witkowski has gained experience in microbiota derived factors that impact cardiovascular phenotypes. He is also interested in translational research and how microbiota and their released factors contribute to thrombosis and heart failure.

The Molecular Medicine PhD Program also offers a track for Cleveland Clinic residents/fellows in accredited training programs who wish to pursue a PhD in laboratory-based research. Known as PRISM (Physician Researchers Innovating in Science and Medicine), the program is completely housed and administered at Cleveland Clinic. This year the program welcomed one new resident:

  • Avia Wilkerson, MD, is a second year General Surgery resident at CCF. She received a BA in neurosciences from University of Southern California and an MD from CWRU School of Medicine. While pursuing her MD, she conducted research at Seidman Cancer Center (University Hospitals) and in the Surgical Oncology division at MetroHealth. Dr. Wilkerson’s research interests include tumor immunology/immuno-onocology, immunotherapy, the molecular basis of health disparities and epigenetics.

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