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Even serious injury couldn’t stop immunologist’s path to PhD

By Kofi Stiles, LGS Communications | Emory Report | May 4, 2020

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Laney Graduate School student Morgan Barham had almost completed her research when an accident left her unable to even hold a pipette. But she persevered, finishing her PhD and mentoring underrepresented students in STEM.

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Morgan Barham’s path toward her doctoral degree in biomedical sciences began when undergraduate immunology courses sparked a passion that ended her desire to attend medical school and become a pediatrician.

While pursuing her bachelor’s degree at Saint Augustine’s University-- a historically black university in Raleigh, NC-- Barham always found great interest in her immunology courses. As a result, her academic advisor suggested that she consider a graduate degree in immunology.

Barham spent the next summer researching at NC State University. After earning her undergraduate degree, she was admitted into the Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) at the University of Kansas (KU), where she studied under the late Dr. Stephen Benedict. The PREP program promotes diversity in biomedical research and provides mentored research training to prepare recent grads for graduate school in science-related fields.

Upon completion from KU, Barham began looking for top immunology programs within the Southeastern United States and chose the Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis Program (IMP) at Emory’s Laney Graduate School. 

Five years later, as she entered the last phase of her degree, an incident on Halloween of 2018 created an unimaginable disruption. 

Barham helped recruit and retain scholars from historically underrepresented groups as part of her fellowship with Laney EDGE (Emory Diversifying Graduate Education). After returning home from a recruitment trip, she tripped over her bag and took a fall that nearly halted her progress toward completing her PhD. 

“Everyone says that you shouldn’t try to break your fall, just fall,” Barham said. “But I tried to break my fall, and my hand went straight through the window of my garage. I essentially mangled my whole wrist.”

Barham was treated at Grady Hospital for two torn tendons and a torn nerve— an injury that left her with limited use of her dominant hand. 

“The first thing that I asked the doctors was ‘am I going to be able to pipette?’” Barham explained.

While pursuing her PhD, Barham studied T cell activity in patients who are coinfected with latent or active Mycobacterium tuberculosis and HIV. Her success relied heavily on her ability to work in the laboratory with equipment such as pipettes. However, due to her injury, she was unable to use her hand for nearly six months.

Barham faced the difficult decision of whether or not she should continue pursuing her degree that she was so close to completing. Taking a leave of absence was a reasonable option, but doing so would have prolonged her time to degree.

With much to consider, Morgan sought guidance by praying as well as consulting with her family, academic advisors, and support structure at Emory.

When Barham’s advisor, Cheryl Day 98C, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology learned about the accident, she began exploring ways that her student could finish her experiments. They determined that lab technician Wendy Whatney would assist Barham with manual lab duties, including pipetting.

“I have not had any other students with similar experiences as Morgan,” said Day. “An important take away from this is the benefit of being flexible and developing creative alternatives when unexpected situations arise.”

Barham also recalls the support and encouragement that she received from Amanda Marie James, PhD, chief diversity officer & associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and community engagement at the Laney Graduate School.

“Dr. James said to me, ‘we are going to figure this out and get everything done,’” Barham said. “Through her support, I was able to analyze my data and do everything else.”

Triumphing over adversity

Barham successfully defended her doctoral dissertation in September of 2019. Since her injury, she has recovered 95 percent of the movement in her hand after receiving occupational therapy at Grady Hospital.

“They said the nerve, which was in my pinky finger, would take five to seven years to grow back fully,” Barham explained. “It’s there, but it feels like pins and needles. Other than that, I can do everything I could do before. When I initially spoke with the doctors and found out how serious my injury was, I was so thankful that I was even alive.”

Barham took a three-month travel break and found work as a medical science liaison with the diagnostics company Hologic, Inc, which focuses on women’s health and infectious disease diagnosis.

“We are the go-between to answer any high-level scientific questions or provide additional information about an unexpected result or diagnostic to lab techs, doctors, or key opinion leaders,” Barham said.

‘You can do it because I did it’

Looking back on her time at Emory, Barham admits that the journey to the finish line, even before her injury, was not easy. Still, she values her time at the Laney Graduate School.

One of her prime motivations to attend graduate school was gaining the knowledge, experience, and credentials to mentor students from historically underrepresented groups who aspire to earn advanced degrees. 

In addition to studying T cells and fulfilling her role as a Laney EDGE Fellow, Barham spent a substantial amount of time at Emory involved in diversity work. This work included the National Institutes of Health-funded Initiative to Maximize Student Development, the National Institutes of Health’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training program and two terms as president of Emory’s Black Graduate Student Association.

With the insight from these organizations and initiatives, Barham will continue to use the skills she learned at Emory not only in her current employment but also in pursuing diversity and inclusion in everything she does.

“Every STEM program that I participated in had an older white male saying that children of color can be doctors and scientists,” Barham says. “But I still never saw anyone who looked like me. I got my PhD so that, when I go out and mentor, I can say ‘you can do it because I did it.’ The graduate journey has been challenging, but rewarding experience.”