For Judene Thomas, the lab bench is not the finish line – it’s the starting point. Judene was born and bred in August Town, Saint Andrew, Jamaica where she was raised by her mother, Merty Bruce. She is a first generation high school and college graduate and is the first in her family to pursue a doctoral degree. Though she came from humble beginnings, Thomas continues to beat the odds and dream big.
Now a second year PhD student in the department of biology, Thomas comes to Northeastern with an impressive amount of real-world research experience, intent on translating that experience into tangible medical treatments that can improve peoples’ lives. While completing a B.A. with Honors in Biochemistry from Mount Holyoke College in western Massachusetts, Thomas became involved with a Biophysics lab where she was introduced to cancer research. “We worked with Human Colon Carcinoma Cells, studying some of their traits in order to find ways to better distinguish between malignant and benign tissues. That really piqued my interest in cancer research as a field of study. A friend then mentioned a program with funding to do cancer research for two consecutive summers and an academic year through the Harvard Medical School, so I decided to pursue it.”. Thomas participated in the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center C.U.R.E program as a mentee in the lab of Dr. Edward J. Benz Jr., MD (DFCI, Harvard Medical School) during her sophomore and junior years in college. In Dr. Benz’s lab, she participated in state-of-the-art cancer research exploring the pathology and physiology of blood cancers through Biochemistry studies of important proteins and pathways. Through this experience, Thomas says that she learned the importance of scientific research and its impact on medical innovation. She was recently awarded the 2020-2021 Harvard Medical School BSCP HOPE Scholarship presented to her by her mentor, Dr. Benz, at a virtual ceremony held last October.
After graduating from Mount Holyoke in 2017, Thomas spent the next two years working as a research assistant in prestigious labs at the Harvard Medical School at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She worked in the labs of Dr. Robert Gerzten (Cardiovascular Medicine) and Dr. Barbara Kahn (Endocrinology). “That whole experience really set me up to love translational research” she says, “I learned a lot of really valuable lab techniques that I’ll use for the rest of my career. This experience also solidified my decision to pursue a PhD as an opportunity to continue nurturing my love for science whilst contributing to scientific discovery and medical innovation.”
Today, Thomas works in the Laboratory for Aging and Infertility Research (LAIR) as a National Science Foundation LSAMP STARS Fellow under Dr. Jonathan Tilly and her mentor, Dr. Dori Woods. There, she and her labmates are studying the involvement of mitochondria in the development of cancer, age and fertility-related illnesses. The opportunities created by her work with the LAIR are very exciting. “The lab is very well equipped for efficient, state of the art research. Being able to rethink how we approach cancer studies is essential to medical advancements and the LAIR affords us the opportunity to explore how stem cell research and regenerative medicine can assist in improving cancer therapeutics and ovarian function.” Currently, her research project is focused on understanding the onset and aggressive advancement of ovarian cancer through mitochondrial function and dysfunction. Ultimately, she hopes to develop more innovative methodologies for early cancer diagnostics as well as improve health disparities in oncology care.
Judene is very passionate about STEM education and mentorship. “Through my research as a Black woman in STEM, I aspire to make an impact on global oncology and inspire more underrepresented groups to pursue science careers. The unique experiences I have endured and the new perspectives I have gained thus far, will hopefully allow me to influence a more inclusive community for science research,” she says. In her aim to deeply inspire and positively impact, Judene has tutored AP Biology students through the Harvard Medical School Hinton Scholars Program; mentored STEM high school seniors through the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and has volunteered her time as a writer, moderator and peer mentor/advisor to prospective and current Ph.D. students at Cohort Sistas– a platform developed by Dr. Ijeoma Kola curated to facilitate the empowerment of Black women embarking on their Ph.D. journeys. She recently joined the advisory board at STEAMid– a database created by Roo and Rose St. Pierre- which provides curated funding opportunities for individuals pursuing STEM and the Arts. In the past year, Thomas has also been invited by the university, her alma mater, and various NGOs to share her experiences as a scholar with the wider academic community.