Alumni Profile – Keri McLean – Small

Plans are static.  They change.  It is not uncommon to enter college with a goal in mind and along the way, the Lord takes you down a different path, be that through divine appointments with inspiring individuals, closed doors, or open windows.  Regardless of the plan you had in mind for yourself , hands down, and without question, the plan God has for you is infinitely better.  Don’t be afraid to follow His lead if it seems like He’s calling you to change your plan!

Today’s alumni profile features Mrs. Keri McLean – Small a Ph.D student at Meharry.


HealthOU: What is your current job title?

KMS: Doctoral Candidate,  Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology. 

HealthOU: What does your job entail?


65% Conducting animal behavioral and molecular experiments in the lab

20% reading and being familiar with literature relevant to my research topic

9% writing manuscripts for peer reviewed publication

5% presenting my findings at local/ national/ international scientific meetings

1% mentoring/training undergraduates and graduate students in techniques used in the lab.

HealthOU: How has your background as a Biology / Biochemistry major been beneficial to you in your current position?

KMS: My background in Biology has been  very beneficial, particularly in the coursework I had to take during my first few years in graduate school. I quickly realized that my classmates that were not biology/biochem  majors struggled to grasp some of the concepts presented because they did not have the proper foundation. My background in biology provided me with the foundation to to build upon my knowledge and helped in areas of critical thinking and problem solving in my research.

HealthOU: A large part of the reason students pursue healthcare is because they have a desire to help people.  How do you feel that your current position allows you the opportunity to fulfill this desire or have a positive impact on the lives of others?

KMS: My current position allows me the opportunity to help people on a much larger scale than I would be able to as, for example, a clinician.  The work we do is very translational or “bench to bedside” in nature and our findings from studying disorders often lead to development of pharmacological therapies to help patients suffering from the diseases we study or diseases with similar pathologies. I believe that as a scientist you have the ability to help far more people that you would as a clinician because you are contributing to a knowledge base that will be used and built upon long after you are gone. In addition, much of the work scientist do provides the information in textbooks that healthcare professionals study to prepare themselves to treat patients. Scientist also make up the majority of medical and dental school professors and so we have the unique opportunity to train and make a positive impact on not only health professionals of the future but also the patients they will serve.

HealthOU: What were your academic goals and aspirations upon starting college?

KMS: Like most biology majors, when I came to Oakwood my goal was to become a physician. I shadowed an anesthesiologist in high school and during my experience decided I wanted to pursue a career in Anesthesiology.

HealthOU: Did those goals change at all?  How so?  What were some of the factors that led to those changes?

 KMS: They most certainly did! Well after quite a bit of introspection I decided that going to medical school was not for me for a number of reasons, 1) I did not like being around people when they were sick because of the germs and communicability of their condition, 2) After talking to people in medical school, I decided that medical school was not an environment that I would flourish in, I much preferred “interest based” learning and the quantity of material you had to learn in the short time frame of medical school was not attractive to me. I also liked to problem solve and try and discover new things which can be difficult to do as a clinician for a number of reasons. There was a time that I was quite distraught because I knew that I didn’t want to be a doctor but I didn’t want to just teach (at the time I thought those were my only two options with a Biology degree). I was blessed to be apart of the RISE grant in the Biology department and did a summer internship in the Neurobiology department at UAB with Dr. Harry Sontheimer. And I really liked the environment and the encouragement of discovery and autonomy all the while still helping people in a medical capacity.  It was during that summer experience that I began to consider a career in biomedical research.

HealthOU: Did you pursue any additional degrees or training after Oakwood / prior to obtaining your current position? 

KMS: No,  after I graduated Oakwood I entered graduate school at Meharry in the fall.

HealthOU: Were there any resources or websites that you found helpful as you explored different options for your career?

 KMS: The website that I have found most helpful is it has an assessment based on your interests and skills set to suggest career options tailored to you and it also helps you set up an individual development plan that has been very helpful to me during my graduate matriculation.

HealthOU: Were there any mentors or advisors who were helpful as you explored different career options.

KMS: Yes, Dr. Rand and Dr. Vanterpool at Oakwood and my summer internship mentors, Dr. Susan Lyons and Harold Sontheimer, were very supportive in answering questions about life as a scientist and guide me into gaining admission into graduate school.

HealthOU: How did you specifically end up in your current position? 

KMS: RISE took its participants on a few graduate school tours and I was able to tour Meharry Medical College when I was considering a career in medicine and I remember them mentioning they had a graduate program that has the record of graduating the most African- American PhD’s in basic science research and that fact made a lasting impression on me. I took advantage of the GRE prep through the RISE grant at Oakwood. Took the GRE and applied to a few graduate schools. I was accepted at Meharry and two other schools but decided that Meharry was the place for me.  Like most PhD programs you are able to meet with possible principal investigators that are conducting research in a field of your interest and do a rotation project in their lab. After doing three different rotations I decided to do my thesis work in my current mentors lab, Dr. Sukhbir Mokha, where we study gender-related differences in pain disorders. My pre-existing experience in neuroscience and interest in women’s health helped me make my decision.

HealthOU: Would you recommend your current profession?  Why? 

KMS: Yes, I think there are many opportunities particularly for minorities in biomedical research and the satisfaction in such a growing field is unparalleled.

HealthOU: What are some of the most fulfilling / rewarding aspects of your job?

KMS: Discovering something that no one else has ever studied is unparalleled. I enjoy the independence and autonomy of being a scientist, and I also love being an expert on what I am researching. Although I don’t do experiments on human, I get to regularly do surgical procedures on animals and aid in their recovery and care.

HealthOU: What are you future professional aspirations / goals?

KMS: I’m interested in doing research to elucidate the health disparity of the high prevalence of  psychiatric disorders in women. I’d like to work with a research group consisting of basic scientists, clinicians, and public health officials to work towards educating the public on maintaining mental health, debunk some of the myths and stigmas associated with mental health disorders, and conduct research on developing effective therapies for common mood disorders that particularly effect the female and adolescent demographic.

HealthOU: What advice would you offer to a current undergraduate student who is questioning his or her interest in medicine and is unsure what direction to choose?

KMS: First I would tell that individual that it is okay to question your career interests at any point in your career, don’t beat yourself up about it but educate yourself on the other options and make an informed decision about what is best for you. You are the one that has to live with your decision so don’t sell yourself short by being concerned about what others will think or say.  Many of us come from backgrounds where the belief that “being a physician” is the greatest job one could ever hope to get, but that is far from the truth.There are so many different possibilities and career opportunities in the health field that are available and equally satisfying. I would say to take a career interest assessment test to see what careers are most suitable to your interests, and seek out people in different fields to find out what their day to day job experience is like and how they got there. My favorite question to ask these individuals was,  ‘what do you most love and hate about your job the most?’ Also, talk to a mentor you trust to give you sound advice and direction on preparing for graduate school or medical school. College is a time for exploration so make the most of it and make use of the resources at your fingertips.

HealthOU: What specific advice can you offer to someone who may be interested in pursuing a career in your specified field?

KMS: I would encourage them to have as much research experience as possible prior to entering graduate school. It will definitely ease the transition from undergraduate to graduate level education. Having research experience will help you decide what discipline of research you are interested in and will save you time when you get to graduate school. Also, try to get at least one publication out of your research experience it will make your grant applications and scholarship applications more successful and potential mentors are very impressed by this. Finally, try to decide what you would like to do with your PhD when you finish grad school. It will be helpful in deciding what training opportunities you take advantage of and identify potential mentors in the field that can give you sound advice and guide your career.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper yo and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future!  Jeremiah 29:11


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