Get to Know the 2021 CCTS Trainees & Scholars

Over the next few months, we will be introducing each of the 2021 CCTS Trainees & Scholars, to allow the greater CCTS community to get to know more about these investigators and their research. To learn more about the TL1 and KL2 programs, please visit

Griffin Wright

Griffin WrightGriffin Wright
2021 TL1 Trainee
University of South Alabama
College of Medicine | Physiology and Cell Biology

Research Focus: My research entails uncovering a novel role of inflammation and hyperglycemia in the regulation of base excision repair, the housekeeping repair process of the cell. Changes in this critical repair pathway accumulate mutations and play a role in breast cancer development and treatment. My focus is on triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), where changes in base excision repair could contribute to therapeutic resistance and recurrence.

Research Impact
: TNBC is the deadliest form of breast cancer and is associated with worse outcomes in African American females. With limited treatment options, uncovering novel ways to increase therapeutic efficacy could help combat health disparities associated with this deadly disease.

My historical hero: Dr. Rosalind Franklin

Favorite Movie or TV Show: Star Wars Episode V and any movie directed by Wes Anderson.

Favorite thing to do in your spare time? In my spare time I enjoy wood working, building furniture, and playing with my dogs Toulouse and Benny.

Favorite Podcast: Stuff You Should Know (SYSK) or Bedside Rounds

Desalyn Johnson

Desalyn JohnsonDesalyn Johnson
2021 TL1 Trainee

University of Alabama at Birmingham
School of Medicine | Medicine

Research Focus: The Southeastern United States has the highest infant mortality rate (IMR) in the country. There are also increased rates of poverty and unemployment in the region contributing to increased rates of Medicaid coverage. These factors accumulate to make this region extremely vulnerable to poor infant outcomes. Several studies have examined disparities in infant outcomes in the context of race, education and socioeconomic status. However, few studies have analyzed disparities as a potential function of health insurance status. We will gather information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) WONDER database, which includes birth and infant death records from 2016-2018. We will utilize this data to examine potential links between health insurance status and infant outcomes. This information will then be employed to establish what interventions could potentially be implemented by health care providers and within the community to decrease infant mortality rates.

Why my science matters to me:
My science matters to me because it will allow me to have a tangible impact within my community. Conducting this research will enable me not only to determine barriers to care, but to also develop innovational means to overcome these barriers. Specifically, I will be able to ameliorate racial and socioeconomic disparities in infant outcomes. It will be fulfilling to develop certain interventions, coordinate their implementation, and witness the meaningful impact it has on the health of the community.

Research Impact:
This study will provide information as to what practices can be done within low-income communities and at-risk populations to ameliorate the epidemic of infant morbidity/mortality in our country and specifically our region. The study will examine what considerations physicians should have when caring for a patient with Medicaid Insurance and what interventions should be employed. The Southeast has extreme potential, however to reach that bright future, we must ensure the health of our future generation. We can do this by guaranteeing every child has a healthy start in life.

My historical hero:
Dr. Vivien Thomas, the grandson of enslaved people, was the laboratory assistant to Dr. Alfred Blalock. While working with Blalock, he mastered anatomy, physiology, and surgical techniques. Thomas contributed significantly to Blalock’s research in hemorrhagic shock and was essential in developing the surgical technique to correct “Blue Baby Syndrome”. During the first operation in 1944, Thomas coached Dr. Blalock through the procedure. However, at the time he was not credited for his role. Thomas went on the become director of Surgical Research Laboratories at Johns Hopkins, a role in which he mentored various African American lab technicians and residents. Johns Hopkins awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1976.

Samantha Hill, MD, MPH

Dr. Samantha HillSamantha Hill, MD, MPH
2021 CCTS KL2 Scholar
Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics
University of Alabama at Birmingham

Research Focus: My research interests include improving the overall health and wellness of adolescents and young adults.  My specific research focus is on improving the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents and young adults at-risk for HIV with an emphasis on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV and improving the health of young people living with HIV.  My research is community-informed and incorporates qualitative and quantitative methodologies.

Research Impact: 
My research has the potential to elevate the needs of adolescents, which is a group of individuals traditionally underrepresented in research.  In addition, my expertise and focus on this group has the added potential to change the way the world views and conducts research among this population.

Why my science matters to me:
I believe we cannot address health disparities without being intentional in focusing on health equity and incorporating and elevating researchers underrepresented in research, all of which are what I focus on in my research career.

How I became interested in this opportunity with the CCTS:
CCTS has a strong reputation for having established connections with numerous researchers in many disciplines.  As someone who pivoted into researcher at the end of my training, it was important for me to place myself in a position where I can learn from as many people as possible to fill gaps in my knowledge.

What are your long-term goals/plans?
My goal is to successfully transition into an independent physician scientist who is able to provide a platform and resources to early stage investigators seeking to conduct research on topics that are often overlooked or not part of mainstream research in an effort to address health equity.

Favorite thing to do in your spare time:
Compete in sports competitions like Tough Mudder and Spartan events.

Keonte Graves

Keonte GravesKeonte Graves, MS
2021 CCTS TL1 Trainee
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Division of Infectious Diseases

Research Focus: My research to date has focused on investigating the pathogenesis of trichomoniasis. The causative agent of trichomoniasis is Trichomonas vaginalis, a parasitic protozoan that affects over 200 million people worldwide. Since beginning my PhD studies in Biology, my research has extended to investigating 5-nitroimidazole resistance in T. vaginalis and identifying genes related to resistance mechanisms. 5-nitroimidazoles (i.e., metronidazole and tinidazole) are the only class of drugs approved for the treatment of trichomoniasis in the United States. Resistance to metronidazole is observed in 5-10% of cases and may be rising. This presents a problem since all 5-nitroimidazoles share the same mode of action for drug activation. With this in mind, resistance to the others in the same drug family may soon follow. In addition, prior data suggests that metronidazole-resistance in T. vaginalis is not absolute but relative; meaning that in some cases, clinical resistance can be overcome by increasing the metronidazole treatment dose, which could also present problems with patients who are allergic or have metronidazole sensitivity. Therefore, identifying new targets for drug development is an area of focus I am very interested in.
How did you become interested in this opportunity with the CCTS? I first became interested in the CCTS as I was writing my very first grant in 2020. My mentor suggested that I look at the website in order to help me with the grant writing process. The amount of resources available was amazing to me. The grant library was a great resource and it peaked my interest in what else was offered.
How will do you plan to leverage this protected time with the CCTS? This much-needed protected time will provide me the opportunity to develop the skillsets and investigative techniques needed to become a successful researcher. I have a chance to focus on my research, employ new techniques I have learned, and take some relevant courses that could increase my understanding of infectious diseases. I hope to publish my findings and successfully submit a F31 grant and receive more funding to continue research into drug resistance. I also hope to use this foundation as a springboard to make meaningful scientific contributions in the future.
Favorite thing to do in your spare time? In my spare time, I try to find a spot to myself at home and relax when I can. I could turn on a movie or make some art/drawings. More recently, my wife and I have been working our way through a list of the best seasons of Survivor. We are 5 seasons deep right now and I’m kicking myself for not watching it all these years. In reality, most of my spare time is spent with my two sons (5 years and 10 months old) and keeping them entertained. It’s like another full time job, but I love it.

Claudia Edell

Claudia EdellClaudia Edell
2021 CCTS TL1 Trainee
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Division of Nephrology

Research Focus: My research focuses on how diet induced organ damage, specifically the gut and kidneys, can be reduced through specific timing of food intake. We believe that  T cells are driving this damage, however time restricted feeding, or intermittent fasting, can be used to regulate the inflammatory T cell response to minimize target organ damage.

How did you become interested in this opportunity with the CCTS?
 I have had the privilege of working closely with a clinical trial during graduate school, and this got me interested in pursuing a career in translational research. I was excited about the networking opportunities available through the TL1 and I think it will be extremely beneficial to prepare me for my future career.

Research Impact: Our main goal is to be able to use food as therapeutics for diseases such as hypertension. Understanding how food can be used to treat specific diseases can ideally reduce the need for medication by altering dietary habits.

Favorite Movie or TV Show?

Favorite thing to do in your spare time?
Playing golf

Sara Davis, PhD, RN, PCNS-BC

Sara Davis, PhD, RN, PCNS-BCPhD, RN, PCNS-BCSara Davis, PhD, RN, PCNS-BC
2021 CCTS KL2 Scholar

Assistant Professor
University of South Alabama College of Nursing

Research Focus: "I’m interested in studying stress in children, especially in high-risk children. Children with type 1 diabetes experience high levels of stress and diabetes distress related to disease management and this may be exacerbated in minority children and children from disadvantaged backgrounds. These children also have worse health outcomes related to diabetes, including a 2x higher mortality rate for non-Hispanic Black children. A better understanding of stress and its relationship to inflammation and glycemic control in children with type 1 diabetes may help researchers and clinicians understand underlying mechanisms to tailor treatments to improve health outcomes."

How did you become interested in this opportunity with the CCTS? "The CCTS provides tremendous support and resources for early-stage scientists. I’ve attended a number of events over the last couple of years, and I’m always thankful I did because I learn so much. I’m grateful to participate as a KL2 scholar because I know I will become a better researcher and make meaningful contributions to science."

How will do you plan to leverage this protected time with the CCTS? "With the protected time provided by the CCTS, I plan to earn a Graduate Certificate in Applications of Mixed Methods Research. I will also complete a mentored research project examining perceived stress, diabetes distress, cortisol, and inflammatory biomarkers in school-age children with type 1 diabetes. My mentors and I also have plans to develop a number of abstracts, manuscripts, and externally funded grants to disseminate and support this research."

What keeps you motivated?
"My family keeps me motivated. I have a sister with type 1 diabetes, and stress has played a big role in the management of her disease. I strongly believe that early identification and management of stress can improve the health of individuals with diabetes."

Favorite thing to do in your spare time? "
I love to run! I’ve completed 2 marathons and hope to complete more! It’s a great way to make friends and reminds me that difficult things can be worth the challenge."

Kayla Frey

Kayla FreyKayla Frey
2021 CCTS TL1 Trainee

University of Alabama at Birmingham
School of Medicine | Otolaryngology

Research Focus: "My research project under the guidance of Dr. Erin Buczek in the UAB Department of Otolaryngology (ENT) will analyze for health disparities in outcomes of head and neck cancer surgery patients requiring microvascular free flap repairs. We chose this project because of the complexity of these patients’ care and their unique medical requirements in the hopes of positively impacting a population of great need. We will be working in conjunction with the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery to build a database of both outcomes and health disparities information for this patient population. These two departments conduct the vast majority of microvascular free flap repairs in Alabama so the database we will be creating will be comprehensive and representative of our state’s population, allowing us to meaningfully analyze health disparities in this group in the Deep South."

Research Impact: "It is our hope that the database we will create and our findings from it can be used to guide future endeavors to improve the outcomes of disadvantaged groups and alleviate health disparities for those who undergo microvascular free flap repairs."

How will do you plan to leverage this protected time with the CCTS? "During my time with the CCTS program, I hope to produce meaningful and actionable research that can improve the lives of patients in the long term. I believe the project my mentors, Dr. Erin Buczek, Dr. Jessica Grayson, and Dr. Yedeh Ying, and I have designed has the potential to do just that. As far as personal development, I hope to gain experience in project design, statistical analysis, scientific writing, as well as participate in events that allow me to present our results. The program will additionally be funding my Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH) so that I can further develop the knowledge base and research skills that will allow me to become a productive, independent physician scientist in my future career."

What keeps you motivated? "
Envisioning my future is what keeps me motivated. Pursuing a career as a physician is a waiting game and it’s all about delayed gratification. I try to celebrate every milestone, even the little ones, and consistently remind myself how far I’ve come when things get tough. The reality is I’m not always motivated! There are a lot of days where I don’t want to study for that next boards exam, work long hours, or read more papers. But I am always dedicated to the end game, and that’s serving my future patients. One day I’ll get there, and that’s enough more than enough to keep me going."

Favorite thing to do in your spare time? "
My favorite thing to do by far is to travel. I’ve adventured through five continents and over thirty countries since graduating college, doing everything from kayaking in a Puerto Rican bioluminescent bay, hot air ballooning over Turkey, walking through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, camel riding in Morocco, to chasing the northern lights in Norway! I’ve even lived in Costa Rica as a sea turtle conservation worker and in Poland as a Fulbright grantee before starting medical school. I have spent so much of my time either saving up to go see new places or exploring different parts of the world and I don’t think the feeling of wonder and excitement I get when I go somewhere new will ever get old!"