College of Medicine Alumni Spotlight: Q&A with Dr. Cheavar Blair

Cheavar Blair, PhD, a 2017 graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, is now a postdoc at the University of California-Santa Barbara. 

Dr. Blair recently received the 2020 Young Author Achievement Award from the American College of Cardiology for his manuscript, “Heart Failure in Humans Reduces Contractile Force in Myocardium from Both Ventricles.” The manuscript – a collaboration with his mentor Ken Campbell, PhD, professor of physiology at UK – was the main paper in the dissertation for which Dr. Blair earned his doctorate from the department of physiology.

Through his career Dr. Blair aims to be a scientist, mentor, and advocate for helping enhance the pipeline for underrepresented students interested in medicine and research. In the following Q&A, Dr. Blair outlines the work he completed at UK and how it helped him prepare for his next steps. He also shares advice for prospective students.

What was your experience like at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine?

It was a very rewarding and humbling experience. In Lexington, I met some great people and still talk to a lot of people there such as Dr. Brett Spear and Dr. Martha Peterson, who have helped me tremendously. I also stay in close contact to Dr. Campbell and a few other people in the physiology department.

I will add that during my time in the physiology department, I was the only African American, and I never felt like an outsider within the department and on the campus, which was not always the case off-campus. I really enjoyed the time I spent in the physiology department, and I definitely appreciate all of the individuals who helped make my research experience successful.

I will also say that when I was at UK, there were plenty of opportunities to really understand what went on at the university. I actually interacted with the university president and the vice president for institutional diversity. The leadership team at UK is doing a very good job with making themselves accessible. It was a very responsive environment, and I really appreciated that.

What are you doing now?

I am currently a postdoc at the University of California-Santa Barbara, where I conduct research to understand how mitochondrial dysfunction affects heart cells.

What did you learn from your experience at UK that helped prepare you for your career now?

So I'll start off with saying, I owe much of my success to Dr. Campbell. He really made sure that I had a comprehensive view of not only my research, but also the research in our field, which helped me think more holistically about the research I was conducting. He is also very detail-oriented, which rubbed off on me, and he has helped me greatly. 

While at UK, I also learned a lot about other institutional needs, such as recruiting and retaining underrepresented students, and how to be proactive. Sometimes you get so involved in your work that you don't really think about the infrastructure to make sure there's a pipeline to recruit, retain, and graduate students from all sorts of backgrounds. I refer back to Dr. Brett Spear and the tremendous mentor he has been to me, but if it wasn’t for him allowing me to attend conferences with him that are aimed at increasing diversity, I don’t know if I would have been so involved in diversity efforts as a graduate student. Going to those conferences with him to promote my science and advance diversity efforts really helped me think about the bigger picture. So I definitely would say that I learned a great deal about recruiting, retaining, and advancing students from all backgrounds as well at UK, and it has really helped my thought process in thinking about the impact I would like to have in the future as a university professor. 

Lastly, in our society now, there's a push to be more inclusive. So thinking along those lines, I've been trying to, first and foremost, promote my science so I can keep advancing in my career that I may one day be a professor who can positively impact the cause, but also try to be an advocate for underrepresented students to increase the pipeline and make academia more inclusive.

How often do you keep in touch with the department of physiology?

I just talked to [Dr. Campbell] a couple of days ago. We stay in contact. Ken is great. We just had a Campbell Lab reunion not too long-ago over Zoom, so that was nice to actually see previous and current trainees, and also see Dr. Campbell, of course. We stay in touch and have a good relationship.

Did you always want to go into research?

No. When I started graduate school, I mainly wanted to be a professor at a community college, with the goal of teaching and serving as a mentor. I did actually teach at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, so I enjoy teaching. But the more I progressed through graduate school, I started to think more broadly, and I realized that I enjoyed the science I was conducting, I really enjoyed the discovery, I enjoyed looking at data, and saying, “Oh wow, that's cool.” So you can say that my graduate work really awakened the “inner science” in me.  

After my third year of graduate work I really started to realize I did not mind doing the things that I was doing, and that my previous plans of teaching at a community college would not allow me to utilize the skill sets and the knowledge I've developed throughout these past few years as fully as I would like. 

Throughout this time, I also realized that I enjoyed writing, and considering that writing is one of the main things researchers do since you have to get grant money, I decided that a career in research was something I wanted to pursue. 

You recently won the 2020 Young Author Achievement Award for your work with Dr. Campbell on a manuscript. Can you tell us more about it?

I was pleasantly surprised. It was for one of the manuscripts that Dr. Campbell and I spent a great deal of time on. And it was great work. It really was great work. It was very straightforward. 

We wanted to basically figure out if there were differences between the cells from the right and left sides of the heart. And then, what's the impact of heart failure on those cells? It's an important question because a lot of the individuals who develop heart failure are commonly diagnosed with left-ventricular or left-sided heart failure. However, they may also have right-sided or right ventricular dysfunction, but unfortunately at the time, the tools clinicians had access to were not ideal for assessing right heart function. (We may have better tools now.) Our study provided some insight into how cells from the right and left side of the heart were impacted by heart failure.

I'm thankful for the award. It is always great to have your work recognized. I’m definitely appreciative. 

What advice do you have for students, particularly underrepresented students, who are hoping to pursue a career in research?

You have to be persistent and consistent. Becoming a scientific researcher is very hard, so you have to be committed to the process. It’s very easy to find another path just because things aren't going the way you intended. Definitely think about the career path that you want for yourself and the job that you think is going to make you happy. 

If you decide you want to go down the research path, then make sure that you are open to spending a lot of time in the lab, a lot of time in front of the computer, and really open to the process of coming up with good scientific ideas that are hypothesis-driven. If you are comfortable with the thought of doing those things, then you will be on your way towards a research career.

And another thing for students, always make sure you truly grasp the field that you're in. You never want to be ignorant to your field. You should always want to be a student first. Ask yourself, “Why is my work important, and how can I contribute to the field?” Additionally, you should want to be a mentor and advocate for promoting others. One of the beauties of being a researcher is that you also get to be a mentor and be a part of the success of others. When you start to enjoy helping others succeed, you will find joy in your work.