A pipeline program prodigy’s journey with MUSC

Amber Hazzard
May 13, 2024
Pharm.D. student Latavia Fields, who has benefitted from outreach proograms developed by Dr. Marvellla Ford
MUSC Pharm.D. student Latavia Fields

Pipeline programs give underrepresented students hands-on experience at health care institutions and in biomedical research laboratories. These programs increase diversity in the workforce and contribute to health equity. 

Marvella Ford, Ph.D., associate director of Population Sciences and Community Outreach and Engagement at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, leads pipeline programs that expose K-12 and college students to cancer research. Two of Ford’s programs helped Latavia Fields, a current Pharm.D. student at MUSC, to nurture her interest in the medical professions.

From an early age, Fields knew she wanted to pursue a career in health care. Health care was all around her: Her grandmother, mother and sister all worked in medicine. 

“Health care kind of runs in my blood,” joked Fields. 

Yet, with so many options, she was unsure of which path to take. “I knew I wanted to work in health care, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” she explained.

Fields was still undecided when she met Ford during her junior year at Burke High School in Charleston. At the time, Ford and her colleagues were leading the National Cancer Institute-funded SC Cure project (South Carolina Continuing Umbrella of Research Experience). As an SC CURE participant, Fields received weekly lectures on topics, including epidemiology, environmental racism and cancer research. 

At the end of the semester, Fields joined SC CURE’s two-year paid summer research internship, which placed students in cancer research labs across MUSC. 

She was excited to gain hands-on experience. “It sounded like a great opportunity to learn about research and earn college credit, especially since cancer runs in my family,” said Fields. 

During her senior year in high school, Fields worked under Yuri Peterson, Ph.D.; the late Patrick Woster, Ph.D.; and Catherine Mills, Ph.D., doing cancer drug discovery. Her project focused on targeting cancer cells with chemotherapy drugs and studying their reactions to the medications. 

In addition to conducting research, Fields learned about the process of how drugs created in the lab move to clinical trials and potentially become available to the public. She also gained insights about pharmacy school from a fourth-year pharmacy student in the lab. 

These experiences sparked her interest in pursuing a pharmacy career. “Given my family history, I wanted a better understanding of how cancer treatment drugs work,” noted Fields.

SC CURE did much more than prepare Fields for her future career, however. The program built a long-lasting, supportive community for her, the other students, researchers and program directors. 

In fact, three years later, Ford personally invited Fields to apply to the SC CHEC  (South Carolina Cancer Health Equity Consortium) summer research program. SC CHEC was a 10-week paid summer program that pairs undergraduate juniors and seniors with researchers at Hollings. 

Fields, then a junior at Claflin University, did not hesitate to join the program. “I applied immediately because I knew it would benefit me in the long run,” she said. Fields rejoined Woster’s lab and resumed working on her previous project. 

After completing the SC CHEC program, Fields began working at a local pharmacy and applying to pharmacy schools. She applied to MUSC, noting her positive experiences on campus as a contributing factor. 

“People at MUSC were willing to invest in me to help me get to the next level, so I knew this was an environment I wanted to be in,” remembered Fields. 

Now a first-year Pharm.D. student at MUSC, Fields credits her family, friends and mentors for helping her along the way. She especially thanks Ford for being a positive influence. 

“I see Dr. Ford as a lifelong mentor and a big part of why I’m in the pharmacy field,” Fields said.

Fields embodies the importance and success of pipeline programs. These programs give talented underrepresented students opportunities to expand their professional networks while gaining valuable work experience. 

Even as a busy graduate student, Fields volunteers to speak with students in Ford’s programs. She is honored to be a role model for students from similar backgrounds. 

“I want to show people that they can come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and still be successful, just like me,” she said.