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From Truant to Top Student, Devon Taylor Is on a Health Care Mission

Kopitzke and Sharpe flank their student, Devon Taylor

To see Devon Taylor today wearing the white lab coat and dapper bow tie as he chats with his mentors at Old Dominion University, it's hard to believe that 12 years ago he was a teenaged truant living in the slums of Flint, Mich.

"I had a grade point average of 1.06," he says with a grimace, as if the memory still hurts.

Taylor attended an alternative high school that, by his own description, was for "truants, outcasts and rabble rousers." When he did show up for classes, he enjoyed math and science, and this made him think he might try college. But his mother put a stop to that talk. "She told me I wasn't focused, and she was right. I didn't know what I was doing. I was pretty hopeless. I was being threatened with eviction and had no idea where the money could come from for me to go to college."

This fall, fresh off a summer internship at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Taylor is beginning his final year of the bachelor's concentration in public health at ODU's College of Health Sciences. He has a perfect, 4.0 GPA and feels confident about acing his remaining courses. Medical school is next up and he has his sights set on some of the best - Johns Hopkins and Harvard are his first choices.

But to fully appreciate how Taylor got to where he is today, we must return to the troubled teen who left his mother and hometown of Flint, not for college, but for the U.S. Navy.

It didn't take the Navy long to identify Taylor as a technology whiz kid. He tested into the nuclear power program and eventually would be given key supervisory jobs on nuclear-powered ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.

"The Navy reconstituted my sense of hope," Taylor says. "My self-confidence was rebuilt."

In the back of his mind throughout the Navy experience, however, was a long-standing dream to be a physician. He wanted to deliver health care to the less fortunate, to people such as the neighbors he remembered from Flint who didn't see a doctor very often and were uncomfortable with the interaction when they did. His participation in Navy relief efforts for the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 only made him more determined to realize the dream.

So when Taylor left the Navy in 2009 he enrolled in ODU's College of Health Sciences. "I felt old, like I had to make up time," he says, laughing. "I wanted to get my bachelor's degree in three years and the people here have done everything they can to help me. The personal attention I have gotten here has meant a lot to me."

Jacqueline Sharpe, the director of the college's health sciences bachelor's program, took Taylor under her wing early on. "From the day I met him, he has expressed a most sincere desire to help people as a health care professional," she says. "That sincerity has been present in his written and oral work. He has outstanding people skills and his desire to become a doctor is genuine."

In addition to his 21-hour course loads, Taylor also volunteered for 18 months at All Heart Home Health and Hospice Agency in Norfolk, and arranged to shadow two different surgeons for a total of eight months.

Ann Marie Kopitzke, an adviser and lecturer in the bachelor's program at the College of Sciences, says, "It's not enough to be good at the academics. You have to have heart, and Devon does."

Sharpe agrees. She says that some students who have 4.0 averages have a narrow, book-learning idea of what education is. "Devon has many great traits other than just being a master of knowledge," she adds, and she believes his selfless desire to help humanity is one of them. "It will be that kind of passion that will lead him to greatness. It has been an honor for me to know him."

That passion led Taylor to spend many hours pursing a 2011 summer internship with help from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Leadership Alliance Early Identification Program. He can't even recall how many medical schools he applied to. But he can remember those that accepted him: the Mayo Clinic, Weill Cornell, Yale, University of Virginia, Columbia, NYU, UCLA and Virginia Commonwealth University. There was also a letter from Johns Hopkins inviting him to be one of the 12 medical institutions interns that they selected from more than 1,000 applicants.

"I chose the program at Hopkins because it was directly related to one of my interests in medicine - pulmonary and critical care medicine," Taylor says. "I also chose it because Johns Hopkins has an established history of addressing public health concerns, specifically those diseases that have risk factors associated with socioeconomic disparity."

His 10 weeks this summer was spent conducting research at the Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center. The work was part of a study of genetic causes for a group of skin diseases, the most serious of which can turn deadly when a person who suffers from it gets a smallpox vaccination. One goal of this line of research is the development of an alternative vaccination for high-risk patients.

The Hopkins intern program is funded by the NIH and is geared towards undergraduates from under-represented and/or disadvantaged backgrounds who are pursuing a career in biomedical sciences.

"It is highly competitive," says Dr. Larissa Shimoda, the program's director, but she added that Taylor "really stood out" among the applicants. "His back story, coupled with outstanding grades, essay and reference letters, made him a top candidate."

Shimoda said she observed a weekly "journal club" meeting of the interns. "Each student presents a research article from a scientific journal related to their project. Devon had a wealth of knowledge that allowed him to understand everything presented and ask insightful questions. Several faculty members actually thought he was a graduate student."

Taylor does have "heart," Shimoda adds. "Not just the heart to withstand challenges and come out on top, but also in the sense of being a compassionate person. Increasing diversity in the biomedical sciences is an issue that concerns many institutions, and lack of diversity can be a barrier to quality health care in underprivileged communities. Devon is the kind of individual who can make a real impact in this area."

Dr. Kathleen Barnes, the Hopkins faculty member who mentored Taylor during the summer, was eager, as well, to praise him: "I could never say enough positive about Devon."

During his summer internship, Barnes explained, he took on an ambitious study of the genetic underpinnings of a complicated disease, atopic dermatitis, and its devastating syndrome, eczema herpeticum.

"This project required considerable self-teaching of the basic biology of these illnesses as well as the basics of molecular genetics and genetic epidemiology, which he mastered in little time. His discoveries were presented in a manner emblematic of a seasoned clinician scientist," Barnes said.

"Devon has a unique ability to garner expertise and lessons learned in a discipline as remote from medicine as one could imagine, and apply those talents in hypothesis generation and testing, and critical thinking overall."

Barnes also called Taylor a team player, "clearly demonstrating a keen sense of appreciation for those around him, regardless of rank and status. I am confident Devon will go far in our field, and his life's lessons combined with his passion for learning will no doubt propel him to a fulfilling career in medicine."

This article was posted on: October 14, 2011

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