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Detroit Mercy grad Jones ReBUILDs her path to success

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June 20, 2018

Christina Jones poses for a photo at graduation.University of Detroit Mercy graduate Christina Jones tells anyone who will listen about the school’s ReBUILDetroit program and with good reason. Jones credits ReBUILDetroit with putting her on a path to success and opening up opportunities she never thought possible.

“I always say BUILD has done everything for me,” Jones said. “This wasn’t at all what I had planned for my life. I really love the BUILD program, it’s changed my life. I wouldn’t be here without it.”

Jones has had an eventful year. She graduated in May from Detroit Mercy with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. She’s currently in Maryland doing a summer internship for the National Cancer Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And she will be attending the Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry in the fall.

Not bad for someone who just a few years ago thought she wouldn’t have the resources to attend a four-year university.

“I’m so grateful for BUILD and the NIH,” Jones said. “I feel so privileged to be at the NIH this summer. I feel like the best way to pay them back is to continue to work for them.”

ReBUILDetroit — a program funded through NIH grants--is dedicated to fueling the academic renaissance of Detroit by establishing the city as the center for biomedical research training for underrepresented undergraduate students.

The ReBUILDetroit program began in 2015 and recently had its first graduating class, of which Jones was a part.

ReBUILDetroit and Detroit Mercy provided Jones with a scholarship to attend school and paid her a monthly stipend for conducting research, which allowed her to live independently and not have to work full time.

Jones didn’t take a typical path to a degree, but she credits ReBUILDetroit with giving her the resources to take chances and succeed.

The long route

Jones’ path to BUILD started while she was attending a local community college. She reached out to a Microbiology professor for a letter of recommendation for dental hygiene school.

The professor, Eric Bertram, agreed to write the letter, but also told Jones he was writing her a letter of recommendation for the ReBUILDetroit program and urged her to apply. Jones, figuring she had nothing to lose, applied to ReBUILDetroit and was accepted.

She chose to give the program a shot, instead of attending dental hygiene school.

ReBUILDetroit began as a consortium of four schools with Detroit Mercy as the lead investigator. Jones’ community college dropped out of the BUILD program, but Detroit Mercy quickly stepped in and worked with Jones to keep her in it.

“Detroit Mercy was really open,” Jones said. “They told me, ‘If you would still like to be a BUILD scholar, we’ll welcome you here. We’re going to make some changes and we’ll accept you.’ I was relieved and they got me started on research right away.”

Jones didn’t expect to be at a four-year university when she graduated high school in 2012. Due to personal issues and having to work full time, she took a few semesters off between 2012 and 2014.

“I made some poor personal decisions,” Jones said. “I graduated when I was still 17 so I moved out before I turned 18. I was living with a boyfriend and I decided I wasn’t going to college right away. I started community college in January of 2013, but then took the semester off because of personal issues and because I was working.

“I was pretty mad at myself, so I decided to enroll in the summer 2014 semester to make up for the time that I lost. I went from living with one terrible boyfriend to another, then I got into BUILD and I was able to live by myself.”

The BUILD program allowed Jones to support herself by paying her a stipend for engaging in research. In addition, the program provides her a scholarship to attend Detroit Mercy.

“After that first semester they have covered everything so I haven’t had to take out additional loans,” Jones said. “On top of that, they pay me a monthly stipend for my research work which has allowed me to live independently. I couldn’t afford to go a school like Detroit Mercy if I didn’t have BUILD. I couldn’t afford to do all the course work and everything that they require for the program.

“When I was at the community college, I was working full-time. There was no way I could continue doing that here. They want to make sure you can keep up with your studies and don’t have to worry about working.”

Once Jones was able to support herself, she started to excel in the classroom and with her research. She did research at Detroit Mercy Dental, which helped her reaffirm that she wanted to go to dental school.

“I always ask myself, ‘How did I get here?’ It blows my mind,” Jones said. “This is not how I saw myself. I don’t think I had the best support system at home. I was always just the smart kid and they were always proud of me, but they didn’t push me in any kind of direction. They didn’t give me that kind of support I think I needed, but I eventually got it through my professors and Detroit Mercy.”

Doing the research

Christina Jones points to her poster as she explain her research at a conference.When Jones arrived at Detroit Mercy, she was introduced to ReBUILDetroit Student Success Coordinator Kathleen Walker, who would become a mentor.

“I think Kathleen is bridging that gap for me as far as family support because, yes, my parents are proud of me, but they don’t understand how hard it is,” Jones said. “They are like, ‘Yeah, good job.’ But Kathleen can see how much work I have to put into it and all the research I have to do, and that I’m mentoring these other students. She’s able to give me pep talks and keep me going.

“The first semester I came over here, I had weekly meetings with her. I loved them. I felt like I needed it. It could be a vent session or whatever I needed it to be. I don’t get that from my parents. We have an okay relationship, but as far as my academic life, I kind of keep them separate.”

Jones enjoyed her research, but was more interested in the dental field than biology or any of the original research positions available for BUILD. So Walker reached out to Detroit Mercy Dental and found a research project for Jones to work on.

“That’s how I got paired with Dr. Eric Krukonis,” Jones said. “He’s been great, he’s the best research mentor I could have asked for. When I first met him, I just thought everything he said was over my head. He’s just so smart and was coming at me with all this information. It was just a, ‘Fake it, till I make it,’ kind of thing. Now, I love it.

“It’s still fun to tell people I work with the plague. Even though it doesn’t relate directly to the Dental School, I still got to make a lot of connections by being at the Dental School and it really made me feel like this is where I want to be.”

Jones’ work in the lab helped her build confidence and with the encouragement of her co-workers she presented her work at the Midwest Microbial Pathogenesis Conference.

“I really like my entire lab, they know how to have fun and still work,” Jones said. “They took me to a conference and helped me be calm about it. I was one of the only undergrad students who presented my work. Everybody came up to me and was like, ‘I’m so impressed by you. You did such a great job.’ I think that sent me over the edge. I finally felt like, ‘I can do this. I do like research and I guess I’m good at it.’ ”

ReBUILDetroit also allowed Jones to take on a mentoring role for incoming students. Jones mentored BUILD students Edwin Jurado and Lizbeth Garcia.

“I think it’s probably the most important thing I do in the BUILD program,” Jones said. “I didn’t want to do it at all at first. I’m glad they kind of forced me to. I ended up with two students, most people only had one. It’s been a blessing to me to have them. I just feel so invested in their lives.

“I try to tell them all the things that I wish someone had told me. And I try to push them, tell them, ‘I know what you’re going through. I know how hard this is. You’re going to get through it, you’re going to be fine.’ It’s not just a professional relationship, they are some of my closest friends.”

Jurado enjoyed his time with Jones and credits her for keeping him motivated to succeed.

“When I first met Christina, I thought that she was going to be someone I had to meet with once a week to discuss how school was going,” Jurado said. “I did not expect to develop a mentorship that transcended the academics. Christina became my mom away from home. She would text me to make sure I studied and was being productive.

“She’s a strong and independent woman in science who has faced many challenges and obstacles to get where she is. I’m proud of the person she has become and the future dentist she will be.”

Being a student at Detroit Mercy also had lasting effects on Jones away from lab and the classroom. Jones didn’t consider herself a religious person when she came to Detroit Mercy, but found herself drawn to the mission of Detroit Mercy.

“I came from a public school and my family wasn’t very religious so coming here was kind of a shock to me,” Jones said. “I felt like the University never pushed religion on me and I think that was a good thing. I enjoyed that religion was something that was open, you never got to talk about it in a public school setting. I’ve definitely become more religious since I’ve been here. I feel more of a sense of responsibility for the community and just people in general. I feel so blessed to be here that I want to try to help other people. I think Detroit Mercy has helped develop me, not just as a student and a researcher, but also as a person.”

The future

Christina Jones poses for a photo in front of the National Cancer Institute building.Jones is currently in Maryland as part of her internship with the National Cancer Institute.

During her first trip to the NIH headquarters for her interview, Jones admitted she was honored to even make it that far as one of the 18 finalists for a position.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I was one of the 18? This is great. I don’t even care if I get in, this is exciting to me,’ ” Jones said. “I met a lot of really interesting people there too. The whole time I was there I felt, ‘I don’t know why they picked me, but thank you.’ They gave me a tour of the NIH, I had my interview process, we talked to a student alumni board, there was a keynote speaker, just different things like that. It was really fun, really busy.”

Jones met Dr. Vance Berger during her interview process and will be working with him this summer.

“It’s really different than what I’ve been doing,” Jones said. “At the Dental School I work in a wet lab and I do experiments. This is a dry lab. I believe the National Cancer Institute is the only place within the NIH where it’s all dry labs. I’ll be looking at meta-analyses studies of randomized clinical trials and looking critically at the methods section to assess the quality of the trials.

“Dr. Berger is so passionate. I remember him saying, ‘These are clinical trials and there are people’s lives at stake. Researchers must be held to a higher standard.’ He used to work for the FDA so he was telling me horror stories about that. It’s going to be an interesting summer.”

After her internship is over, Jones will return to Detroit to begin her four years in Dental School. She knows it’s going to be an adjustment, but feels ReBUILDetroit has prepared her for it.

“Yeah, dental school’s going to be challenging, but I feel like BUILD has been challenging so I’m used to not having any time,” Jones said. “I’ve dedicated my whole life to BUILD. I eat, sleep and breath BUILD. I think it helped me become a scientist and a professional. It helped me have professional relationships and be better with networking. I don’t think I would be in dental school if I wasn’t doing my research over there.”

Jones said she considered a specialty like orthodontics, but she fell in love with extractions. After dental school, she is keeping her options open, but she knows part of her wants to continue doing research.

“I would like to continue and do a Ph.D. after dental school,” Jones said. “BUILD continues to change my career goals. I want to be doing something in research and I want to work with underserved communities. I don’t know if BUILD made me feel that about underserved communities or Detroit Mercy did. I really like how we’re involved with people and I really feel like we care so I want to be a part of that.”

For more information on the ReBUILDetroit program please visit http://rebuildetroit.org.

— By Dave Pemberton. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.

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