Photos of seven new grad students

A Musician, a Marine Helicopter Pilot, & a Non-Profit Founder

by Michelle Bookless

Every semester, the University of Vermont and the UVM Larner College of Medicine welcome a large number of graduate students who seek Ph.D. and Master's degrees in a variety of programs. With them, they bring a diverse wealth of talents, skills, interests, and backgrounds that will not only help them and their colleagues grow into well-rounded scientists, public health experts, and researchers, but contribute to their future career successes as well.

We recently sat down with a few of them (via Zoom) to see why they chose to pursue their Master's and Ph.D. degrees, what made them choose their programs and UVM, and what they're most excited about over the next few years.

To meet more of UVM and the College's new graduate students, visit the College's Instagram account @uvmmedicine, where you can watch video interviews with Vooha Putalapattu, Paola E. Peña Garcia, Chol Dhoor, and Janet Guelmes.

Chol Dhoor sitting at his desk in his home office

Chol Dhoor

Master's of Public Health Program

Originally from the Republic of South Sudan, Chol Dhoor moved to Vermont 13 years ago and graduated as a McNair Scholar from the University of Vermont with a bachelor's degree in Economics and Global Studies in 2011. He is now pursuing a Master's of Public Health degree at UVM.

In addition to reading, Dhoor can be found engaging in community development and service projects. Dhoor serves as an advisory board member for the City of Burlington's Community Development Block Grant, and is also a trustee at the Fletcher Free Library and a board member at Spectrum Youth and Family Services. In 2016 Dhoor founded the Sudanese Foundation of Vermont Inc., an organization which provides college scholarships, mentoring programs, job searching, summer camps, and additional services to the Sudanese community in Vermont. "I like to be a part of anything that makes the future a little brighter for those who believe in it," he says. 

After nine years working in health care, Dhoor has a profound appreciate for the collaborative community structures needed to make a difference in peoples' day-to-day lives. His resolve to learn more about disease management, epidemiology, population health, health policy, and promotion of general well-being to those who seek quality and affordable health care was further strengthened by the events of this year. This year "has proven the power of science to manage [a] global pandemic," says Dhoor. "Personally, I believe now is the moment to...listen to the best minds in public health and medicine to save us from this virus."

Dhoor says he ultimately chose UVM to pursue his Master's degree not only because it feels like home, but because of the caliber of the faculty from whom he'll be learning. "The University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine is one of the finest institutions in the nation," says Dhoor. "I know the professors who are currently teaching me...are the leading experts and practitioners in their fields and have years of experience to give me the tools I need to succeed, not only in the program but in everything I plan to do thereafter."

As he begins his studies over the next few weeks, Dhoor says that he's most excited about the diversity of his classmates. "Some of my classmates are doctors [or] Ph.D. candidates and others are taking this program as their second Master's. The program brings such a richness into one place," says he says, adding "I'm really excited about what is ahead to learn."

Shannon Prior

Cellular, Molecular, & Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. Program

A lifelong Vermonter, Shannon Prior received her bachelor's degree in biochemistry from the University of Vermont in 2014. After graduating, she worked in the lab of Kenneth Mann, Ph.D., now an emeriti faculty member, for three years before transitioning to the UVM Cancer Center, where she's been working as a clinical research coordinator since 2017.

She says that her decision to pursue a Ph.D. in Cellular, Molecular, and Biomedical Sciences grew from the insights she gained about the molecular mechanisms that drive cancer and cancer therapies while working for the Center. Now, she's working to enhance that knowledge so that she can eventually become a cancer researcher.  In particular, Prior is interested in exploring the epigenetic regulation of cancer and is looking forward to collaborating with her peers and faculty at the University and the College. "It's exciting to get a chance to work with various investigators and groups who can bring their expertise to the table so we can work in a collaborative way to achieve a similar goal," says Prior. "I really believe this is what leads to well-rounded, comprehensive research."

In addition to pursuing a Ph.D. degree, Prior is excited to be raising her first child, Aiden, who was born six months ago. She is a self-proclaimed snowboard addict and gluten-free foodie and says she "feels grateful to have this community during a time of such uncertainty and unrest."

Shannon Prior poses next to a research poster
Harly Rodriguez poses outside in a graduation cap and gown

Harly Rodriguez

Master's of Medical Science Program

Originally from Bronx, New York, Harly Rodriguez received a bachelor's degree in neuroscience from Syracuse University. After graduation, he explored several different career paths including medicine, high school teaching, and community organizing. Eventually, Rodriguez decided to enroll in the Master's of Medical Science program at UVM and plans on applying to medical school to pursue a career in family medicine and psychiatry.

Rodriguez co-founded the Bronx Community Health Leaders (BxCHL) at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a pre-health pipeline program that helps underrepresented minorities get into health professions. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City he worked as a medical scribe and medical assistant at an urgent care facility.

Through his future studies, Rodriguez is particularly interested in exploring "how mental health treatment is given to people of color," and says his background will aid him in doing so. "As a Latino from the Bronx, I come from an underrepresented minority background, which I know will set me up to help Spanish-speaking patients and patients of other backgrounds that experience health inequities," he says.

Rodriguez chose the program at UVM not only because of the committed faculty and staff but because he sees the quality of life in Vermont as conducive to effective learning. He was additionally encouraged by UVM and the College's work to increase diversity and inclusion within its student body. 

An identical twin, Rodriguez enjoys exploring the outdoors, playing soccer and basketball, and bike riding. Recently, he's started learning how to farm from his new housemates in South Burlington.

Paola E. Peña Garcia

Cellular, Molecular, & Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. Program

Paola E. Peña Garcia is from Puerto Rico and recently graduated from the University of Puerto Rico with a bachelor's degree in cellular & molecular biology. She is now pursuing a Ph.D. degree in Cellular, Molecular, & Biomedical Sciences (CMB) at UVM.

Peña Garcia attended a specialized school from seventh to twelve grade where she intensively studied music along with her other subjects. During college, Peña Garcia's self-proclaimed stage fright led her to seek out a different passion and she found her calling in science. It was a research opportunity during her undergraduate degree that led to her discovery of biomedical sciences and, she says, eventually cemented her decision to pursue a Ph.D. and career in research.

Peña Garcia is particularly interested in lung immunobiology, inflammatory processes, and, overall, learning more about the cellular and molecular mechanisms of disease.

She says she chose the CMB program at UVM because of the strong sense of community she encountered when she first visited. "The atmosphere is very collaborative and the people I met during my interviews were kind and genuinely interested in helping me make the best decision for my future," says Peña Garcia. She describes seeing Burlington for the first time as "love at first sight."

A gifted musician, Peña Garcia plays the piano and ukulele and loves to sing karaoke.

Paola E. Peña Garcia poses outside in graduation cap and gown
Tyler McGuire poses in front of barnboard wall

Tyler McGuire

Master's of Public Health Program

From New Haven, Vermont, Tyler McGuire has a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and recently completed the pre-med post-baccalaureate program at the University of Vermont.

After years serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, McGuire is beginning to transition from life as a marine officer and helicopter pilot to a career in medicine. The next step in his journey - completing the Master's of Public Health (MPH) program UVM. He says his goal is to become a physician who "thinks about healthcare on the large scale while being able to engage with patients at a personal level." "I want to work on creating mechanisms that provide the best health outcome for the members of our community who are at the greatest risk of being marginalized and under served," he adds.

McGuire chose the MPH program at UVM for a variety of reasons including theprogram's high rating, it's experienced faculty, and it's location - he's a born and raised Vermonter. He's also thankful for the program's online structure, given the COVID-19 restrictions affecting in-person programs. Over the course of his studies, McGuire looks forward to learning about epidemiology and gaining a better understanding of the U.S. healthcare system.

While pursuing his degree, McGuire continues to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces as a reservist in the Vermont Army National Guard and finds conversations about healthcare mixed with geopolitics fascinating. As a Vermonter, he's also a fan of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, particularly the flavor "Tonight Dough."