Stephanie Osei
Faculty have guided Stephanie Osei from one research opportunity to the next on her journey toward her goal of becoming a doctor who can help young people understand the importance of health from an early age. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Real research: Stephanie Osei pursues passion for medicine in the classroom and the lab

Osei has been working in a lab that studies why patients with cystic fibrosis have been less likely to acquire COVID-19.

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As part of Research Weeks (April 14–May 1) we are highlighting the work of some of VCU’s 2020-21 Undergraduate Research Fellows. Research Weeks, which is taking place virtually this year, features a wide variety of projects in multiple disciplines from across the university.

Growing up in Ghana, Stephanie Osei knew many people who did not receive the medical care they needed. Most of them had not been educated about the importance of routine health care, and consequently they rarely pursued it. Those people included not only her friends but her grandmother, who died of what Osei believes was undiagnosed throat cancer. “They didn’t tell us what it was,” Osei said. “But if she’d had regular checkups, they would have known about it and she could have been treated.” 

As a result of those experiences, Osei said, she has had a passion for medicine and a desire to become a physician since she was a child. She saw a career as a doctor as a way to prevent more people from growing sick and dying because they did not get the medical attention they needed. When Osei arrived at Virginia Commonwealth University, she discovered how to take that passion a step further and explore the ways she could help as a medical researcher. 

“I learned that I didn’t want to just diagnose diseases,” Osei said. “I also wanted to find out what was causing the diseases that people were suffering from so we could find new possibilities for how to treat them and to figure out how to help them get better.”

Soon after Osei’s family moved to the United States five years ago, she enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College. She studied there for two years before transferring to VCU. Osei elected to major in bioinformatics with a concentration in biological and genomics sciences in VCU Life Sciences. She received immediate encouragement from adviser and teacher Allison Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity, who taught Osei about phages, which are a type of virus that infect bacteria and other one-cell organisms, in a way that Osei found particularly inspiring. 

“She made it very fun and exciting,” Osei said.

Johnson led Osei to Sarah Golding, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of undergraduate research in the Department of Biology. Eventually, Osei joined the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development Scholars Program, which provides research training in the biomedical sciences for individuals from groups traditionally underrepresented in biomedical research. The program has provided Osei with invaluable tuition support and avenues to participate in ongoing research.

“It has opened a lot of doors for me,” Osei said. “Being at VCU and conducting research here has been a great opportunity.”

Osei has worked in the lab of Judith A. Voynow, M.D., a professor in the School of Medicine, whose research focuses on pediatric pulmonology. Most recently, Osei contributed to a study that investigated patients with cystic fibrosis, a chronic respiratory disease, and their apparent protection from acquiring COVID-19.

The researchers hypothesized that in addition to public health measures like social distancing, differences in the patients’ airways prevented SARS-CoV2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, from binding to their lung cells. Research involved taking samples of sputum, a mixture of saliva and mucus from the respiratory tract, from 10 subjects with cystic fibrosis. Findings from the study will help inform future research on the topic.

“I love working in the lab, and I love research,” Osei said. “I love working with a hypothesis and making discoveries. I believe that conducting research helps you build independent thinking, and it helps you learn to communicate. It’s taught me a lot.” 

After she graduates in December, Osei plans to attend medical school and become a pediatrician. She believes she can make the greatest impact as a doctor by working with children and putting them on a path of wellness when they are young, influencing their choices and their understanding of how to be healthy.

“I want to work with young people because I think that’s the best way to prepare them for a good future,” she said. “When you start when you’re young — when you learn to be healthy — it can make a big difference for you.”

Osei is determined to continue as a researcher, too, seeing it as playing a vital part in her overarching career goal.

“Research is so important,” she said. “Without it, we wouldn’t be able to help patients nearly as much, and it’s very important to me that I do everything that I can to help them.”