When Dainelle Allen ’18 came to Cornell, she was positive she would take the traditional pre-med track, become a doctor, and set up a practice. Allen, who was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica and moved to Brooklyn, New York as a young girl, always had a strong interest and natural skill in the sciences. At her high school, Brooklyn Tech, Allen took classes with a focus on chemistry and biology.
Despite her talents, it was Allen’s mother who pushed her to apply to Cornell, as Allen did not believe she could get into the program. “My mom put it simply. She said you won’t lose anything by just applying. The day I got the electronic acceptance, I was in line inside a McDonald’s. I called my mom right there, and she started screaming through the phone,” Allen laughs.
Aspirations: How Medical Research Upstages Medical Practice
Allen made her Cornell debut as a biological sciences major with a minor in inequality studies before switching to a biology and society major. She had convinced herself, as many young pre-meds do, that her sole goal was to become a doctor. “I had never done research, and I just figured that I would go to medical school after Cornell, which is what most pre-med students end up doing.”
This all changed when Allen was accepted into the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program in the fall of her sophomore year. Through the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, the prestigious scholarship helps underrepresented students become involved in research and prepares them for doctoral studies. Along with the program’s focus on guiding students toward a doctorate, Allen explains that they host professional workshops in research presentation and proposal writing, and hold networking sessions—connecting students to research facilities and helping them prepare graduate school application materials.
“Things have really changed for me. Because of the research I’ve been able to do, I now want to do an MD-PhD, which is a pretty significant change to my original plan,” says Allen on her choice to extend her education. The MD-PhD is a total of seven to eight years in school—the first two in medical school, two or three devoted to PhD work, then a return to medical school followed by a residency.
One of the people on the McNair advisory board helped Allen connect with her current faculty mentor, Kathleen Rasmussen, Nutritional Sciences, the Nancy Schlegel Meinig Professor of Maternal and Child Nutrition. “We met, and I learned about Dr. Rasmussen’s journey and extensive academic work. I knew that I was interested in diseases that affect the population, especially mothers in third world countries and their babies, so we clicked,” says Allen. Rasmussen then connected Allen with Sarah Reyes, her graduate student who is working on breast milk contamination. “Really, what better way is there to start studying diet-related diseases that affect Caribbean populations, than with breast milk?” asks Allen.
The Breast Milk Contamination Study
Allen worked as a research assistant to Sarah Reyes during the summer of 2017 on a study to look at the recommendations given to mothers about the storage and handling of breast milk and how the advice holds up in real life conditions. Allen’s part in the study focused on data collection.
“Sarah would go to homes of women, collect milk, and bring samples back. I would make the serial dilutions—undiluted and three other dilutions—and plate them on four different types of media to look at bacteria counts. I also took pictures for the archive and recorded data. I honestly never thought I’d become so interested in breast milk; but it can be a lot more complex than an initial thought might suggest,” explains Allen.
The work was rewarding but relentless. “I was in the lab every day of the week this past summer . I’d come in at 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning and leave at 9:00 at night. But I developed a love for it, which I could not have predicted,” says Allen.
“I was in the lab every day of the week this past summer . I’d come in at 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning and leave at 9:00 at night.”
One memorable moment occurred when Allen printed out a poster based on the preliminary data for a research conference at the University of Buffalo during the summer of 2017. “It’s one thing to see the data on a spreadsheet and an entirely different thing to see it on a poster. To me, it’s a more tangible representation of the work you’re doing,” says Allen.
As Allen continues her undergraduate research in the lab, she looks back on her summer research. “It was definitely a rewarding experience, working in a lab during the summer. To actually be able to see the scientific process progress with your own eyes is an almost indescribable feeling. We have gotten some very promising results from our preliminary data, and we are close to the end of our study. I really cannot wait to see the results after all the data has been analysed,” says Allen.
Choosing a Career in International Nutrition
Due to her summer research, Allen wants to take her knowledge and apply it in the future to combat diseases that affect Caribbean populations. “Some of the diseases in those populations are lifestyle related, and I want to study how cultural diet is connected to those diseases. I’d love to apply my knowledge to help improve overall health of this population in the future. The research I’m currently involved in has been a great introduction, and I am excited to move on to the next stage of my career in pursuit of that goal,” says Allen.
Allen wants her MD-PhD to have a focus on Caribbean countries and the diseases that affect that population. Her dream job, for now at least, would be in international nutrition. “I want to work in a lab and have patients in America but have a practice in Jamaica as well,” says Allen.
Allen’s advice to anyone considering research is simply to do it, especially if you’re on the fence.
“Two years ago, I’d never thought I’d be in a lab studying breast milk contamination. Now that I’m in it, it’s actually really interesting. Everyone can find what is interesting to them, but you actually have to try,” stresses Allen.