Research standout makes his mark in College of Graduate Studies

May 17, 2022
Kareem Heslop stands at an awards site wearing a suit jacket and a smile.
Kareem Heslop, who is completing his time in the College of Graduate Studies, won the 2022 Student Bioenergeticist Award from the Biophysical Society. Photo provided

Upon meeting MUSC Ph.D. graduate candidate Kareem Heslop, it’s easy to be drawn to his warm, bright smile; confident handshake; and gentle “Yoooow” greeting. He’s Jamaican after all and genuinely spreads his carefree “irie” vibes and “everything’s all right” attitude everywhere he goes.

It has been an incredible journey for Heslop, 28, who as a young boy dreamed of doing big things and helping others. “There were a lot of people who believed in me from a young age. It provides faith whenever I feel challenged. It’s when you examine things retrospectively that you realize that all the pieces fit together in your journey,” said Heslop.

On Saturday, Heslop will join 26 doctor of philosophy candidates from the College of Graduate Studies among MUSC’s total 726 expected graduates from the Class of 2022. With this accomplishment, he achieves a lifelong dream shared not only by Heslop, but by his parents, family and friends, undergraduate friends and faculty, mentors and others along the way. 

The Jamaican way

It’s a far cry from the boy who grew up almost 2,000 miles away around Boston Bay on the northeastern end of the Caribbean island located at the base of the Blue Mountains.

At age 4, Heslop left his birth family to live with a retired couple, Edgar and Vivia Strachan and daughter Sylvia, who were from around Portland Province. Living with his adopted family, he was part of a stable and loving home. 

“My parents provided everything I needed and raised me with a strong sense of character and love. They emphasized that having a good education, respect for others and empathy are guiding lights for a fulfilling life. They also fostered an enduring connection between my birth mother, Angella, and myself,” Heslop said.

His first memory being attracted to science was watching Cartoon Network’s show, “Dexter’s Laboratory,” following the adventures of eight-year-old Dexter, a boy genius and inventor, and his secret laboratory in his room. 

Kareem Heslop with his adoptive mother Kareem Heslop. Both look happy. They are outside.
Mom Vivia Strachan with Kareem Heslop. She and husband, Edgar Strachan, helped raise Kareem from age 4. Photo provided

“I saw that whenever Dexter was in trouble, he’d always find a way to solve things. ‘To the lab!’ Dexter would say, as he went off to solve a problem in a fun unique way,” Heslop said. 

“That’s how I learned that sometimes you may not always find the answers in books. At times, you learn to hypothesize and think about how you can find a solution or make a way. In science, it’s the same thing. You may be the first person to see something and then you share it with the rest of your community to verify it. Realizing this gave me confidence to do anything,” Heslop continued.

As a student at Boston Primary and Infant in Boston Bay, he excelled in science, played cricket and other sports and was on the four-person team representing his school on Satcom Cable TV “School Challenge Quiz.” It was during one of the live quiz programs, at age 12, that he declared he wanted to be a scientist.

Heslop did everything academically to excel in high school and stayed driven to become a scientist. Heslop knew he wanted to attend college, but financially it would be difficult. It was then that he set his sights on academic scholarships.

Passport to College

Determined to succeed, he connected with a classmate who had plans to attend college in the United States. He and Heslop and two other students teamed up, sharing their experiences and resources to navigate the college scholarship process together. Each applied to about 25 schools in the U.S. Ultimately, it was Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, that offered them the best academic scholarships. The students had Claflin University liaisons Jean and Norman Harris to thank for their time, guidance and efforts. The Harrises, who are Jamaican-born, were instrumental in guiding them through the university’s admissions requirements from the visa process and standardized tests to scholarships and financial aid. 

Students in the Passport to College Program. 
Passport to College sponsor Joan Harris, from left, and Claflin University admissions director Michael Ziegler, join international students Orlando Watson, Rashshana Blackwood, Sherlene Brown and Kareem Heslop as they began classes in August 2013. Originally from Jamaica, the students were able to attend college through academic scholarships found through the program. Photo provided

The effort was so successful and the need to assist other students was so obvious that Harris and the students created the Passport to College (PTC) program, a 501 C3 nonprofit established to assist STEM students living in the Caribbean in realizing their dreams to attend college and match to scholarships at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) in the U.S. 

“This program is special to me and all of us as we all sought for a way to attend college and realize our dreams. Our journey together brought us close in friendships and support for Claflin and other students who come behind us,” Heslop said. Working with Harris, donors Montrose Myers, Laverne Campbell, and a host of other “PTC villagers,” Heslop and his friends remain active mentors sharing their time, talents, experience and financial support to this program. Currently, there are 102 students enrolled in the program. 

A passion for science

Heslop committed himself to research experiences at Claflin, Stanford University and MUSC. In 2015, he took first place and the Black Apollo Science Award for his undergraduate research at the 15th annual Dr. Ernest E. Just Science Symposium at MUSC. 

His work caught the eye of many, and he was invited by Cynthia Wright, Ph.D., associate dean for admissions and career development in the College of Graduate Studies to participate in their annual Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). SURP is a 10-week research and education-based program to enhance research skills and introduce undergraduate students to careers in biomedical research. Heslop was a student research intern working consecutive summers in the labs of John Lemasters, M.D., Ph.D., the GlaxoSmithKline Distinguished Endowed Chair; and Eduardo Maldonado, D.V.M., Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Drug Discovery and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Heslop was introduced to mitochondrial research, investigating the pharmacologic inhibition of the voltage dependent anion channel (VDAC) and searching for novel compounds with the potential to be developed as anticancer drugs. In 2017, he was invited to continue his research passion at MUSC.

Pat Woster 
Dr. Patrick Woster

For his thesis work and under Maldonado’s direct guidance, Heslop focused on the role of the mitochondrial channel as a potential aide in treating cancer. He successfully conducted his Ph.D. dissertation defense on March 8. 

“As a graduate student, you’re training to get a broad understanding of research with the idea of one day becoming a principal investigator. Eventually you learn to become more independent and bold – taking ownership of your project and doing everything to keep the project moving forward while managing priorities. I’m so glad that MUSC’s environment encourages a collaborative spirit. I felt free to go directly to others and discuss my project and needs,” said Heslop.

In particular, Heslop enjoyed positive collaborative experiences with Patrick Woster, Ph.D., professor and the SmartState® Endowed Chair in Drug Discovery. Heslop worked closely with Woster and his team, learning to identify compounds that bind to the VDAC channel and screening them in tumor cells. He also worked alongside other leading experts at MUSC, including Yuri Peterson, Ph.D.; Pieter Berger, Ph.D.; Stephen Duncan, Ph.D.; and Amandine Rovini, Ph.D. 

“In our lab, collaboration is key. It’s good for us and good for the students to learn how drugs are discovered and optimized. Kareem’s research is unique, as it offers a new approach to treating a very difficult cancer. The skillset Kareem takes with him is very important,” said Woster.

Aside from managing research, Heslop stayed busy writing grants, publishing his work, conducting research presentations at local and national conferences, and staying active as a speaker, mentor and teacher. 

In February, he presented his research and received the 2022 Student Bioenergetics Award by the Bioenergetics, Mitochondria and Metabolism subgroup of the Biophysical Society. 

What’s next for Heslop?

After graduation, Heslop will begin a post-doctoral position at Genentech in San Francisco, California. Part of the Roche Group, Genentech is a leading biotech company that is focused on the discovery, development, manufacturing and commercialization of medicines to treat patients with life-threatening conditions. He chose something that gave him options – to work as an international professional scientist in a thriving research environment or continue to work in academic research. 

Perhaps one of his mentors said it best.

“Kareem’s journey at MUSC has been unique. I’ve worked with many graduate students over the years and would easily rank Kareem among the top 5% or even better. He’s been one of our best students,” Woster said. 

Heslop was humbled by Woster’s glowing praise. “I’m always grateful for my path and motivation as well as the people who helped me along the way,” said Heslop. “Getting to this part in my life when my parents can see that I’m on a trajectory to do something good is a gift that I want to give them, especially at this time of their lives. It’s a reward we all share. I know both sides of my family are proud of me. This achievement is very personal to me. The idea that they took a chance years ago to take care of a little boy and gave him opportunities is a gift. It went far beyond what they or I could ever imagine.”