Tajh Ferguson, ’10, couldn’t be more excited about her post-graduation plans. This summer she will begin a one-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) Academy fellowship in Washington, D.C., where she will research health-care disparities. Ferguson credited the variety of experiences afforded her at the University of Richmond with giving her the competitive edge she needed to land such a prestigious fellowship.

Ferguson, a biology major, medical-humanities minor, and Oliver Hill Scholar, entered college with the intention of pursuing a career in medicine. She got off to a good start by attending the University’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Pre-Freshman Research Program, a summer program designed to introduce incoming first-year students to state-of-the-art scientific research.

“I didn’t know how my educational background would compare to the educational background of U.S. students,” Ferguson said in her lilting Bahamian accent. “This pre-matriculation experience really helped prepare me for research at UR.”

It also introduced her to Dr. Craig Kinsley, professor of psychology, who led Ferguson and other students in neuroscience research on the maternal brain. Ferguson has continued working with Kinsley in the research lab throughout her four years at the University and completed 10-week summer research programs under his direction after her freshman and sophomore years.

Several community-based-learning (CBL) courses added another dimension to Ferguson’s pre-med credentials. As a junior, she took two CBL courses — "Biochemistry" with Jon Dattelbaum and "Spanish in the Community" with Carlos Valencia. For the first she had to find a community placement where she could learn about the biochemistry of patients. For the second she needed to work with Spanish-speaking people.

She met both requirements by serving at CrossOver Health Clinic. The nonprofit offers a full continuum of health-care services to the uninsured, including many Hispanic patients.

“The fact that I knew Spanish and science gave me the upper hand in getting patient interaction,” Ferguson said. While most volunteers staffed the phone and filed paperwork, Ferguson often served as a translator for patients during their medical examinations and performed basic patient-care functions.

The summer after her junior year Ferguson and other students in Dr. Rick Mayes’ Global Health, U.S. Health Care Policy, and Politics course worked in an orphanage and clinic near Cusco, Peru. “This opened my eyes to world-health issues,” Ferguson said. “Many people living in Peru don’t experience the same quality of life I have.”

In addition to this CBL work, Ferguson also tutored for two years at an inner-city elementary school through Build It, the University’s largest civic-engagement initiative, before serving as the Build It student liaison to Rubicon during her senior year.  

Rubicon treats many indigent and low-income patients with substance-abuse and mental-health problems. "Through my experience at Rubicon, I learned not to judge people," Ferguson said. "Everyone has a story."

Ferguson was awarded an NIH Academy fellowship to work in a National Human Genome Research Institute laboratory following her graduation in May 2010. She will spend a year researching the genetics of Gaucher’s disease and its link to Parkinson’s disease. She plans to attend medical school the following year.

Her University of Richmond education has prepared her well. “I have not only a research background,” she said, “but also a human-experience background. As a physician, you need to understand the human side of health care.

“The University of Richmond is not a one-dimensional school — it creates multi-dimensional graduates. UR gave me the opportunity to push myself beyond what I thought was possible. I’m so grateful.”