Alumna conducts HIV vaccine research at NIH

January 20, 2021
Summer internship in Tanzanian hospital leads to NIH research, medical school

Her Jepson internship in a Tanzanian hospital working with HIV patients the summer after her junior year was life-changing, said Leland Damron, ’18. “There was such a stigma associated with AIDS,” she said. “The doctors hardly ever said the word—they used a code name for HIV. Patients didn’t want to take their HIV medication because of the stigma.” The experience solidified her resolve to pursue a career in healthcare.

Following her graduation from University of Richmond, where she majored in leadership studies and followed a pre-med track, Damron joined the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health. She received a Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award to support her NIH work.

“HIV remains a big issue globally,” Damron said. “The greatest barrier to developing a vaccine is that the virus mutates rapidly. I studied samples from a South African patient who was infected with HIV for several years before she started anti-retroviral therapy. Her body had developed broadly neutralizing antibodies to fight HIV before she started treatment.

“Researchers are working to develop a vaccine that can teach the body to make these kinds of antibodies that recognize and block HIV without infecting the patient with the virus. Similarly, induction of antibodies is a major goal behind the COVID-19 vaccines.”

In fact, the scientists researching HIV vaccines helped develop the COVID-19 vaccines in record time, Damron said.

“COVID-19 is way different from HIV in that it doesn’t mutate nearly as rapidly, making it possible to create an effective vaccine quickly,” she said. “A lot of principles discovered in HIV research are also being applied to developing vaccines for Ebola, Zika, malaria, flu, and other pathogens. Developing a universal, one-time vaccine for the flu is now considered attainable.”

Damron said her Jepson School of Leadership Studies education prepared her well for her work at the Vaccine Research Center. “It was applicable to my teamwork in the lab and my ability to receive and give constructive criticism. I learned a lot about public speaking at Jepson that helped me with the regular presentations I gave on my research.”

In addition to her HIV vaccine research, Damron volunteered on weekends administering rapid HIV testing in southeast Washington, D.C. “I learned how to hold someone’s hand and talk to them during really challenging moments,” she said. “Jepson taught me the importance of having empathy and understanding.”

After almost two years at the Vaccine Research Center, Damron matriculated at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia this July.

“My NIH work has given me a huge leg up in medical school,” she said. “I learned so much about immunology, how to analyze data, and how to construct good research questions.

“I also learned perseverance at NIH. I’d think I was going down the right path with my research, only to find that my hypotheses didn’t pan out. John Mascola, the director of the Vaccine Research Center and the head of my lab, often said you can learn more from failures than from successes. He has been working on HIV research for years and is optimistic about developing an HIV vaccine.”

Damron said she has not settled on a medical specialty yet, but is considering oncology, cardiology, anesthesiology, and infectious diseases and plans to do some medical mission work in the future. Meanwhile, she recently began volunteering as a patient advocate at a Philadelphia homeless shelter.

“I make sure the shelter clients have primary-care physicians, insurance, and all the resources they need to be healthy.”

Read a related article about Leland Damron's Jepson internship at a Tanzanian hospital.