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Recent Grad Lands Prestigious National Institutes of Health Fellowship

By June 29, 2016Alumni
Abdiel Badillo and Dr. Jeffrey Plunkett in the zebrafish lab

A world-class research facility, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has awarded recent St. Thomas University (STU) graduate, Abdiel Badillo, 21, a competitive research training award.

In a few weeks, Abdiel will be moving to Washington D.C. for an opportunity of a lifetime – a fellowship with NIH. The NIH Postbaccalaureate Intermural Research Training Award (Postbac IRTA) program provides recent college graduates who are planning to apply to graduate or professional school an opportunity to spend one or two years performing full-time research. Postbac IRTAs work side-by-side with some of the leading scientists in the world.

Acceptance into NIH programs is very competitive. Last year, out of more than 15,000 applicants only 4 percent were accepted into the program.
Abdiel, a biology major, spent months preparing his application to NIH, and he says it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of STU.

“St. Thomas has been preparing me for this since the moment I walked on campus,” he said. “When I started at STU, I barely knew English and I had no research experience, but thanks to my amazing professors and their willingness to help I overcame every obstacle that stood in my way.”

Knowing he wanted to be involved in research, he took Dr. Jeffrey Plunkett’s Biology 101 class his freshmen year – something they both look back on and laugh about.

“I completely bombed his first exam, and felt lost in a research lab – I started questioning my ability to succeed in the field,” Abdiel said. “But then I spoke to Dr. Plunkett, and he told me to ‘push forward, study more – go above and beyond what is required to succeed.’ And that’s exactly what I did.”
As a result he earned an A in biology, a summer internship in Plunkett’s lab, and a lifelong mentor.

Over the course of three years Plunkett has witnessed Abdiel grow in the research lab, and has mentored him every step of the way.

“He’s like a son to me,” Plunkett said beaming with pride.

Building relationships with professors and administrators during your undergrad years is extremely important in any field. Accessibility to his STU professors was key to his NIH fellowship.

“I definitely wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this without the help of St. Thomas,” Abdiel said. “NIH asks for so many things within a short period of time, so the ability to call my professors or walk into their offices and ask them for help, or to write a letter, or anything has definitely been a gift.”

NIH interviews can be nerve racking, but for Abdiel it was like any other day in the lab. His time in the lab gave him a competitive edge over applicants from bigger, more prestigious schools.

“The interviews were easy, they asked about procedures and topics that Dr. Plunkett and I talk about every day,” he said. “My undergraduate research experience was definitely one of the reasons I got this fellowship. I was up against students from Ivy League schools, but during my interview, the mention of doing research for more than three years caught their attention.”

At STU, Abdiel’s research focused on zebrafish, which can regenerate their spinal cord following injury, manipulating their stem cells to observe the mechanisms of spinal cord repair in the species.

His advice for undergrads: “Make the most out of your time at STU and the opportunities available to you! Being at a small school has a lot of advantages. Seize the opportunities – establish meaningful relationships with professors, pick their brain, ask for advice – and make the most out of your time here.”

For the following year, and possibly two years if he decides to stay longer, Abdiel will be researching stem cell approaches in psychiatry at NIH. Afterwards, he has his mind set on completing a doctorate’s degree in neuroscience.

For more information on undergraduate research opportunities, visit

Marlen Lebish

Author Marlen Lebish

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