From Dexter’s Laboratory to Maldonado’s Laboratory

Grace Milauskas
May 03, 2022
Kareem Heslop 
Kareem Heslop, Ph.D.

As a child growing up in Boston Bay, Jamaica, Kareem Heslop, Ph.D., had the ambition to become a scientist, although he had never met such a person. It is strange, but as we grow up, we find people and things to emulate; think of any child running around with a red cape, "I am Superman!" For Kareem, the equivalent was the character Dexter in Dexter's Laboratory that he used to watch as a kid.

"I enjoyed watching the animation Dexter's Laboratory. As a child, it struck me that whenever there was an issue, Dexter, the scientist in the cartoon, would always retreat ‘To the lab!’ to come up with novel, innovative ways to solve even his most perplexing questions," said Heslop.

Kareem's journey began with the Passport to College Foundation, which identifies international students with an aptitude for STEM. He obtained his bachelor's degree in biology with a minor in chemistry and studio art while attending Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

"I wanted to become a scientist because the laboratory is a place where I could explore my curiosity while adding to our wider body of knowledge on the way to positively impacting human life. Is there anything cooler than being the first to make an observation and share it with everybody or to come up with an invention and have others benefit from it?" said Heslop.

His journey continued when he joined the Ph.D. program at the Medical University of South Carolina. During his time at Claflin University, he was mentored by Dr. Omar Bagasra, who was working on natural products to target mitochondria in cancer. Bagasra's work fueled Heslop's interest in mitochondrial biology. Mitochondria are elegant organelles, and most people know of their role in energy production in the body in the form of ATP.

However, mitochondria play many additional roles in cell signaling and the overall health of a cell. Heslop joined the lab of Dr. Eduardo Maldonado for his dissertation research to expand his understanding of this organelle. His research focused on an outer mitochondrial membrane named the Voltage-Dependent Anion Channel (VDAC), which regulates mitochondrial bioenergetics and has been implicated in cancer progression and various metabolic diseases. His success in this work recently earned him the Student Bioenergeticist Award from the National Biophysical Society. In addition, his work has implications for the development of cancer therapeutics that target mitochondria.

Heslop recently defended his Ph.D. dissertation and will formally receive his degree in May at commencement. This summer, he will be joining the prestigious postdoctoral program at Genentech.

We asked Kareem to share some of his thoughts about science and his MUSC experiences.

What drives your commitment to science?

The possibility to contribute to health care outcomes in a novel and meaningful way. There is no feeling better than working on research projects that have the potential impact lives in a positive way.

How has your experience at MUSC and the College of Graduate Studies impacted your approach to science and opportunities for the future?

Collaboration is key to success in research. The environment at MUSC and within CGS has been very supportive of my work and career projection.

What advice you would give to current students?

Take a proactive approach to your learning and research work. Have clear milestones and at the very least an abstract view of your career path and immediate next steps after graduation. Have fun with your learning.

Going forward, what things do you think MUSC and CGS should be focusing on for the future?

Stronger recruitment efforts for diverse faculty and students.