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$350K in scholarships helps a young man realize his dreams

Vanderbilt School of Medicine student Byron Knowles is a member of a team that believes it has found the possible cure for a rare intestinal childhood disease
  • Byron Knowles with his certificate, after he had fulfilled the prescribed requirements by the Medical Scientist Training Program at Vanderbilt School of Medicine.

  • Byron Knowles at work in his lab at Vanderbilt School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.

Guardian Lifestyles Editor

Published: Oct 24, 2012

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Byron Knowles is the product of a single parent home, where he said there wasn’t a whole lot of money floating around, but he said it was a home with a mother at the helm who stressed the importance of an education to her children. Today he’s in a dual degree program, matriculating towards an MD and PhD degree program at Vanderbilt School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. He’s now a third year graduate student who has funded his education so far to date with approximately $350,000 in scholarship money.

Even more exciting, is the fact that this young man is a part of a team that believes it has found the possible cure for a childhood disease  — Microvillus Inclusion Disease — a rare intestinal disorder. When children with the disease are born, they develop chronic diarrhea and almost always die unless they get complete bowel transplants essentially.

Knowles, 26, is working on the project with his Yale-educated professor, Dr. James Goldenring, along with Joseph Roland, Moorthy Krishnan, Lynne Lapierre, and Mitchell Shub.

“What we’ve been working on is making models of the disease, both in cell lines and mouse models, and recently we discovered a few pathways that actually show us that we can cure this disease by giving the right medication,” said Knowles who is excited about their findings. “So we’re actually waiting for some patients to present themselves, and we’re actually going to try this out hopefully within the next couple of months,” said Knowles.

He’s one of those Bahamian students that is making waves in education and doing great things — having worked at top labs with Nobel Prize winners and been involved in groundbreaking research.

“As a student I’ve gotten a chance to work with a lot of brilliant professors and teachers in the clinics and in labs,” said the former Nassau Christian Academy (NCA) student, who graduated from the institution with honors and earned a diploma with a science concentration.

For him, getting an education means everything. Its importance was “hammered home” to him and his brother Brenric from an early age by their educator mother, Brenda Knowles, who also taught at NCA — even though he said he had to grow into his own understanding of the importance of an education.

“My mom has always been the biggest push in my education, and has always been the voice that said “You can do better.” Whenever I think about my mom, I think about going home after getting a 97 on a test … I was like mom, nobody did better than me on this test and she would say, ‘Oh you did okay, but I do remember paying them 100 percent of my money.’ She’s always pushed me to do more and want more,” said Knowles.

The turnaround

He owns up to having been a slacker early on in high school, and not having participated as much as he should have. The medical student said he got good grades, but really just didn’t put in any extra effort. Everything clicked for him in ninth grade when he realized what he wanted to do in life, and came to the realization that in order for him to achieve his goals he needed a good education.

“Around that time I kind of switched a lot of things. I started doing Junior Achievement and ended up being president of my Junior Achievement group, and then vice-president of the Achievers Association and along with that I was doing Gentleman’s Club, so it kind of motivated me to do more and try to want more out of life. I knew I wanted what I wanted, and I knew the only way to get there was through an education.”

Knowles couldn’t even get away with speaking in Bahamian dialect at home.

“It just did not happen. It was like no, I’m paying way too much money. You’d better speak the proper language of the queen, or else we’re going to have a problem.’ And that’s kind of how it’s always been with my mom. So kind of growing up with that, we [my brother and I] always had a strong work ethic when it came to school. But for me I was always kind of intelligent and smart, so it didn’t take that much effort for me. And not until I actually realized that I wanted to do more with my life in the ninth grade that I really started working a lot harder.”

Knowles did his undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry with a minor in Mathematics at Dillard University in New Orleans. He graduated Summa Cum Laude with a 3.952 grade point average.

A shift in focus

At the beginning of his collegiate career, Knowles said he was really interested in research, because he liked the idea of finding new knowledge and wanted to do things that were applicable to human diseases. His mentors steered him to the M.D. PhD route. Up to last year he thought he was going to work as infectious diseases doctor because he liked the idea of working with viruses and trying to find cures for them. A bout with hypertension that left him hospitalized changed his focus. He’s now focused on cardiology.

“I think there’s a great need, especially for people of color, because there’s a big disparity in terms of hypertension and chronic heart diseases among black people and other races as well. Last year around this time, I always thought I was going to be an infectious diseases doctor, because I really like the idea of working with viruses and trying to find cures for them, but last year around this time I actually ended up in hospital with a bout of hypertension and I hadn’t realized how much of a factor just being of African descent in general could actually play in hypertension and other cardiac illnesses, so that kind of pushed me in that direction,” he said.

After he’s finished his cardiology fellowship, Knowles said he plans to return to The Bahamas. He wants to do his part to help make Bahamian people healthier.

His dreams are well on their way to becoming reality.

While he had dreams, he said his goal would have been more difficult to achieve if he hadn’t been the recipient of scholarships. He cast his net wide and applied for scholarships wherever he could. Knowles was a recipient of the Doctors Hospital Dr. Meyer Rassin Foundation Scholarship; Dillard University Wallace Coulter Scholarship; Archdeacon William Thompson Scholarship; Bahamas Supermarket Scholarship and Dillard University Merit Scholarship.

“My education has all been scholarships. I applied broadly. Without the scholarships it would have been so tough,” he acknowledged. “But Bahamians in general wherever they go, they always shine, and part of it is the way we were brought up ... the manners we have for other people and it’s also just our drive and determination. And with those it’s kind of hard not to succeed,” he said.

Like his mother stressed to him, Knowles said he can’t understate the importance of education to high school children.

“I really can’t understate the importance of education, especially for people like me that came from single parent homes, didn’t have a whole lot of money. The only way to kind of succeed in life with that kind of background is to have a good education, no matter what you’re trying to do. Even if your talent is in athletics, you really have to have the [education] to back it up, because you can really end up going down the wrong path, even if you’re the most talented person in the world. So having a good education as your foundation is kind of the beginning. And most people back home grow up in single parent homes, but as long as you have a mom or dad that pushes you, it shouldn’t be a hindrance.”

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