Graduate Student Spotlight: Tamra Blue Carries on the Family Legacy

For 38 years, Tamra Blue’s grandmother worked in food service at Emory so that her daughter, Tamra’s mother, could attend school here. So, when the time came for Tamra to apply to graduate school, Emory was at the top of her list. When she got her offer of admission, she remembers thinking, “I got into Emory. Emory University! That’s amazing!” And even though she had offers from several other universities, Emory had something that the others didn’t: Legacy. In fact, Tamra was so sure that she wanted to come here that she accepted her offer before recruitment weekend had even begun!

Tamra, her mother, her grandmother, and her aunt.

Tamra grew up in Lithonia, about half an hour’s drive from campus. She attended Georgia State for her undergraduate studies where she originally planned on studying biology. “While doing my biology degree, I had to take the equivalent of getting a minor in chemistry,” says Tamra. “I realized I really like chemistry.” She then began tutoring and teaching chemistry to other students, doing research in a chemistry lab, and falling even more in love with the subject. These experiences convinced her to go ahead with changing her major, and she never looked back.

In the lab of Dr. Suazette Reid Mooring, Tamra worked on synthesizing small-molecule CXCR4 antagonists. CXCR4 has been linked to breast cancer metastasis through a process whereby the CXCR4 transports cancerous cells around the body in pursuit of its high-affinity ligand, CXCL12. She used a metaphor to explain that the process of CXCR4-mediated metastasis is similar to a man driving his car to meet his wife, but with a serial killer in the trunk! “One of the ways we found to stop this or slow down this process is by making it so that CXCR4 has a higher affinity toward some other molecule,” she explains. “And we make that molecule.” Emory once again intersecting Tamra’s path, the molecules synthesized in the Reid Mooring lab are screened here at Emory in collaboration with Dr. Hyunsuk Shim in the Department of Radiation Oncology.

Tamra and her grandmother at her graduation.

The enthusiasm with which Tamra explains her research highlights not only her love for the subject, but also her passion for teaching. Her goal, after earning her PhD, is to get a job at a four year college where she can teach and mentor students. She remembers learning a statistic about the significant decline in mental health of individuals pursuing advanced degrees and is hoping to use her own degree to become a valuable resource for those people.

Her desire to interact with and help others extends even beyond the realm of teaching. “I just like talking to people!” she says as she explains how she hopes that she can improve someone’s day with something as simple as a smile. In fact, meeting new people is one of the things she is most excited about when she thinks about starting at Emory. “This is a whole different environment from Georgia State,” says Tamra. “Not only do I get to meet some really cool people, but I also get to do some really awesome research.”

Even though she had already accepted her offer to come to Emory, Tamra still took the opportunity to visit the campus for recruitment weekend. She spent the weekend learning all about the diverse research projects going on in the department and meeting as many students and faculty as she could. She particularly liked the faculty trading cards and explained they how were a fun little souvenir that also gave her a chance to really get to know some of the faculty on a more personal level.

Tamra and her mother.

Recruitment weekend only added to Tamra’s already overflowing excitement to follow in her family’s footsteps as a member of the Emory community. “I can’t wait to start discovering something and seeing something new,” says Tamra. Her adventure will kick off this May when she joins the Heemstra Group for a summer rotation. Until then, Tamra is going to keep working,  spending time with her family, and “being ‘weird’ because that’s my normal.”