Pierre defies the odds

Son of Haitian immigrants pursuing studies towards PhD in biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University

Valinteshley Pierre grew up with the knowledge that his family was far from wealthy – in fact, they weren’t even considered middle class. His parents, Haitian immigrants, did not shield him or his sister from the struggles they endured before arriving in The Bahamas, and of not always having food to eat, or the opportunity to further their studies past to the level they would have liked because of poverty. But still valuing education, they took advantage of every opportunity to ensure their children received the best they could give them.

Valinteshley’s father, a custodian/groundsman at St. Augustine’s College (SAC), and his wife took advantage of a school policy that allows children of staff to attend the private school free of charge.

“They would say that even though we don’t have much, one thing we can ensure is that you all get the best education possible,” said Valinteshley.

Today, Valinteshley, 23, who was born in The Bahamas, is a doctorate degree candidate studying biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, with a May 2024 anticipated graduation date.

He is currently researching changes in the mechanical environment of the heart in certain diseases.

“For example, one of the projects that I’m working on has to do with diabetes. In diabetic patients, one of the main causes of death is cardiovascular complications, and so we want to understand what exactly is happening – not just at the cellular level, but mechanically as well. How is the heart changing shape? How is it becoming stiffer? And then how is that affecting the patient as a whole that will lead to these different cardiac complications? Also, investigating different treatment therapies for patients that suffer from heart attacks that lead to cardiac infarction, where you have all this scar tissue around the heart which affects the way the heart functions.”

Valinteshley’s interest in research is one he has had since childhood.

“Growing up, without even knowing it, I’ve always been interested in how things work. I used to take computers and radios apart, and a lot of times they got messed up because of it. I was always trying to think of something new. I feel that, that has been brewing in me all along, and now it’s just something much bigger – not just technology, but how the body works and things like that. When I figure out something, it brings me a lot of satisfaction, and it also brings a lot of questions. And the more questions, the more you discover. And for me, knowledge is everything. Knowledge is power.”

Valinteshley said the drive to know the unknown motivates him.

“Also, something else that pushes me is I feel like I didn’t have control over [many] things in my life growing up. I didn’t have control over how wealthy I was. The only thing I had control over was how much I knew. So, I told myself, ‘I can’t be poor and dumb at the same time. I have to pick a struggle. I can study hard, and I can work hard and I can actually become smart’.

“People may say I’m smart, I personally don’t think I’m smart. I feel like I have to work harder than everyone else to understand something so simple. But when I have a good fundamental understanding of something then I’m able to build from there. Me being the way I am now is me taking control of my life,” he said.

“[My parents] didn’t always have food to eat. They didn’t have the opportunity to further their education. Despite the condition of [the] education system in Haiti, education is very highly valued, and so that’s something I believe they retained when they migrated.”

Valinteshley’s path to success is one that has shown him finding a way to circumvent any and all “obstacles” placed in front of him.

Valinteshley attended Uriah McPhee Primary School before being accepted into SAC, where he matriculated for six years.

“Going to a pretty famous private high school, I felt what they call ‘imposter syndrome’ – like I didn’t belong there … like I wasn’t smart enough to be there and kids that were there were way above my level. I started with that mindset, but the way the education system is set up [at SAC], it is set up in such a way that helped those that weren’t on par with the top students.”

Valinteshley finished his first year at SAC with a 3.15 grade point average (GPA); he struggled with math and received a D grade on his first report card. That was the last time he got a D grade in math.

“As years went by, I could see improvements with what I learned and what I knew. There was pretty healthy competition among students [and] everyone was willing to help in terms of classmates. There were teachers that were absolutely amazing. I feel like SAC really set me up for success.”

Valinteshley graduated SAC in 2014 with a 3.95 GPA, along with two A grades in Advanced Placement (AP) math.

With the knowledge that he alone had control over his life moving forward, not going to college was not an option. But of course, he had to overcome “roadblocks” put in his way to get there.

His initial attempt to attend college in the United States was blocked when he was denied a student visa as he did not have proper documentation. He was forced to remain at home for a year as he worked to secure Bahamian documentation and was finally able to secure a student visa.

SAC guidance counselors, Marici Thompson and Stephan Walkin were also heavily invested in the teen’s future. They introduced him to a recruiter from Florida Polytechnic University (FPU). Through the recruiter, Valinteshley was able to receive a full scholarship to attend FPU. His parents were responsible for room and board, and he said they made the sacrifice to ensure he was supported in that arena.

“That year I took off, I felt like I was being held back – not by anyone in particular,” recalled Valinteshley. “I worked so hard in SAC to make sure that I got good grades. When I actually had the chance to go off to college, I went in there with momentum – with a determination that I wanted to be the best. I went in with that mentality and I did pretty well. Because it was a small university, there was a very close relationship between student and faculty. In freshman year, I was able to get a mentor. I worked with him doing research. As the years went by, I got more mentors.”

He graduated FPU with a 3.66 GPA and the knowledge that he wanted to pursue a graduate degree, even though he wasn’t exactly certain what course of study he would undertake.

One of his mentors encouraged him to pursue biomedical engineering.

“Mechanical engineering is very broad, so I had to narrow [it down]. I wasn’t always a fan of biology, but I looked into it and I saw how a lot of mechanical engineering principles could be added to biology. Also, I looked for summer research internships that I had a chance of getting.”

He applied to research internships at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science in Minnesota, and John’s Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland. He was offered both; he decided to do his research at John’s Hopkins.

“At first, I started looking at universities based on their prestige – Ivy League Schools. But as I spoke more with my mentors, I realized that it’s more important to look for particular advisors doing particular research. Because when you write your statement of purpose, it’s always good to be specific about who you want to work with and what type of research you see yourself doing.”

Because of his interest in the cardiovascular system, he looked for professors that were doing cardiovascular tissue engineering.

“I found my professor [Dr. Sam Senyo] who is now my advisor. I saw the research he was doing and I was interested in it. And so, I actually reached out to a bunch of faculty before I applied to the schools. It gets pretty pricey, especially when you have to send in GRE [Graduate Record Examinations) scores and pay application fees; so I wanted to apply to schools that I thought I had a chance of getting into. I sent emails, had Skype interviews, and based on how those interactions went, I applied to those universities.”

Valinteshley applied to five schools. After inviting him to tour the school, Case Western Reserve University was the only one to accept him into their PhD program.

“The good thing about STEM PhD programs is that they’re usually fully funded, so when you get accepted, everything is covered for you.”

Valinteshley has presented research he has participated in at the Florida Academy of Sciences Conference, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the American Chemical Society.

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Shavaughn Moss

Shavaughn Moss joined The Nassau Guardian as a sports reporter in 1989. She was later promoted to sports editor. Shavaughn covered every major athletic championship from the CARIFTA to Central American and Caribbean Championships through to World Championships and Olympics. Shavaughn was appointed as the Lifestyles Editor a few years later.

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