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Class of 2024: Former VCU men’s golfer preparing for Ph.D. program – VCU News

When Sachin Kumar Kempelingaiah arrived in the US in 2017, his goal was to become a professional golfer. A native of the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago, Kempelingaiah came to VCU on a golf scholarship and rarely missed a tournament while earning bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and biology from the College of Humanities and Sciences. But when a back injury during his senior year derailed his athletic career, he leaned on his other passion: science.

“I played a few more tournaments here and there, but it just wasn’t at the level I could perform at before,” Kempelingaiah said. “I realized I couldn’t go professional at this point, so I decided I had to do something different.”

That “something else” became graduate school. Kempelingaiah will graduate from the School of Medicine in May 2024 with a master’s degree in biochemistry, and he is excited to continue under the mentorship of Can E. Senkal, Ph.D., as he begins work on his Ph.D.

Same drive, new grass

As a student, Kempelingaiah learned about autophagy, the process by which a cell breaks down and destroys old, damaged or abnormal proteins and other substances in its cytoplasm. Wanting to learn more, he connected with Senkal, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and volunteered in his laboratory on the MCV Campus for about a year.

Together with Senkal and a graduate student, Kempelingaiah learned more about cellular mechanisms and how a research lab works. Using cancer models, Senkal and his team study the cellular roles, metabolism and regulation of sphingolipids, lipid signaling molecules that tell cells whether or not to reproduce. The goal is to identify cancer-specific dependencies in the sphingolipid metabolic network and develop mechanism-driven therapies for cancer.

The environment of Senkal’s laboratory inspired Kempelingaiah to apply for the MS program, and he officially joined his mentor’s laboratory. His dissertation investigated the involvement of sphingolipids in ferroptosis, an intracellular iron-dependent form of cell death, within cancer models.

“I’m excited to have the opportunity to learn and discover in the lab, and maybe even be part of testing something new,” Kempelingaiah said. “And I really learned at an exponential pace in this graduate program.”

Kempelingaiah is grateful for the opportunity to remain at the School of Medicine for his doctorate, where he will dig deeper into his sphingolipid research and continue to nurture the relationships he built at VCU.

“VCU is quite well known for their sphingolipid research, and I wanted to continue to be a part of that research because there are a lot of interesting things happening in the field,” Kempelingaiah said.

A photo of a man swinging a golf club as the grass flies up around him.
As a student, Sachin Kumar Kempelingaiah played competitively on the VCU men’s golf team. (Thanks photo)

‘A team player’

Kempelingaiah attributes much of his success as a graduate student to the work ethic he developed through playing golf, noting the years of training and dedication to the sport it takes to be successful.

“I think this is the same in the laboratory environment,” Kempelingaiah said. “You don’t always get the results you hope for, so you have to do your best to really understand what you’re trying to do and keep trying.”

Senkal echoed that sentiment. He noted other transferable skills, such as Kempelingaiah’s attention to detail, that are especially critical in science.

“I think the skills he practiced in his golf game really help him in research,” Senkal said. “In the laboratory, he is persistent, friendly and always willing to help others. He is a team player.”

As for his lifelong passion, Kempelingaiah will always be a golfer. He still plays occasionally, with less back pain after a few years of not pushing himself as hard.

“I take it much easier when I’m on the course,” he said. “And I’m still looking forward to it.”

This story was originally published on the VCU School of Medicine news site.