Visit the Ph.D. in Integrative Life Sciences page on this website to learn more about our program goals, research opportunities and applying for admission.
Director of clinical research, Keesler Air Force Base Medical Center
Ph.D. in Integrative Life Sciences, 2013
As a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Thomas Shaak, Ph.D., has bounced around the country numerous times. But with each new assignment, he always made the most of the opportunity. While stationed at Charleston Air Force Base in Charleston, South Carolina, he pursued a master’s degree in biomedical sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina. At the same time, he earned a second master’s degree in health systems online from the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey.
“Each place always took me to something new,” Shaak said.
His next position stationed him at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, where he worked on big-scale public health microbiology issues such as tracking disease outbreaks throughout the world. But a position with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, a unit of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., made a profound impression on him. There, Shaak saw veterans return from overseas deployments with compound, multiple, unhealable wounds. After witnessing the pain these injuries caused, he shifted his research focus to wound healing.
“Seeing the guys coming back with really problematic wounds and how their families were suffering had a big impact on me,” he said. “I thought if I could change that and give them a normal life, I’d really feel good about that.”
Shaak enrolled in the Ph.D. in Integrative Life Sciences program at VCU and began working with Robert F. Diegelmann, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the School of Medicine, and an expert on wound healing.
“I figured if someone could help give advice and mentor, it would be him,” Shaak said. “He’s done a lot of cool projects over the years and he’s seen everything. He had a lot of insight on the wound-healing process.”
Shaak also collaborated with Roger M. Loria, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine; Danail G. Bonchev, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in the College of Humanities and Sciences; and John Ryan, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Each helped him with a different aspect of his research, and the breadth and depth of their expertise awed Shaak.
“Having that experience level at my disposal and being able to interact with them every day was just phenomenal,” he said. “They were always available to answer my questions and to push me a little bit more. I learned constantly from the time I walked in the door until the time I left.”
Currently, Shaak serves as the director of clinical research at Keesler Air Force Base Medical Center in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he oversees all research performed at the medical center, including his own. He says the Ph.D. in Integrative Life Sciences program prepared him for his position and he uses what he learned — every day.
“The education I got at VCU was the best I’ve gotten,” Shaak said. “It was an incredible experience.”