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Alumna Pays Opportunity Forward Through Research and Patient Care

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Vanessa Naimoli ‘01C, ‘04G credits “little pieces of opportunity and kindness” with helping her build a successful career as both a research scientist and psychiatric nurse working to give others hope and opportunity to move forward.

Naimoli grew up in a low-income, single-parent household and came to St. John’s University through the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), which provides college opportunities for economically disadvantaged students. “If I didn’t have the chance to come here, none of what I do now would be possible,” she said. “I was given an opportunity and hope, and I want to give my nursing clients a similar message of hope.”

She attended the Staten Island campus, double-majoring in psychology and elementary education, and found that the campus’ small size allowed her to receive more individual attention from faculty members. Along with professors Carolyn Greco-Vigorito, Ph.D., and Philip Drucker, Ph.D.,  and classmates Danielle Camarda ‘01C and Suvada Durakovic ‘01C, Naimoli presented research on the “Relationships Between Hope, Parental Attachment, and Task Persistence in College Students” at the annual meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association (EPA) in Washington, D.C. in April 2001. “The Staten Island psychology faculty were extremely supportive, and my input and contributions were valued in their research,” she said.

As an undergraduate, Naimoli was also inducted into Psi Chi, the National Honor Society in Psychology, and was an active member of the Psychology Club.

After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Naimoli continued to study at SJU for her M.A. in General-Experimental Psychology on the Queens campus. She was drawn to the program because of its broad curriculum, which allowed her to hone her research skills while taking a wide variety of courses. “Research was a gateway for me, and psychology was an avenue that was flexible and could help me move into other disciplines,” said Naimoli. “I saw that the ability to think logically, critically approach problems, come up with alternative solutions, and find ways to communicate them would help me get from one place to another. I worked with faculty who encouraged using research as tool to problem solve; and research is research regardless of discipline. You always have to look at the data and make inferences.”

She found a mentor in former faculty member Alice Powers, Ph.D., and recalls working in Powers’ neuroscience laboratory on her master’s thesis in comparative neuroscience. “It was my first basic research environment,” said Naimoli, “and where I learned how to ask better questions.”

Naimoli was able to finance her graduate education at St. John’s through a non-academic graduate assistantship in the Office of Institutional Research, where she used her research skills to collect, analyze, and report important University data.

After graduation with her M.A. in 2004, Naimoli went on to a contract position conducting research on multiple sclerosis (MS) with the pharmaceutical company Sanofi.  Sanofi hired her as an Associate Scientist the following year, and in 2007, Naimoli began researching the role of sensory processing in schizophrenia and how glutamate, a key neurotransmitter, can impact the disease. Her research led to the recently-published, co-authored article, “The mGluR2 positive allosteric modulator, SAR218645, improves memory and attention deficits in translational models of cognitive symptoms associated with schizophrenia,” which appears in Scientific Reports and examines a compound that may help schizophrenia patients by targeting sensory processing defects that accompany the disease. She was promoted to Scientist in 2009 after receiving Sanofi’s “Prime Entry into Development” award for her work in behavioral pharmacology.

Naimoli continued work on other research projects at Sanofi – including innovative treatments for fibrosis and diabetic wound healing – until 2012, when she decided to explore new challenges in a new city. She moved with her family to Chicago, and started work at The University of Chicago Medicine as a clinical research specialist. Naimoli worked with oncologist Sonali M. Smith, M.D., a prominent lymphoma physician and clinical researcher, to set up a biobank to better understand lymphoma. She found that she enjoyed patient care because it allowed her to “connect the person with the disease, and have a glimpse of what it’s like to live with this disease every day.” Because of this experience, Naimoli went on to become a nurse, and earned her Master of Science in Nursing from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) in August 2016.

She also became involved with social justice in the community while in Chicago, meeting residents and collecting signatures for a South Side neighborhood that lost its only grocery store. “Poverty is everywhere,” she said. “You can’t expect people to move forward if they don’t have their basic needs met.”

Now, having returned to New York, Naimoli cares for schizophrenia patients as a nurse in the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program (CPEP) at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. She goes into patients’ homes and evaluates whether they are a danger to themselves or others, then connects them to services at a hospital or in the community. She sees patients who experience the day-to-day realities of a disease she has worked to improve as a researcher, and helps patients in crisis. “It’s taught me how resilient people are. You have no idea what patients go through until you step inside their homes.”

Naimoli has made the SJU community proud because of her commitment to excellence in research and social justice, working to offer those “little pieces of opportunity and kindness” to others the way HEOP and St. John’s faculty members offered them to her. Psychology Professor Miguel Roig, Ph. D., recalls running into Naimoli at an EPA conference after she graduated: “I remember her being so well-poised, eloquent, and in-command of the situation as she described the technical details of her study that I kept asking myself, ‘That’s Vanessa, the shy young woman that I had as a first-year student in one of my classes?’ That’s right; that was our Vanessa, and I am delighted that she continues to amaze us with her professional accomplishments.”