Graduate Students

Learn from National Research Experts

We are shaping the next generation of leaders in medical research. Each year, we accept new students to perform their graduate research at Sanford Research through applications to the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University.

Academic and research benefits

  • Train with national research leaders with expertise in vast disciplines including biochemistry, cellular biology, developmental biology, neuroscience, genetics and more
  • Complete three laboratory rotations during your first year before selecting a thesis advisor
  • Complete elective courses on-site at Sanford Research
  • Explore a variety of science careers through career development workshops; past topics have included biotech, pharmaceutical industry, undergraduate teaching, clinical laboratory directing, science policy and technology transfer
  • Engage in K-12 outreach activities through Sanford PROMISE
  • Host and learn from prominent guest speakers; past speakers have included Nobel laureates and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigators
  • Learn in our 300,000-square-foot facility with over 200 research employees, state-of-the-art equipment and a 130,000-square-foot open collaborative space

Location benefits
As a Sanford Research graduate student, you’ll get to live in Sioux Falls, SD – a city that is small enough to nurture Midwest values, but big enough to offer an abundance of dining, shopping and entertainment options. With sporting events, theater, concerts and a vibrant night life, there’s something for everyone. This “big small town” also is within driving distance of USD and SDSU.

Graduate Opportunities

Basic Biomedical Sciences Program (PhD)

You will learn in the classroom and laboratory – participating in laboratory investigations, developing original research, pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate education and more. With the Basic Biomedical Sciences Program, you will work alongside our researchers as you further our understanding of human disease and translate that knowledge into novel approaches for diagnosis, treatment and therapeutics.


Physician Scientist Program (MD/PhD)

Collaboration between researchers and doctors has led to the most extraordinary advancements in medicine, and the Physician Scientist Program allows graduate students to gain experience as both. By blending the two disciplines of MD and PhD, you will perform translational research and develop a unique integration of skills that prepare you for a physician scientist career.


Biochemistry Program (PhD)

The skills needed to pursue a cutting-edge career await graduate students in the Biochemistry Program. Besides developing a solid biochemistry foundation, you will gain hands-on experience in a variety of learning formats to develop your laboratory skills. Through your research projects, you have the opportunity to understand human diseases and translate basic science findings into clinical treatments that impact patient care.


Our Program Mentors

Cancer Biology & Immunotherapies

Pilar De La Puente, PhD

Pilar De La Puente is an assistant scientist in the Cancer Biology and Immunotherapies Group at Sanford Research. She received her BSc in biology and master’s in animal medicine and surgery with a focus on biomedical engineering (BME) from University of Leon (Spain). During her PhD, she received a fellowship to perform research at the University of Salamanca and Tissue Bank San Francisco Clinic Foundation in Spain with a focus on tissue engineering. After being awarded her PhD, she continued her postdoctoral training in cancer biology at Washington University in Saint Louis School of Medicine in the laboratory of Dr. Azab, developing tissue-engineered cancer pre-clinical models and investigating localized drug delivery systems for hematological malignancies including multiple myeloma, lymphoma and breast cancer. In June 2018, she joined Sanford Research. Her lab’s interests are focused on the role of tumor microenvironment (TME) in cancer progression, drug resistance and cancer immunology.

Learn more about the De La Puente Lab.

Keith Miskimins, PhD

Dr. Keith Miskimins is a scientist in the Cancer Biology and Immunotherapies group at Sanford Research. He is the PI on the NIH funded Cancer Biology Research Center of Biomedical Research Excellence. His research focus is the protein inhibitor of cell cycle progression that is commonly down-regulated in cancer cells. He holds a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Wyoming, and earned his master’s degree in genetics and doctoral degree in cell and developmental biology from the University of Arizona. He also completed post-doctoral training in cell and developmental biology at the University of Arizona and biology at Yale University.

Learn more about the Miskimins Lab.

Steve Powell, MD

Steven Powell, MD, is a practicing medical oncologist and a physician scientist. His laboratory focuses on integrating novel immunotherapies into the management of head and neck cancer and concurrently developing predictive biomarkers. His primary goal is to comprehend how to best incorporate immunotherapy into the management of locally advanced and metastatic head and neck cancer.

Dr. Powell’s research has led to novel strategies to use immune checkpoint inhibitors in combination with chemotherapy and radiation to augment anti-tumor response. Additionally, his work has evaluated biomarkers of immune response. As a clinician, Dr. Powell seeks to bring what he finds in the lab to clinical trials, to directly impact patient care.

Learn more about the Powell Lab.

Chad Spanos, MD

Dr. Chad Spanos is an assistant scientist in the Cancer Biology and Immunotherapies Group at Sanford Research. He is also a head and neck surgeon at Sanford Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic and an assistant professor in the department of surgery at the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine. His lab focuses on head and neck squamous cell cancer (HNSCC), specifically the incidence of a subset of HNSCC caused by the human papillomavirus, which is increasing rapidly. Dr. Spanos holds an MD from the University of Louisville Medical School, completed his residency in otolaryngology at the University of Iowa and served as a fellow at the University of South Florida.

Learn more about the Spanos Lab.

Jianning Tao, PhD

Dr. Jianning Tao received his doctor of philosophy degree in biochemistry/developmental biology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, TN, where he performed his dissertation work in the laboratory of Dr. John Cunningham at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Subsequently, Dr. Tao performed postgraduate work in the laboratory of Dr. Brendan Lee and Dr. Dennis Roop at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX, in the departments of Molecular and Human Genetics and Molecular and Cell Biology, first as a postdoctoral fellow and then as an assistant professor. Currently he is a principal investigator and primary faculty member in Cancer Biology and Immunotherapies group at Sanford Research and an assistant professor at the Department of Pediatrics of the University of South Dakota School of Medicine.

Learn more about the Tao Lab.

Paola Vermeer, PhD

Dr. Paola Vermeer obtained her BA in biology from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, in 1991, her PhD from Columbia University in New York City, NY, in 1998. She did a post-doctoral research fellowship at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Iowa with Dr. Michael J. Welsh. She stayed on as a research scientist with Dr. Welsh and then Dr. Joseph Zaber until 2008 when she joined the Cancer Biology Research Center at Sanford Research, Sioux Falls, SD.

Learn more about the Vermeer Lab.

Cellular Therapies & Stem Cell Biology

Kevin Francis, PhD

Dr. Kevin Francis received his bachelor’s in biology from Marshall University, a master’s in anatomy from the University of Georgia and a doctorate in neuropathology from the Medical University of South Carolina in 2009. He completed his postdoctoral training at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the laboratories of Heiner Westphal and Denny Porter (NICHD). There, Dr. Francis developed induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) models of pediatric disorders of cholesterol synthesis and metabolism, including Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome and Niemann-Pick disease, Type C1. In 2015, Dr. Francis joined the faculty of Sanford Research, where he continues to use patient-derived iPSCs as a tool for modeling rare pediatric disease and identification of targets for therapeutic intervention.

Learn more about the Francis Lab.

Enabling Technologies

Indra Chandrasekar, PhD

Indra Chandrasekar obtained her master’s degree from Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, India. Her passion for cell biology took her to cytoskeletal research pioneer Dr. Brigitte M. Jockusch’s Lab in Germany, where she received training in basic cell biology concepts and techniques. After receiving her PhD (Dr.rer.nat) degree from Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany, she moved to the U.S. Dr. Chandrasekar performed a short postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of renowned actin biologist Dr. John Cooper at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to continue her training in cytoskeletal research. After a baby break, she joined the lab of Dr. Paul Bridgman, an expert cellular neurobiologist and EM specialist at Washington University, where she received training in neuronal cytoskeleton, mouse models and advanced microscopy techniques. She is currently an assistant scientist in the Enabling Technologies Group at Sanford Research, establishing her lab that will study membrane trafficking in vertebrate systems.

Learn more about the Chandrasekar Lab.

Kyle Roux, PhD

Kyle Roux received his BS in Biological anthropology/human biology at Emory University in 1998, and his PhD in neuroscience at the University of Florida College of Medicine in 2004. Subsequently, Kyle performed postgraduate work at the University of Florida College of Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, first as a postdoctoral associate and then as a research assistant professor. Currently he is a faculty member in the Sanford Enabling Technologies Group and principal investigator in the Roux Lab.

Learn more about the Roux Lab.

Environmental Influence on Health & Disease

Michelle Baack, MD

Dr. Michelle Baack obtained her BS in pharmacy from South Dakota State University (SDSU) in 1991, her MD from the University of South Dakota-School of Medicine (USD) in 1995, and her pediatric residency training from the University of Nebraska Medical Center-Creighton Joint Pediatric Residency Program in 1999. She practiced as a general pediatrician in rural South Dakota for 10 years and later returned to academics to obtain her fellowship in neonatal and perinatal medicine at the University of Iowa in 2008. She completed her neonatology training in 2011 and joined Sanford as a physician – scientist. She is board certified in pediatrics and neonatal and perinatal medicine. She is a clinical neonatologist at Sanford Children’s Hospital; an assistant professor through the Sanford School of Medicine of the University of South Dakota; a principal investigator at the Sanford School of Medicine of the University of South Dakota; and a principal investigator in Sanford Research’s Environmental Influences on Health and Disease Group in Sioux Falls, SD.

Learn more about the Baack Lab.

Peter Vitiello, PhD

Peter Vitiello has been researching molecular responses to oxidative stress for 15 years and is interested in understanding how atmospheric chemicals influence lung development and disease. After graduating from Lafayette College with a Bachelor of Science in biology, he obtained a PhD in toxicology in the Department of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. Peter continued as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. Currently, he is an assistant scientist in the Environmental Influences on Health and Disease Group and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine.

Learn more about the Vitiello Lab.

Genetics & Genomics

Randy Faustino, PhD

Randy Faustino made the move to South Dakota and joined Sanford Research in 2016, where his lab is focused on exploring the role of nuclear biology in pluripotency and cardiac development. Before joining Sanford, Dr. Faustino earned his BSc (microbiology) from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. He stayed on at the U of M, and began graduate studies under the mentorship of Dr. Grant Pierce, where he studied the role of nuclear transport in smooth muscle cell biology and its role in atherosclerosis. After being awarded his PhD in physiology, he continued his postdoctoral training in cardiac development, transcriptome analysis and stem cell biology at Mayo Clinic in the laboratory of Dr. Andre Terzic. His lab’s interests are focused on the potential epigenomic functions of nucleoporins in controlling stem cell and cardiac biology, as well as characterizing the systems biology impacts of nucleoporin mutations in development and disease.

Learn more about the Faustino Lab.

Mike Kareta, PhD

Mike Kareta is an associate scientist in the Genetics and Genomics Group at Sanford Research. He earned his bachelor of science in molecular and cellular biology at Texas A&M University where in the lab of Dr. Flora Katz he investigated the role of Abelson in the development of retinal neurons is Drosophila. He earned his PhD in the lab of Dr. Frédéric Chédin at the University of California, Davis where he investigated the biochemical mechanisms which underlie DNA Methyltransferase (DNMT) function. He then completed his postdoctoral studies at Stanford university in the labs of Drs. Julien Sage and Marius Wernig. It was at Stanford that he utilized iPS reprogramming to investigate Rb function and identified Sox2 as a key player in tumor formation. In September 2016 he joined Sanford Research.

Learn more about the Kareta Lab.

Pediatrics & Rare Diseases

Jill Weimer, PhD

Jill is an associate scientist in the pediatrics and Rare Diseases Group and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the Sanford School of Medicine at USD. Before joining the Pediatrics and Rare Disease team at Sanford, Dr. Weimer completed a BS and PhD in neuroscience at the University of Rochester and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in the Neuroscience Center.

Learn more about the Weimer Lab.

Lance Lee, PhD

Principal Investigator Lance Lee obtained his bachelor of science in biochemistry from Boston College in 1995, his MS in genetics from the University of Connecticut in 1997, and his Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology from Stony Brook University in 2004. He then did a postdoctoral fellowship at Children’s Hospital Boston/Harvard Medical School, where he studied genetic causes of primary ciliary dyskinesia in mouse models. He is currently a faculty member in the Pediatric and Rare Diseases Group at Sanford Research, where he oversees the research projects in the Lee Lab with ongoing interests in cilia biology and primary ciliary dyskinesia genetics.

Learn more about the Lee Lab.

LJ Pilaz

Dr. LJ Pilaz received his PhD in Lyon, France, and then moved to the United States where he trained as a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Duke University. He studies the cellular and molecular mechanisms that regulate the development of the cerebral cortex and how their disruption can lead to neurodevelopmental diseases such as autism and microcephaly.

Learn more about the Pilaz Lab.

Kamesh Surendran, PhD

Kamesh is an associate scientist in the Pediatric and Rare Diseases Group at Sanford Research, and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the Sanford School of Medicine, University of South Dakota. He has been involved in studying the Wnt, TGF/BMP, and Notch signaling pathways, three evolutionarily conserved signaling pathways, in various aspects of kidney development and disease during his doctoral thesis and post-doctoral work at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis. His current research interests are: (i) to understand the cellular and molecular abnormalities that result in childhood cystic kidney diseases and (ii) to determine the molecular regulators of cell fate patterning in the collecting ducts of the kidney.

Learn more about the Surendran Lab.

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