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Lula native headed to Harvard Medical School
West Hall graduate works in clinical research
Lula native Sally Justus works as a research assistant and clinical coordinator in a genetics laboratory operated by Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

Boston and New York City are a long way from Lula, Ga. in so many ways — population, pace of life, and things to do on a Friday night, just to name a few.

But those cities are where Sally Justus has found herself since her 2011 graduation from West Hall High School.

The trek north began for Justus as an undergraduate at Harvard University in Boston, where she earned a degree in neuroscience and a citation in Mandarin Chinese in 2015.

She then moved to Manhattan near the United Nations and has worked for two years as a research assistant and clinical coordinator in a Columbia University Medical Center genetics lab. It didn’t take her long to notice another significant difference between her hometown and the Big Apple.

“Living in midtown Manhattan is really expensive,” she said in a phone interview this week.

Next month Justus will complete her work in NYC and return to Boston as a first-year student at Harvard Medical School.

“I did have a really great undergraduate experience,” she said. “I want to be the best doctor I can be and I think the education at Harvard will help me with that. I’m not going to be the smartest person in the room, but that’s not a bad thing.”

Justus said she believes her work in lab at Columbia has made her better prepared for medical school and a future as a doctor.

The lab she works in looks at genetics in connection to ophthalmology. 

“We’re looking at eye conditions that are usually inherited, usually lead to blindness and usually are untreatable,” she said. “We’re trying to better understand these conditions and to hopefully develop something that could help in the treatment of the condition.”

Her role as a research assistant has her taking data from experiments and synthesizing the data “into a digestible form that’s compelling for journals.”

As a clinical coordinator, Justus works directly with the patients.

“There are two buzzwords right now — precision medicine and translational medicine,” she said. “I really get to be right there at the intersection. I work as a research assistant and (see) these treatments being developed at the bench in the lab, and then I walk over to the clinic and (see) it translated in the patient. I can tell you, there’s nothing more rewarding than ... being at the intersection of both.

“Sometimes I think if you’re just doing bench science, it’s really hard to see the fruits of your labor,” she added. “For me, it’s been so fulfilling and really inspiring as a future doctor. I’m really inspired by my patients and by my fellow colleagues who are doing the research and what can be accomplished when you come together for a united  goal in terms of trying to improve people’s health and their quality of life.”

The lab where Justus works has a drug in its development stages targeting an eye condition called Stargardt.

“It’s a really rare, blinding condition where all the central vision is lost first and then you move out to the peripheral image” she said. “It’s extremely debilitating and my heart really does go out to our patients.”

As she reflects on her successes, she said she is grateful for those who have helped her along the way, adding that she recently reached out to some of her West Hall teachers on Facebook to thank them for what she had learned from them.

“Even to this day, the preparation they gave me has come in handy, not only in my current work, but even in college,” she said.

Justus said she hasn’t decided what area to specialize in while in medical school, but is considering mental health, neurology, and ophthalmology among others. She also hasn’t decided where she wants to end up once she starts practicing medicine.

Could she return to Georgia?

“There’s a possibility. We’ll see,” she said. “My family is in Georgia, all of my childhood was in Georgia. I would be open to returning and serving my own community.”

And the rent would be much cheaper than Manhattan.