Meet Jennifer Doudna

Jennifer Doudna
Credit: Jennifer Doudna
Jennifer Doudna
Fields: Biochemistry and structural biology
Studies: New genome editing tool called CRISPR
Works at: University of California, Berkeley
Raised in: Hilo, Hawaii
Studied at: Pomona College, Harvard University
Recent honors: Winner of the Lurie Prize in the Biomedical Sciences Exit icon, an annual award that recognizes outstanding achievement by promising scientists age 52 or younger
If she couldn’t be a scientist, she’d like to be: A papaya farmer or an architect

Jennifer Doudna likes to get her hands dirty. Literally. When she’s not in her laboratory, she can often be found amid glossy green leaves and brightly colored fruit in her Berkeley garden. She recently harvested her first three strawberry guavas.

Coaxing tropical fruit plants from her childhood home in Hawaii to grow in Northern California is more than just a hobby—it’s an intellectual challenge.

“I like solving puzzles, I like the process of figuring things out, and I enjoy working with my hands,” says Doudna. “Those things were what really drew me to science in the beginning.”

Since she was a graduate student, Doudna’s professional puzzle has been RNA, a type of genetic material inside our cells. Recently, there has been an explosion of discoveries about the many roles RNA molecules play in the body. Doudna’s work probes into how RNA molecules work, what 3-D shapes they form and how their structures drive their functions.

“I’ve been fascinated by understanding RNA at a mechanistic level,” Doudna says.

While teasing out answers to these fundamental questions, Doudna’s lab has played a leading role in a discovery that is upending the field of genetic engineering, with exciting implications for human health.

Her Findings

The discovery started with bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria, just like the common cold infects humans. About 10 years ago, researchers using high-powered computing to sift through bacterial genomes began to find mysterious repetitive gene sequences that matched those from viruses known to infect the bacteria. The researchers named these sequences “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” or CRISPRs for short.

Over the next few years, scientists came to understand that these CRISPR sequences are part of something not previously thought to exist—an adaptive bacterial immune system, which remembers viruses fought off before and raises a response to fight them when exposed again. CRISPRs were this immune system’s reference library, holding records of viral exposure.

Somehow, bacteria with a CRISPR-based immune system (there are three types now known to scientists) use these records to command certain proteins to recognize and chop up DNA from returning viruses.

Wanting to know more about this process, Doudna’s team picked one protein in a CRISPR-based defense system to study. This protein, called Cas9, had been identified by other researchers as being essential for protection against viral invasion.

To their delight, Doudna’s group had hit the jackpot. Cas9 turned out to be the system’s scalpel. Once CRISPR identifies a DNA sequence from the invading virus, Cas9 slices the sequence out of the viral genome, destroying the virus’s ability to copy itself.

Doudna’s lab and their European collaborators also identified the other key components of the CRISPR-Cas9 system—two RNA molecules that guide Cas9 to the piece of viral DNA identified by CRISPR.

Even more importantly, the researchers showed that the two guide RNAs could be manipulated in the lab to create a tool that both recognizes any specified DNA sequence and carries Cas9 there to make its cut.

“That was really where we made the connection between the basic, curiosity-driven research that we were doing and recognizing that we had in our hands something that could be a very powerful technology for genome editing,” remembers Doudna.

She was right. After publication of their 2012 paper, the field of CRISPR-guided genetic manipulation exploded. Labs around the world now use the tool Doudna’s team developed to cut target gene sequences in organisms ranging from plants to humans. The technique is already replacing more time-consuming, less-reliable methods of creating ‘knock-out’ model organisms (those missing a specific gene) for laboratory research. CRISPR-based editing even allows more than one gene to be knocked out at the same time, something that was not possible with previous genome-editing techniques.

The ability of CRISPR systems to recognize DNA sequences with extraordinary precision also holds potential for human therapeutics. For example, a paper from another laboratory published early this year showed that, in a mouse model, CRISPR-based editing could cut out and replace a defective gene responsible for a type of muscular dystrophy. Researchers are testing similar CRISPR-based techniques in models of human diseases ranging from cystic fibrosis to blood disorders.

Doudna is a co-founder of two biotechnology companies hoping to harness the potential of CRISPR-based genome editing. Although the technology holds great promise, she acknowledges that much work needs to be done before CRISPR can be considered safe for human trials. Major challenges include assuring that no off-target cuts are made in the genome and finding a safe way to deliver the editing system to living tissues.

She is also excited to continue working with her research team, advancing the basic understanding of the CRISPR-based system.

“I’m very interested in seeing what we can contribute to the whole question about how you deliver a technology like this, how you can use it therapeutically in an organism. That’s an area where we hope that our biochemical understanding of this system will be able to contribute,” she concludes.

Meet Scott Poethig

Scott Poethig
Fields: Plant biology, cell and developmental biology, genetics
Works at: University of Pennsylvania
Studied at: College of Wooster, Yale University
Favorite musicians: Nick Drake and Bruce Springsteen
High school job: Radio D.J.
Favorite book: “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

When Scott Poethig signed up for a developmental biology course in his senior year of college, he expected to learn how organisms transition from single cells to juveniles to adults. He did not expect to learn just how much scientists still didn’t know about this process.

“It was the first course I had taken as an undergraduate where I felt that I could ask a question that there wasn’t an answer to already,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow! This is amazing.’”

Poethig already had an interest in plant biology and an independent research project studying corn viruses. He immediately saw the potential in combining his knowledge of plants with his questions about how organisms grow. “There seemed to be a lot of low hanging fruit in plant development,” he says.

Today, Poethig is the head of a plant development lab at the University of Pennsylvania. His work probes the complex molecular mechanisms that drive the transition from a young seedling to an adult plant that hasn’t yet produced seeds.

“The analogous period in human development is the interval between birth and puberty,” he explains. “People think of puberty as the major developmental transition in postnatal human development, but a lot of change happens before that point.”

His Findings

Poethig discovered that for the mustard plant Arabidopsis, a model organism frequently studied by geneticists, change begins early. Before these plants begin to flower—a sign of reproductive maturity—they undergo a process of vegetative maturation. In Arabidopsis, Poethig found that juvenile plants can be distinguished from adult plants by where hairs are produced on a leaf. Juvenile plants only produce hairs on the upper surface of the leaf, whereas adult plants produce leaves with hairs on both the upper and lower surfaces.

By studying mutant Arabidopsis plants where the adult pattern of hair development is either delayed or advanced, Poethig identified microRNAs as key players in this developmental transition.

MicroRNA molecules commonly block the expression of specific genes. Poethig found that in Arabidopsis, a type of microRNA prevents development. Young plants have high levels of this microRNA and cannot fully mature. When those levels drop, plants progress to adulthood.

MicroRNAs similarly control development in the nematode C. elegans. Scientists study the genetics of this tiny worm to better understand related developmental processes in more complex organisms. Because plants also use microRNAs to regulate development, Poethig’s discoveries may contribute to our understanding of how these molecules govern development in animals, including humans.

Poethig now wants to learn what determines the timing of developmental changes. He asks: “Why do microRNA levels drop? What’s the signal that causes that? What is the plant measuring?” His current hypothesis: sugar.

In a recent study, he found that giving plants additional sugar reduced microRNA levels and sped up development. Meanwhile, mutant plants that couldn’t produce enough sugar on their own through photosynthesis had increased microRNA levels and delayed development compared to normal plants.

This research may one day advance our understanding of how nutrition and genetics interact to affect human development. “In essentially all organisms, aging and the timing of developmental processes are strongly affected by nutrition,” Poethig explains. “In humans, childhood obesity is sometimes associated with early puberty, and it is important to understand the molecular basis for this effect.”

Poethig believes that studying microRNAs in plants may also lead to discoveries in human genetics outside of developmental biology. “MicroRNAs control a wide range of gene activity in plants and animals,” Poethig explains. “In humans, these molecules control the activity of as many as 30 percent of our genes. So understanding how microRNAs work in plants could help us understand their function in humans.”

Besides studying the Arabidopsis plants in his lab, Poethig also studies the plants in his kitchen, and uses his fascination with the history, culture and politics of food to excite others about science. Watch video.

Meet Janet Iwasa

Janet Iwasa
Credit: Janet Iwasa
Janet Iwasa
Fields: Cell biology and molecular animation
Works at: University of Utah
Raised in: Indiana and Maryland
Studied at: University of California, San Francisco, and Harvard Medical School
When not in the lab she’s: Keeping up with her two preschool-aged sons
Something she’s proud of that she’ll never try again: Baking a multi-tiered wedding cake, complete with sugar flowers, for a friend’s wedding.

Janet Iwasa wouldn’t have described herself as an artistic child. She didn’t carry around a sketch pad, pencils or paintbrushes. But she remembers accompanying her father, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, to his lab on the weekends. She’d spend hours doodling in a drawing program on his old Macintosh computer while he worked on experiments.

“I always remember wanting to be a scientist, and that’s probably highly inspired by my dad,” says Iwasa. Her early affinity for art and technology set her on an unusual career path to become a molecular animator. A typical work day now finds her adapting computer programs originally designed to bring characters like Buzz Lightyear to life to help researchers probe complicated, dynamic interactions within cells.

Iwasa’s interest in animation was sparked when she was a graduate student in cell biology, studying a protein called actin, which helps cells to move and change shape. At the time, the only visual representations she had of actin networks were flat, two-dimensional drawings on paper. When she saw an animation of the dynamic movement of a molecule called kinesin, she thought, “Why are we relying on oversimplified, static illustrations [of molecules], when we can be doing something like this video?”

Within a year, she was taking an animation class at a local college. She quickly realized that she would need more intensive instruction to be able to animate complex biological processes. A few summers later, she flew to Hollywood for a 3-month training program in industry-standard animation technology.

The oldest student in that course—and the only woman—Iwasa immediately began thinking about how to adapt a standard animator’s toolkit to illustrate the inner life of cells. A technique used to create the effect of human hair blowing in the wind could also show the movement of an RNA molecule. A chunk of computer code used to make the facets of a soccer ball fall apart and come back together in a different order could be adapted to model virus assembly and disassembly.

Her Findings

Following her training, Iwasa spent 2 years as a National Science Foundation Discovery Corps fellow, producing the Exploring Life’s Origins Exit icon exhibit with the Boston Museum of Science and the Szostak Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. As part of the multi-media exhibit, she created animations to illustrate how the simplest living organisms may have evolved on early Earth.

Since then, Iwasa has helped researchers model such complex actions as how cells ingest materials, how proteins are transported across a cell membrane, and how the motor protein dynein helps cells divide.

Screenshot from the video that shows how a protein called clathrin forms a cage-like container that cells use to engulf and ingest materials
Iwasa developed this video to show how a protein called clathrin forms a cage-like container that cells use to engulf and ingest materials.

Iwasa calls her animations “visual hypotheses”: The end results may be beautiful, but the process of animation itself is what encapsulates, clarifies and communicates the science.

“It’s really building the animated model that brings insights,” she says. “When you’re creating an animation, you’re really grappling with a lot of issues that don’t necessarily come up by any other means. In some cases, it might raise more questions, and make people go back and do some more experiments when they realize there might be something missing” in their theory of how a molecular process works.

Now she’s working with an NIH-funded research team at the University of Utah to develop a detailed animation of how HIV enters and exits human immune cells.

Abbreviated CHEETAH Exit icon, the full name of the group is the Center for the Structural Biology of Cellular Host Elements in Egress, Trafficking, and Assembly of HIV.

“In the HIV life cycle, there are a number of events that aren’t really well understood, and people have different ideas of how things happen,” says Iwasa. She plans to animate the stages of viral infection in ways that reflect different proposals for how the process works, to give researchers a new way to visualize, communicate—and potentially harmonize—their hypotheses.

The full set of Iwasa’s HIV-related animations will be available online as they are completed, at http://scienceofhiv.org Exit icon, with the first set launching in the fall of 2014.

Learn more:
Janet Iwasa’s TED Talk: How animations can help scientists test a hypothesis Exit icon
Janet Iwasa’s 3D model of an HIV particle was a winner in the 2014 BioArt contest Exit icon sponsored by Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

Meet Rhiju Das

Rhiju Das
Credit: Rhiju Das
Rhiju Das
Fields: Biophysics and biochemistry
Works at: Stanford University
Born and raised in: The greater Midwest (Texas, Indiana and Oklahoma)
Studied at: Harvard University, Stanford University
When he’s not in the lab he’s: Enjoying the California outdoors with his wife and 3-year-old daughter
If he could recommend one book about science to a lay reader, it would be: “The Eighth Day of Creation,” about the revolution in molecular biology in the 1940s and 50s.

At the turn of the 21st century, Rhiju Das saw a beautiful picture that changed his life. Then a student of particle physics with a focus on cosmology, he attended a lecture unveiling an image of the ribosome—the cellular machinery that assembles proteins in every living creature. Ribosomes are enormous, complicated machines made up of many proteins and nucleic acids similar to DNA. Deciphering the structure of a ribosome—the 3-D image Das saw—was such an impressive feat that the scientists who accomplished it won the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Das, who had been looking for a way to apply his physics background to a research question he could study in a lab, had found his calling.

“It was an epiphany—it was just flabbergasting to me that a hundred thousand atoms could find their way into such a well-defined structure at atomic resolution. It was like miraculously a bunch of nuts and bolts had self-assembled into a Ferrari,” recounted Das. “That inspired me to drop everything and learn everything I could about nucleic acid structure.”

Das focuses on the nucleic acid known as RNA, which, in addition to forming part of the ribosome, plays many roles in the body. As is the case for most proteins, RNA folds into a 3-D shape that enables it to work properly.

Das is now the head of a lab at Stanford University that unravels how the structure and folding of RNA drives its function. He has taken a unique approach to uncovering the rules behind nucleic acid folding: harnessing the wisdom of the crowd.

Together with his collaborator, Adrien Treuille of Carnegie Mellon University, Das created an online, multiplayer video game called EteRNA Exit icon. More than a mere game, it does far more than entertain. With its tagline “Played by Humans, Scored by Nature,” it’s upending how scientists approach RNA structure discovery and design.

Das’ Findings

Treuille and Das launched EteRNA after working on another computer game called Foldit Exit icon, which lets participants play with complex protein folding questions. Like Foldit, EteRNA asks players to assemble, twist and revise structures—this time of RNA—onscreen.

But EteRNA takes things a step further. Unlike Foldit, where the rewards are only game points, the winners of each round of EteRNA actually get to have their RNA designs synthesized in a wet lab at Stanford. Das and his colleagues then post the results—which designs resulted in a successful, functional RNAs and which didn’t—back online for the players to learn from.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Exit icon, Das and his colleagues showed how effective this approach could be. The collective effort of the EteRNA participants—which now number over 100,000—was better and faster than several established computer programs at solving RNA design problems, and even came up with successful new structural rules never before proposed by scientists or computers.

“What was surprising to me was their speed,” said Das. “I had just assumed that it would take a year or so before players were really able to analyze experimental data, make conclusions and come up with robust rules. But it was one of the really shocking moments of my life when, about 2 months in, we plotted the performance of players against computers and they were out-designing the computers.”

“As far as I can tell, none of the top players are academic scientists,” he added. “But if you talk to them, the first thing they’ll tell you is not how many points they have in the game but how many times they’ve had a design synthesized. They’re just excited about seeing whether or not their hypotheses were correct or falsified. So I think the top players truly are scientists—just not academic ones. They get a huge kick out of the scientific method, and they’re good at it.”

To capture lessons learned through the crowd-sourcing approach, Das and his colleagues incorporated successful rules and features into a new algorithm for RNA structure discovery, called EteRNABot, which has performed better than older computer algorithms.

“We thought that maybe the players would react badly [to EteRNABot], that they would think they were going to be automated out of existence,” said Das. “But, as it turned out, it was exciting for them to have their old ideas put into an algorithm so they could move on to the next problems.”

You can try EteRNA for yourself at http://eternagame.org Exit icon. Das and Treuille are always looking for new players and soliciting feedback.

Meet Elizabeth Grice

Elizabeth Grice
Elizabeth Grice
First job: Detasseling corn
Favorite food: Chocolate
Pets: An adopted shelter cat, Dolce
Favorite city: Athens, Greece
Hidden talent: Baking creative desserts
Credit: Bill Branson, NIH

Imagine a landscape with peaks and valleys, folds and niches, cool, dry zones and hot, wet ones. Every inch is swarming with diverse communities, but there are no cities, no buildings, no fields and no forests.

You’ve probably thought little about the inhabitants, but you see their environment every day. It’s your largest organ—your skin.

Elizabeth Grice, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, studies the skin microbiome to learn how and why bacteria colonize particular places on the body. Already, she’s found that the bacterial communities on healthy skin are different from those on diseased skin.

She hopes her work will point to ways of treating certain skin diseases, especially chronic wounds. “I like to think that I am making discoveries that will impact the way medicine is practiced,” she says.

Grice’s Findings

To investigate what role bacteria play in diabetic wounds, Grice and her colleagues took skin swabs from both diabetic and healthy mice, and then compared the two. They found that diabetic mice had about 40 times more bacteria on their skin, but it was concentrated into few species. A more diverse array of bacteria colonized the skin of healthy mice.

The researchers then gave each mouse a small wound and spent 28 days swabbing the sites to collect bacteria and observing how the skin healed. They found that wounds on diabetic mice started to increase in size at the same time as wounds on healthy mice began to heal. In about 2 weeks, most healthy mice looked as good as new. But most of the wounds on diabetic mice had barely healed even after a month.

Interestingly, bacterial communities in the wounds became more diverse in both groups of mice as they healed—although the wounds on diabetic mice still had less diversity than the ones on healthy mice.

“Bacterial diversity is probably a good thing, especially in wounds,” says Grice. “Often, potentially infectious bacteria are found on normal skin and are kept in check by the diversity of bacteria surrounding them.”

Grice and her colleagues also found distinctly different patterns of gene activity between the two groups of mice. As a result, the diabetic mice put out a longer-lasting immune response, including inflamed skin. Scientists believe prolonged inflammation might slow the healing process.

Grice’s team suspects that one of the main types of bacteria found on diabetic wounds, Staphylococcus, makes one of the inflammation-causing genes more active.

Now that they know more about the bacteria that thrive on diabetic wounds, Grice and her colleagues are a step closer to looking at whether they could reorganize these colonies to help the wounds heal.

Content adapted from the NIGMS Findings magazine article Body Bacteria.

Meet Jeff Shaman

Jeff Shaman
Jeff Shaman
Field: Climatology
Works at: Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, N.Y.
Favorite high school subject: Biology
First job: Guide at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pa.
Alternative career: Opera singer
Credit: Anne Foulke

Before he wrote any scientific papers, Jeff Shaman wrote operas. At the premiere of one of his operas, an 80-minute story about psychoanalysis, reviewers said the work “crackle[d] with invention.”

After 4 years of training to become an opera singer, Shaman realized that the work wouldn’t offer him career stability. He started thinking about his other interests. After college, where he majored in biology with a focus on ecology, he had volunteered to help with HIV clinical trials and developed a fascination with understanding infectious diseases. He wondered if the quantitative tools and methods used to study the physical sciences—another interest area—could inform how contagions spread and possibly even lead to systems for monitoring or predicting their transmission.

So Shaman returned to school—this time, for advanced degrees in earth and environmental sciences. He now studies the relationship between soil wetness and mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria in Africa and West Nile in Florida.

“I love science—probing questions, thinking about problems, finding solutions, pursuing my ideas,” says Shaman.

His Findings

A few years ago, Shaman took some of his scientific compositions in another direction by focusing on seasonal flu outbreaks. For more than 60 years, researchers have linked seasonal flu outbreaks with environmental data like humidity and temperature. Shaman analyzed this work and figured out that absolute humidity, rather than relative humidity, was the best predictor of outbreaks. Now he’s applied state-of-the-art mathematical modeling and real-time observational estimates of influenza incidence to predict when outbreaks will likely occur.

His forecasting technique mimics that used by meteorologists to predict weather conditions like temperatures, precipitation and even hurricane landfall. Shaman’s version incorporates variables like how transmissible a virus is, the number of days people are contagious and sick, and how much humidity is in the air.

The flu forecasts build on a series of studies in which Shaman and his colleagues used data from previous influenza seasons to test their predictions and improve reliability of their model. The work culminated with real-time predictions for 108 cities during the 2012-2013 influenza season. The forecasts could reliably estimate the peaks of flu outbreaks up to 9 weeks before they occurred.

For the 2013-2014 flu season, the researchers continued to make weekly predictions. But instead of first publishing the results in a scientific journal, they posted them on a newly launched influenza forecasts Web site Exit icon where the public could view the projections.

“People understand the limitations and capabilities of weather forecasts,” says Shaman. “Our hope is that people will develop a similar familiarity with the flu forecasts and use that information to make sensible decisions.” For instance, the prediction of high influenza activity may motivate them to get vaccinated and practice other flu-prevention measures.

As he waits for the start of the next flu season, Shaman continues to tweak his forecast system to improve its reliability. He’s also beginning to address other questions, such as how to predict multiple outbreaks of different influenza strains and how to predict the spread of other respiratory illnesses.

Learn more:
Influenza Forecasts Web Site Exit icon
Forecasting Flu Article from Inside Life Science
What Drives Seasonal Flu Patterns? Article and Podcast from Inside Life Science

Meet Ravi Iyengar

Ravi Iyengar
Ravi Iyengar
Fields: Systems pharmacology and systems biology
Works at: Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY
Favorite sports team: Yankees
Favorite subject in high school: Math
Recently read book: The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver
Credit: Pedro Martinez, Systems Biology Center New York

Ravi Iyengar, a professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, stood in an empty lecture hall, primed to tell thousands of students about systems biology, a holistic approach to studying fundamental life processes. To prepare for this moment, he had spent 4 months reading hundreds of scientific papers and distilling the research into understandable nuggets. But that day, his only student was a videographer.

Together, they recorded 15 different lectures about systems biology—many related to Iyengar’s own research—that thousands of people would stream or download as part of a MOOC, or massive open online course.

Trained in biochemistry, Iyengar built his research career around studying molecules and developing a list of all the parts that help nerve, kidney and skin cells to function. As he obtained more information, he realized he needed to know how all the components worked together. To achieve this comprehensive understanding, Iyengar turned to computational techniques and mathematical analyses—cornerstones of systems biology.

For more than a decade, he has been using and developing systems biology approaches to explore a range of biomedical questions, from very basic to translational ones with immediate relevance to human health.

Iyengar’s Findings

In his earlier work, Iyengar used mathematical analyses to show that molecules within cells connect with one another to form switches that produce cellular memory. This may allow, for instance, an immune cell to remember a foreign object and secrete an antibody. In recent work, he and his team developed a mathematical model showing that the shape of a cell influences the flow of information across the membrane, possibly contributing to disease states and offering a way to study and identify them under the microscope. In another study, they analyzed a database of drug side effects to find combinations of medications that produce fewer adverse reactions and then created a cell biology interaction network that explains why a certain drug pair had this beneficial outcome. The approach could point to other combinations of FDA-approved drugs that reduce serious side effects and thereby guide clinical practice.

“Systems biology is a powerful way to explore important biological and medical questions, and it’s relevant to many fields of science,” said Iyengar. But he added that the majority of educational institutions, including liberal arts and community colleges, don’t have systems biology courses. So, Iyengar teamed with colleagues to create a series of MOOCs.

The first course, offered last summer and taught by Iyengar, presented all the facets of systems biology. The syllabus included lessons on genomics and bioinformatics, fields that have contributed to systems biology; gathering and integrating data; and the use of modeling in drug development.

“My goal was for the students to get the general gestalt of systems biology,” explained Iyengar, who directs an NIH-funded center focused on the systems-level study of medicine and therapeutics.

In total, more than 12,000 participants watched at least one video lecture, 3,000 submitted one or more of the weekly quizzes and 1,800 took a mid-term or final exam. The online discussions forum included nearly 400 topics with about 5,000 posts. The students, most enrolled in a graduate program or working full-time, had some training in the biological, biomedical, computer and information sciences.

“The stats tell me that many people are in fields adjacent to systems biology and don’t have access to more traditional systems biology courses,” concluded Iyengar. “Through the MOOC, we can reach them in a substantial way.”

The second course, which covers network analysis, wrapped up in early December, and the third course, which covers dynamical modeling methods, began in January. Iyengar plans to offer the intro course again in late March.

Learn more:
Iyengar’s System Biology Center Exit icon
MOOC Systems Biology Courses Exit icon

Meet Jasmine Johnson and Gabe Vela

Jasmine Johnson and Gabriel 'Gabe' Vela
Jasmine Johnson and Gabriel “Gabe” Vela
Field: Genetics of sleep and obesity
Worked as researchers at: The Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor, Maine
Graduated from high school at: Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology in Conyers, Ga.
Now freshman at: Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. (Johnson) and Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga. (Vela)
Fascinating fact: Johnson presented her research at the 2013 White House Science Fair
Credit: Joe Piergrossi

Jasmine Johnson and Gabe Vela might still be teenagers, but they are also seasoned scientists. It all started 3 years ago, when, as high school juniors, they took the research course Independent Studies in Computational Biology Exit icon at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. They were hooked. They continued to do research until they graduated, working part-time for 2 academic years and full-time for 2 summers.

They worked with statistical geneticist Gary Churchill, using computational biology to explore the relationship between sleep and obesity. They focused on finding genes that regulate sleep and understanding how sleep affects the body. One goal of the research is to tease out a genetic explanation for why sleep deprivation increases the risk of obesity.

Working in a lab “completely changed what I thought I was going to do with my life,” said Vela. “Now I’m going to focus more on research than anything else.”

For Johnson, the experience provided the opportunity to present her research at the 2013 White House Science Fair, where she hobnobbed with some political hot shots.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said. Having “important White House officials be interested in my project … inspired me.”

Johnson and Vela visited NIH a few months ago and talked with us about their research experiences, their lives and their future goals. Jasmine Johnson & Gabriel Vela on their experience as high school researchers at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Learn More
Article Exit icon about Johnson and Vela and other young researchers, from The Jackson Laboratory’s magazine The Search Exit icon.
Article about the work of Gary Churchill, from NIH’s Findings magazine.

Meet Dave Cummings

Dave Cummings. Credit: Marcus Emerson, PLNU.
Dave Cummings
Field: Environmental microbiology
Works at: Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, Calif.
Hobbies: Hiking, backpacking, fly-fishing
Dream home: One that doesn’t need a lot of work
Credit: Marcus Emerson, PLNU

In college, as a pre-med student majoring in biology and chemistry, Dave Cummings grew frustrated with the traditional “cookbook” approach to doing labs in his science classes. Turned off by having to follow step-by-step lab procedures that had little to do with scientific discovery, Cummings changed his major to English literature. Studying literature, he says, “helped me find myself” and taught him to think critically.

Ultimately, Cummings says, “I came to realize that it wasn’t the practice of medicine that got me excited, but the science behind it all.” He decided to pursue a graduate degree in biology and—after “knocking on a lot of doors”—was accepted at the University of Idaho, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees and discovered his passion for microbiology.

Today, Cummings applies his critical thinking skills to his work as professor of biology back at his alma mater, Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU), a small university focused on undergraduate education. There he studies the role of urban storm water in spreading genes for antibiotic resistance in natural environments, and pursues his enthusiasm for training the next generation of scientists. He enlists his students in his research, giving them what he calls “real, live, on-the-ground” research experience that relatively few undergraduate students at larger universities receive.

Cummings’ Findings

Antibiotic resistance, which can transform once-tractable bacterial infections into diseases that are difficult or impossible to treat, is a major public health challenge of the 21st century. The most common way that bacteria become drug resistant is by acquiring genes that confer antibiotic resistance from other bacteria. Often, such drug resistance genes are found on small, circular pieces of DNA called plasmids that are readily passed from one species of bacteria to another.

Urban wetlands provide ideal conditions for bacteria to mingle, swap genes and spread antibiotic resistance, notes Cummings. He focuses on the wetlands around San Diego, which act as a giant mixing bowl for storm runoff, human sewage, animal waste, naturally occurring plant and soil microorganisms, and plasmids indigenous to the wetlands.

Cummings and his students examine sediment samples from these wetlands in search of plasmids that carry resistance genes. They’ve found that during winter rains, the San Diego wetlands receive runoff containing antibiotic-resistant bacteria and plasmids, which can persist at low, but detectable, levels into the dry summer months.

“We know that urban storm water carries with it a lot of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and along with that the DNA instructions [or genes] that code for the resistance,” says Cummings. “We have solid evidence of genes encoding resistance to clinically important antibiotics washing … into coastal wetlands in San Diego.”

“We’re trying to understand the scope of the problem, and ultimately what threat that poses to human health,” he says. His concern is that the drug-defying bacterial genes will accumulate in the wetlands, and then “[find] their way back to us, where they will augment and amplify the problem of resistance.”

Precisely how resistance genes might move from the environment into people is not yet known. One way this could occur is through direct contact with contaminated water or sediment by anglers, swimmers, surfers and other recreational users. Fish, birds and insects could also transmit resistance genes from contaminated wetlands to humans.

“There is good evidence elsewhere that birds are important vectors of drug-resistant pathogens, and this is my favorite possibility,” says Cummings. “Hopefully someday we can test that hypothesis.”

Cummings’ studies, done in collaboration with Ryan Botts at PLNU and Eva Top at the University of Idaho, could reveal antibiotic resistance genes with the potential to move into new species of disease-causing bacteria and back into human populations. By identifying these genes and raising awareness of the problem, he hopes to aid future efforts to mitigate the spread of antibiotic resistance.

Meet Shanta Dhar

Shanta Dhar
Shanta Dhar
Fields: Chemistry and cancer immunotherapy
Works at: University of Georgia, Athens
Born and raised in: Northern India
Studied at: Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.; and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.
To unwind: She hits the gym
Credit: Frankie Wylie, Stylized Portraiture

The human body is, at its most basic level, a giant collection of chemicals. Finding ways to direct the actions of those chemicals can lead to new treatments for human diseases.

Shanta Dhar, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Georgia, Athens (UGA), saw this potential when she was exposed to the field of cancer immunotherapy as a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Broadly, cancer immunotherapy aims to direct the body’s natural immune response to kill cancer cells.) Dhar was fascinated by the idea and has pursued research in this area ever since. “I always wanted to use my chemistry for something that could be useful [in the clinic] down the line,” she said.

A major challenge in the field has been training the body’s immune system—specifically the T cells—to recognize and attack cancer cells. The process of training T cells to go after cancer is rather like training a rescue dog to find a lost person: First, you present the scent, then you command pursuit.

The type of immune cell chiefly responsible for training T cells to search for and destroy cancer is a called a dendritic cell. First, dendritic cells present T cells with the “scent” of cancer (proteins from a cancer cell). Then they activate the T cells using signaling molecules.

Dhar’s Findings

Dhar’s work focuses on creating the perfect trigger for cancer immunotherapy—one that would provide both the scent of cancer for T cells to recognize and a burst of immune signaling to activate the cells.

Using cells grown in the lab, Dhar’s team recently showed that they could kill most breast cancer cells using a new nanotechnology technique, then train T cells to eradicate the remaining cancer cells.

For the initial attack, the researchers used light-activated nanoparticles that target mitochondria in cancer cells. Mitochondria are the organelles that provide cellular energy. Their destruction sets off a signaling cascade that triggers dendritic cells to produce one of the proteins needed to activate T cells.

Because the strategy worked in laboratory cells, Dhar and her colleague Donald Harn of the UGA infectious diseases department are now testing it in a mouse model of breast cancer to see if it is similarly effective in a living organism.

For some reason, the approach works against breast cancer cells but not against cervical cancer cells. So the team is examining the nanoparticle technique to see if they can make it broadly applicable against other cancer types.

Someday, Dhar hopes to translate this work into a personalized cancer vaccine. To create such a vaccine, scientists would remove cancer cells from a patient’s body during surgery. Next, in a laboratory dish, they would train immune cells from the patient to kill the cancer cells, then inject the trained immune cells back into the patient’s body. If the strategy worked, the trained cells would alert and activate T cells to eliminate the cancer.