Public health crises often disproportionately impact rural America. Sally L. Hodder, M.D., works to alleviate these disparities, especially regarding the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s the director of the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute (WVCTSI), the associate vice president of clinical and translational research, and a professor of medicine at West Virginia University.
Dr. Hodder’s work is focused in West Virginia, but her results are valuable assets to researchers across the country. Not only does treating chronic diseases in rural populations contribute to the overall understanding of those diseases, but engaging with and involving people in those communities in research makes science more accessible to them. Dr. Hodder says, “When folks participate in the science, when there is good community discussion about the trial designs and the results, then I think those populations may be more trusting of the results.”
Just as electricity powers almost every modern gadget, the tiny moleculeadenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the major source of energy for organisms’ biochemical reactions. ATP stores energy in the chemical bonds that hold its three phosphate groups together—the triphosphate part of its name. In the human body, ATP powers processes such as cell signaling, muscle contraction, nerve firing, and DNA and RNA synthesis. Because our cells are constantly using and producing ATP, each of us turns over roughly our body weight in the molecule every day!
Our bodies can produce ATP in several ways, but the most common is cellular respiration—a multistep process in which glucose molecules from our diet and oxygen react to form water and carbon dioxide. The breakdown of a single molecule of glucose in this way releases energy, which the body captures and stores in around 32 ATP molecules. Along with oxygen, mitochondria are crucial for producing ATP through cellular respiration, which is why they’re sometimes called the powerhouses of cells.
When asked why he leads the NIGMS-supported Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, Roger D. Sloboda, Ph.D., the Ira Allen Eastman Professor of Biological Sciences (emeritus), shares a story. Several years ago, he learned of a public-school science teacher in rural New Hampshire who had a very limited budget for classroom equipment. With her annual budget, she’d been able to buy a single stainless-steel laboratory cart. “Next year, I hope to buy a piece of equipment to put on it,” she said. A short time later, Dr. Sloboda attended a scientific meeting and talked to a student from a private school in Washington, D.C., who was presenting a poster about his research project studying the effects of household chemicals on zebrafish development. Dr. Sloboda asked the student how he was able to work with zebrafish, because they require specialized, expensive facilities. The student responded that his school maintained its own zebrafish facility.
American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) populations have long experienced health disparities such as higher rates of diabetes, certain cancers, and mental health conditions than those of other Americans. One contributing factor in these disparities is underrepresentation of AI/AN populations in biomedical science—as study participants, researchers, and health professionals. Unfamiliarity with health care options and opportunities, coupled with a distrust of biomedical research resulting from unethical studies in the past, have exacerbated this underrepresentation.
NIGMS-supported researchers, including Native scientists, are partnering with AI/AN Tribes to help reduce health disparities by conducting research focused on AI/AN health priorities and building infrastructure that supports research in those communities. They’re also preparing Native students to pursue careers in science and medicine. In this post, you’ll meet four scientists advancing AI/AN health.
Antibiotics are a class of drugs that treat bacterial infections. They may seem common now, but they were discovered less than a century ago. In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a scientist studying bacteria, found that mold from his bread kept bacteria from growing. He determined that “mold juice” was able to kill different types of harmful bacteria, and he and his assistants worked to figure out what natural product in the mold was actually causing the killing. It turned out to be penicillin!
Thanks to Fleming’s discovery, doctors have been successfully treating bacterial infections with penicillin and other newer antibiotics. But in recent years, some infections that were once treatable with antibiotics no longer respond to them. Some of these infections can be treated with multiple rounds of different antibiotic treatments, but others aren’t treatable at all—even leading to death in some cases.
When we encounter the word mole, some of us might think of a small, fuzzy animal that burrows in gardens, or perhaps the common, pigmented marks on our skin. But in chemistry, the mole is a key unit of measurement; its name is derived from the word molecule. Similar to how “dozen” is another way of saying 12, “mole” is another way of saying 602,214,076,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s about 602 billion trillion), specifically for elementary entities such as molecules and atoms. Scientists sometimes abbreviate this number as 6.02 x 1023, which is why Mole Day is celebrated from 6:02 a.m. to 6:02 p.m. on October 23 each year.
“I’m most proud of how this program is truly impacting the diversity of academia by including individuals from backgrounds historically underrepresented in STEM and the biomedical research workforce,” says JoAnn Trejo, Ph.D., professor at University of California San Diego (UCSD) and director of San Diego’s Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA). The program, now in its 20th year of NIGMS funding, aims to train a diverse group of postdoctoral fellows (postdocs) for both the teaching and independent research aspects of a career as a professor in the biomedical sciences.
The San Diego IRACDA focuses on preparing its fellows for tenure-track positions at different types of institutions, including research-intensive universities. Fellows typically go through a 3-year program where they work in a research lab at UCSD, teach at one of the two “partner” schools (both of which are minority-serving institutions), and take career development courses in skillsets like effectively mentoring, running a cutting-edge research lab, and innovatively redesigning undergraduate science courses. Fellows also mentor students at the partner schools, helping them prepare graduate school applications, putting them through mock interviews, educating them in research, and teaching them how to read and understand scientific literature.
When he started high school in Mexico, Pedro Márquez-Zacarías, Ph.D., wanted to be a politician. However, as he became aware of issues like corruption, he began looking into other fields. Chemistry fascinated him, so he enrolled in a class at his school that was later canceled partway through the year. He then joined a biology class because it included a unit on biochemistry, and through that experience, found that he enjoyed other aspects of biology as well—so much so that he went on to compete in the International Biology Olympiad, a competition for high school biology students.
After graduating from high school, Dr. Márquez-Zacarías majored in biomedical sciences at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and discovered a passion for ecology and evolution. During a class activity where students had to present scientific papers, the work of evolutionary biologist William Croft Ratcliff, Ph.D. riveted him. Dr. Márquez-Zacarías began an email conversation with Dr. Ratcliff that led to visiting his NIGMS-supported lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta.
“Science provides adventure and excitement every single day. When you’re pushing boundaries, you get to jump into the abyss of new areas. It can be scary, but it’s an incredible opportunity to try to improve our world and people’s lives,” says César de la Fuente, Ph.D., a Presidential Assistant Professor in the Perelman School of Medicine and School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Our interview with Dr. de la Fuente highlights his journey of becoming a scientist and his research using artificial intelligence to discover new drugs.
Q: How did you first become interested in science?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by the world around me. I grew up in a town in northwest Spain, right on the Atlantic Ocean. As a kid, I would go to the beach to investigate marine organisms and bring home all sorts of different fish to study. My mom wasn’t too happy about that! We’re all born scientists, but we tend to lose that curiosity as we enter adulthood. The key is to not lose our ability to learn every day.