Author: Abbey Bigler

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Abbey is a science writer who enjoys making important biological science and public health information accessible to everyone.

Posts by Abbey Bigler

It’s Elementary: Celebrating National Chemistry Week

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Happy National Chemistry Week! In honor of this celebration, we’re showcasing posts that focus on elements crucial for human health and scientific exploration. NIGMS-supported scientists are studying how each of these elements (and many others) can impact human health. Check out the list below to learn more, and let us know what your favorite element is in the comments section!

A square showing helium’s abbreviation (He), atomic number (2), and atomic weight (4.003). Credit: Adapted from Compound Interest. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Helium: An Abundant History and a Shortage Threatening Scientific Tools
Scientists first discovered helium burning on the surface of the sun. Today, liquid helium plays an essential role in supercooling vital scientific and medical equipment, such as magnetic resonance imaging machines that take images of our internal organs. Unfortunately, our complex history with the element has led to a recent shortage that threatens some types of scientific research.


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Pathways: The Anesthesia Issue

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A magazine cover showing two mushroom-like structures with their wide ends facing each other and small particles between them. Text reads What is this? And what does it have to do with controlling how you feel pain? (Find out inside!). Cover of Pathways student magazine.

NIGMS and Scholastic bring you Pathways: The Anesthesia Issue, which explores pain and the science behind anesthesia—the medical treatment that prevents patients from feeling pain during surgery and other procedures. Without anesthesia, many life-saving medical procedures would be impossible.

Pathways, designed for students in grades 6 through 12, aims to build awareness of basic biomedical science and its importance to health, while inspiring careers in research. All materials in the collection are available online and are free for parents, educators, and students nationwide.

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Scientist Studies Burn Therapies After Being Severely Burned as a Child

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“If I was going to do science, I wanted it to help people,” says Julia Bohannon, Ph.D., an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

A headshot of Dr. Julia Bohannon wearing a lab coat.
Dr. Julia Bohannon. Credit: Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Dr. Bohannon researches therapies that could help prevent infections in patients with severe burn injuries. Infections are common in these patients because burn injuries typically suppress the immune system. Dr. Bohannon originally planned to become a burn surgeon, inspired by the doctor who treated her after she was severely burned as a child. But during her junior year of college at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, she started working in a genetics lab and enjoyed it so much that she began considering a research career.

Choosing a Path Forward

After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Dr. Bohannon worked for 2 gap years in a translational research lab at the University of Kentucky to decide between pursuing an M.D. or a Ph.D. She ultimately entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and conducted research in the lab of Tracy Toliver-Kinsky, Ph.D., at the Shriners Children’s burn center. Upon earning her Ph.D., Dr. Bohannon took a postdoctoral position with Edward Sherwood, Ph.D., at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where she studied potential treatments to improve immune cell function after burns. To continue her work, she followed Dr. Sherwood a year later when he moved to Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

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Could a Spoonful of Sugar Be a Medicine?

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A spade-shaped group of cells glowing red, yellow, and green.
Glycans glow red, yellow, and green in this image of a zebrafish embryo’s jaw. Credit: Carolyn Bertozzi, University of California, Berkeley.

Large sugar molecules called glycans coat every cell in our bodies. They can also be found inside and between cells, and they are important for many biological processes, including how our cells interact with one another and with pathogens. For example, glycans on red blood cells determine blood type, and those on the cells of organs determine whether a person can receive a transplant from a particular donor. Scientists have only begun to explore sugars’ complexities and potential uses. Here, we look at the contributions three NIGMS-supported researchers are making to glycoscience.

Human Milk Sugars

Glycans called human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) make up a significant portion of human milk. Study findings have shown that some HMOs can be prebiotics—substances that encourage beneficial bacteria to grow. Research has also revealed that some disease-causing microbes bind to certain HMOs, potentially allowing the germs to pass through the body without causing illness.

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Science Snippet: Brush Up on Biofilms

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A biofilm is a highly organized community of microorganisms that develops naturally on certain surfaces. Typically, biofilms are made up of microbes and an extracellular matrix that they produce. This matrix can include polysaccharides (chains of sugars), proteins, lipids, DNA, and other molecules. The matrix gives the biofilm structure and helps it stick to a surface.

Formation of a biofilm often involves a process called quorum sensing. In this process, microbes detect when they reach a certain population density and change their behavior in ways that help them function as a community.

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Staying Safe From Sepsis

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This post was adapted with permission from the NIH News in Health article, “Staying Safe From Sepsis.”

Your immune system is on patrol every day. It protects your body from bacteria, viruses, and other germs. But if something goes wrong, it can also cause big problems.

Many small oblong shapes, some making up brightly colored clusters.
White blood cells undergoing a cascade of biochemical changes that is part of the immune response. Credit: Xiaolei Su, HHMI Whitman Center of the Marine Biological Laboratory.

Sepsis happens when your body’s response to an infection spirals out of control. Your body releases molecules into the blood called cytokines to fight the infection. But those molecules then trigger a chain reaction.

“Sepsis is basically a life-threatening infection that leads to organ dysfunction,” says Richard Hotchkiss, M.D., who studies sepsis at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The most dangerous stage of sepsis is called septic shock. It can cause multiple organs to fail, including the liver, lungs, and kidneys.

Septic shock begins when the body’s response to an infection damages blood vessels. When blood vessels are damaged, your blood pressure can drop very low. Without normal blood flow, your body can’t get enough oxygen.

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Make Like a Cell and Split: Comparing Mitosis and Meiosis

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Your body is made up of trillions of cells that all originate from just one—a fertilized egg. The massive multiplication of cells after conception is possible thanks to cell division, which occurs when one cell splits into two. Cell division not only enables growth but also replaces damaged or dead cells and makes reproduction possible. There are two kinds of cell division: mitosis and meiosis.

On the left, a cell goes through the stages of mitosis to split into two cells that each have two sets of chromosomes. On the right, a cell goes through the phases of meiosis to divide into four cells that each have a single set of chromosomes. Mitosis is shown on the left, and meiosis is shown on the right. Credit: Judith Stoffer. Click to enlarge
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Researcher Shares Science en Español and Builds a Community

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A headshot of Dr. Ramos-Benítez.
Dr. Marcos Ramos-Benítez. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Ramos-Benítez.

“For me, science is the perfect way to harmonize creative thinking and critical thinking,” says Marcos Ramos-Benítez, Ph.D., a fellow in the NIGMS Postdoctoral Research Associate Training (PRAT) program.

Dr. Ramos-Benítez researches interactions between pathogens—such as the viruses that cause Ebola and COVID-19—and their hosts. He’s also the founder and president of Ciencia en tus Manos (“Science in Your Hands”), a nonprofit organization that presents scientific information in Spanish and aims to provide a community to support the next generation of scientists.

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Navajo Students Engage With Public Health Research Through NARCH

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Navajo students are contributing to public health efforts in diabetes, COVID-19, domestic violence, and maternal and child health through the Navajo Native American Research Center for Health (NARCH) Partnership. “Our goal is to really enhance the educational pathways available to Navajo students from high school to graduate school and beyond,” says Mark Bauer, Ph.D., a co-director of the Navajo NARCH Partnership and professor at Diné College—a tribal college on the Navajo Nation. (Diné means “the people” and is how Navajo people refer to themselves in their native language.)

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Cool Images: Beautiful Bits of Blue

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Most cells are naturally colorless, which is why scientists often use fluorescent tags and other tools to color cell structures and make them easier to study. (Check out the Pathways imaging issue for more on scientific imaging techniques). Here, we’re showcasing cell images that feature shades of blue. Visit our Image and Video Gallery for additional images of cells in all the colors of the rainbow, as well as other scientific photos, illustrations, and videos.

Cool Images
Many blue circles, each surrounded by yellow dots. All the structures are encased in gray webs.
Mitochondria appear in yellow and cell nuclei in blue in this photo of cow cells. The gray webs are the cells’ cytoskeletons. Mitochondria generate energy, nuclei store DNA, and the cytoskeleton gives cells shape and support.
Credit: Torsten Wittmann, University of California, San Francisco.
A large circle made up of light blue dots, with darker blue spots underneath and outside of it.
Here, stem cells (light blue) are growing on fibroblasts (dark blue). Stem cells are of great interest to researchers because they can develop into many different cell types. Fibroblasts are the most common cell type in connective tissue. They secrete collagen proteins that help build structural frameworks, and they play an important role in wound healing.
Credit: California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
Two blue circles encapsulated in red threads and surrounded by other scattered blue circles.
These smooth muscle cells were grown from stem cells. Smooth muscle cells are found in the walls of certain organs, such as the stomach, and can’t be controlled voluntarily. Red indicates smooth muscle proteins, and blue indicates nuclei.
Credit: Deepak Srivastava, Gladstone Institutes, via CIRM.