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.
Dr. Bobylev focuses on training students to conduct rigorous, meaningful research and to communicate it clearly to a variety of audiences, including the general public, scientists, and policymakers. He believes that this emphasis on strong communication skills is one of the reasons why his students were often selected for Posters on the Hill—a prestigious annual event where undergraduate researchers presented their work to lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Since 2008, 10 of his mentees were chosen to participate.
“Being able to discover new, unexpected things is why you wake up every day and go to work as a scientist. The other part is hopefully to have a positive impact on human health—through combatting conditions ranging from antibiotic resistance to cancer,” says Elizabeth Parkinson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of organicchemistry at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. In an interview, Dr. Parkinson shared with us her path to a scientific career, research on natural products made by soil-dwelling bacteria, and advice for students.
Q: What sparked your interest in science?
A: My high school freshman biology teacher, Mr. O’Connell, first got me interested in science. He’d bring objects to class, and we’d have to guess how they might relate to the day’s subject matter. One time he brought strawberries, and we isolated DNA from them, which I really enjoyed. I also participated in a science fair for the first time that year. My project focused on how the color of light affected plant growth, and that was a very fun experience.
The word culture may make you think of a flag, style of clothing, celebration, or some other tradition associated with a particular group of people. But in biomedical science, a culture is a group of cells grown in a lab. Scientists use cultures to learn about basic biological processes and to develop and test new medicines.
The Birth of a Culture
Scientists can grow many types of cells as cultures, from bacteria to human cells. To create a culture, a researcher adds cells to a container such as a Petri dish along with a mix of nutrients the cells need to grow and divide. The exact recipe varies depending on the cell type. (Because many lab containers were historically made of glass, researchers sometimes refer to studies that use cultures as in vitro—Latin for “in glass.”) Once the cells multiply and fill their container, researchers split the culture into new containers to produce more.
“DNA is an amazingly beautiful molecule, and it’s so important. Each of our cells has only one copy of DNA, and if it gets damaged, that messes up everything else in the cell,” says Alexis Komor, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Komor to learn about her scientific journey, research on DNA, and advice for students.
Q: How did you decide to study chemistry?
A: I really enjoyed math and science in middle and high school. When I applied to college, I knew I wanted to major in science over math because I felt like it was more relevant to what we experience on a day-to-day basis. I ultimately went into chemistry for a silly reason, but looking back now, I’m so very grateful that I did. Chemistry has this nice balance because it allows you to not only understand how things work on a molecular level but also see how those molecular workings relate to everyday phenomena—for example, understanding how DNA damage on a molecular level can lead to negative health outcomes.
Have you ever wondered why your cells don’t spill into each other or what keeps your skin separate from your blood? The answer to both is lipids—a diverse group of organic compounds that don’t dissolve in water. They’re one of the four major building blocks of our bodies, along with proteins, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids. Types of lipids include:
Fats, necessary for our bodies’ long-term energy storage and insulation. Some essential vitamins are fat soluble, meaning they must be associated with fat molecules to be effectively absorbed.
Upgrading X-ray crystallography equipment at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville has had an unexpected benefit: enabling analyses that could help art museums authenticate, restore, and learn more about their pieces.
Scientists use X-ray crystallography to determine the detailed 3D structures of molecules. In biomedical contexts, researchers often apply X-ray crystallography to map the structures of proteins and other biomolecules like DNA and RNA. A molecule’s structure can shed light on its function and help answer scientific questions. For example, knowing the structures of proteins involved in antibiotic resistance can help researchers determine how those molecules work and how to combat bacteria that produce them.
“I feel really pleased with how well our students have done despite entering the program in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Katherine Friedman, Ph.D., an associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt and a co-director of its MARC program. Four of the six first-cohort students are entering doctoral programs in fall 2022, and the other two have made preparations to pursue higher degrees at a later date.
“In my lab, we’ve been gene hunters—starting with visible phenotypes, or characteristics, and searching for the responsible genes,” says Miriam Meisler, Ph.D., the Myron Levine Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. During her career, Dr. Meisler has identified the functions of multiple genes and has shown how geneticvariants, or mutations, can impact human health.
Becoming a Scientist
Dr. Meisler had a strong interest in science as a child, which she credits to “growing up at the time of Sputnik” and receiving encouragement from her father and excellent science teachers in high school and college. However, when she started her undergraduate studies at Antioch College in Yellow Spring, Ohio, she decided to explore the humanities and social sciences. After 2 years of sociology and anthropology classes, she returned to biomedical science and, at a student swap, symbolically traded her dictionary for a slide rule—a mechanical device used to do calculations that was eventually replaced by the electric calculator.