Pharmacology is the study of how molecules, such as medicines, interact with the body. Scientists who study pharmacology are called pharmacologists, and they explore the chemical properties, biological effects, and therapeutic uses of medicines and other molecules. Their work can be broken down into two main areas:
Pharmacokinetics is the study of how the body acts on a medicine, including its processes of absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion (ADME).
Pharmacodynamics is the study of how a medicine acts in the body—both on its intended target and throughout all the organs and tissues in the body.
Copper pipes, copper wires, copper…food? Copper is not only a useful metal for conducting electricity, but it’s also an essential element we need in our bodies for a variety of important activities—from metabolizingiron to pigmenting skin.
Copper is required to keep your body going. Enzymes that use copper are called cuproenzymes, and they catalyze a wide range of reactions, including making neurotransmitters and connective tissue. The element is found on the Statue of Liberty’s covering, in wiring and electronics, and in the blue blood of crustaceans. Credit: Compound Interest CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge.
The word organic is often used to talk about fruits and vegetables that have been produced in a specific way, typically without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. But to chemists, organic refers to carbon-containing compounds that are the basis for all living organisms. Ironically, the chemicals prohibited in the farming of organic produce are usually organic molecules.
Organic chemists study, create, and explore carbon-containing molecules. Most organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, but they can also include other elements like nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and more. Organic compounds are all around you, from the phospholipids in your body that make up your cellmembranes and the NSAID pain reliever that might be in your medicine cabinet to the fabric of the shirt you’re wearing.
The element potassium plays a pivotal role in our bodies. It’s found in all our cells, where it regulates their volume and pressure. To do this, our bodies carefully control potassium levels so that the concentration is about 30 times higher inside cells than outside. Potassium works closely with sodium, which regulates the extracellular fluid volume and has a higher concentration outside cells than inside. These concentration differences create an electrochemical gradient, or a membrane potential.
Potassium is the primary regulator of the pressure and volume inside cells, and it’s important for nerve transmission, muscle contraction, and more. Credit: Compound Interest CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge.
The element manganese is essential for human life. It’s aptly named after the Greek word for magic, and some mysteries surrounding its role in the body still exist today—like how our bodies absorb it, if very high or low levels can cause illness, or how it might play a role in certain diseases.
Manganese is necessary for metabolism, bone formation, antioxidation, and many other important functions in the body. The element is found in strong steel, bones and enzymes, and drink cans. Credit: Compound Interest CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge.
“An important part of being in science is being in a community,” says Neil Garg, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). That philosophy has led him to prioritize mentorship, diversity, and inclusion—while maintaining research excellence—as well as re-envisioning what it means to educate students and the public.
Falling in Love With Chemistry
Science was always a part of Dr. Garg’s childhood. He participated in science fairs as a kid but says he did it for the community and not necessarily for the love of science. “When I look back on those projects, they were always with friends—never by myself,” he says. His parents were both scientists and strongly encouraged him to go into medicine, and although he became a premed major at New York University (NYU), he ultimately chose a different path.
Someone’s hand moving to scroll through this blog post is possible because of a mineral that both gives bones their strength and allows muscles to move: calcium. As the most abundant mineral in our bodies, it’s essential for lots of important functions. It’s found in many foods, medicines, and dietary supplements.
Calcium keeps your bones strong, allows your muscles to move, and is important for many other bodily functions. The element is found in foods, medicines, and the world around us. Credit: Compound Interest CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge.
Brenda Andrade, Ph.D., assistant professor at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she first started community college. Through a program at her high school, she’d participated in Saturday morning science labs on the CSULA campus, and that introduction to science led her to think about pursuing some sort of scientific degree. She recalls flipping through the course catalog to the list of science classes needed to transfer to a 4-year university, and “naively going down the list and taking them.”
When a professor asked her if she’d thought about doing research, she responded, “What’s research?” That professor introduced her to the transfer program between the community college and nearby CSULA, and he encouraged her to apply to the NIGMS-funded Bridges to the Baccalaureate Research Training Program. When she did, she was accepted and began a summer research internship working in the lab of Linda Tunstad, Ph.D., a successful chemist with a similar background to Dr. Andrade’s. “That experience set my career trajectory,” she says. “I saw people like me, other Latinx people and people from underrepresented groups, doing research and thriving, like Dr. Tunstad. It really motivated me.”
Anyone who’s spent time in an academic science lab has probably heard about lab culture. Many labs boast long, rigorous working hours, while others require graduate students and postdoctoral trainees (postdocs) to meet often-unattainable experiment quotas each week. But is sheer quantity really the gold standard we want to hold ourselves to when it comes to training the next generation of scientists?
Neil Garg, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and Jen Heemstra, Ph.D., Charles Allen Thomas Professor and chair of the department of chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, think not. In fact, they both felt so strongly that this mindset of training is so outdated and detrimental to academic excellence and integrity that they joined together to create #MentorFirst, an initiative encouraging academics to embrace mentorship in conjunction with research. “As faculty, both research and mentorship are important,” says Dr. Heemstra. “But it makes a huge difference which one we put first.”
Mentoring is a vital part of training the next generation of scientists. Through a variety of programs ranging from the undergraduate to faculty levels, NIGMS fosters the training and the development of a strong and diverse biomedical research workforce.
To celebrate National Mentoring Month, we’re highlighting a few of the many NIGMS-funded researchers who emphasize being great mentors. Check out the snapshots of our interviews with these mentors to see what they think about mentoring and to access and read their full stories.
Scientist Studies Burn Therapies After Being Severely Burned as a Child Julia Bohannon, Ph.D., inspired by her own experience of being severely burned as a child, researches therapies that could prevent patients with burns from developing infections. Dr. Bohannon also mentors students, particularly those who hope to be both parents and scientists. “I’ve had a lot of women ask me for advice on how to be a mom and pursue a career in academia, and it’s been a really cool experience to be able to share that with students and trainees,” she says.