Sepsis is a serious medical condition caused by an overwhelming response to infection that damages tissues and organs. It’s unpredictable, progresses quickly, can strike anyone, and is a leading cause of hospital-related deaths. In the U.S. alone, nearly 270,000 people die each year from sepsis. Those who survive sepsis often end up in the hospital again, and some have long-term health complications. Early treatment is key for many patients to survive sepsis, yet doctors can’t easily diagnose it because it’s so complex and each patient is different.
Despite decades of research, sepsis remains a poorly understood condition with limited diagnostic tools and treatment. To tackle these obstacles, scientists Vincent Liu, Christopher Seymour, and Hallie Prescott have started using a “big data” approach, which relies on complex computer programs to sift through huge amounts of information. In this case, the computers analyze data such as demographic information, vital signs, and routine blood tests in the electronic health records of sepsis patients. The goal is to find patterns in the data that might help doctors understand, predict, and treat sepsis more effectively.
Michael Boyce, associate professor of biochemistry at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Credit: Michael Boyce.
Sugars aren’t merely energy sources for our cells. They also play important signaling roles through a process called glycosylation, where they attach to proteins and lipids as tags. Although these sugar tags, called glycans, impact many cellular processes, they have long been understudied due to technical challenges. Now, advances in analytical tools like mass spectrometry are enabling scientists to examine the enormous complexity of glycans. Other advances also allow researchers to synthesize complex sugars, providing them with standards for analytical experiments.
A college degree was far from the minds of Joshua and Caleb Marceau growing up on a small farm on the Flathead Indian Reservation in rural northwestern Montana. Their world centered on powwows, tending cattle and chicken, fishing in streams, and working the 20-acre ranch their parents own. Despite their innate love of learning and science, the idea of applying to and paying for college seemed out of reach. Then, opportunities provided through NIGMS, mentors, and scholarships led them from a local tribal college to advanced degrees in biomedical science. Today, both Joshua and Caleb are Ph.D.-level scientists working to improve public health through the study of viruses.
Joshua Discovers Unexpected Opportunities
Joshua Marceau at Salish Kootenai College, where he gained research experience as an undergraduate. Credit: Joshua Marceau.
As the oldest of four brothers, Joshua was the trailblazer in the family. But like most trailblazers, his path to a scientific career wasn’t always smooth. He attended a reservation school until sixth grade, then was homeschooled. He earned his GED through the local tribal community college, Salish Kootenai College (SKC) in Pablo, so he could begin to take college-level chemistry.
Most of what we know comes from intensive study of research organisms—mice, fruit flies, worms, zebrafish, and a few others. But according to Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, Ph.D. , a researcher at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, these research organisms represent only a tiny fraction of all animal species on the planet. Under-studied organisms could reveal important biological phenomena that simply don’t occur in the handful of models typically studied, he says.
Finding a career path in
biomedical research can be challenging for many young people, especially when
they have no footsteps to follow. We asked three recent college graduates who
are pursuing advanced degrees in biomedical sciences to give us their best
advice for undergrads.
Tip 1: Talk with mentors and peers, and explore opportunities.
One of the most challenging things for incoming undergraduates is simply to find out about biomedical research opportunities. By talking to professors and peers, students can find ways to explore and develop their interests in biomedical research.
Credit: Michele Vaughan.
Mariajose Franco, a first-generation college student, recently graduated with honors and dual degrees in molecular and cellular biology and physiology from the University of Arizona in Tucson. She’s now in a postbaccalaureate program at the National Cancer Institute and has her eye on combined M.D.-Ph.D. programs.
As an undergraduate, a course in cancer biology piqued her interest, and she reached out to her professor, Justina McEvoy, to see if she could join her lab. As a sophomore, Franco began working on rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare childhood cancer that arises from cells that normally develop into skeletal muscle. Through the NIGMS Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, she received support to conduct two research projects during her junior and senior years. In addition to offering research opportunities, the MARC program was instrumental in providing training in scientific writing and conference poster presentations, and navigating applications, Franco says.
A bioprint of the small air sac in the lungs with red blood cells moving through a vessel network supplying oxygen to living cells. Credit: Rice University.
A team of bioengineers, funded in part by NIGMS, has devised a way to use 3D bioprinting technology to construct the small air sacs in the lungs and intricate blood vessels. When hooked up to a machine, the air sacs can “breathe,” and the blood flowing through the tiny blood vessels can take up oxygen, much like they would in an animal’s body. In the long term, this technology may allow the production of replacement organs for patients who need them. Visit the NIH Director’s Blog to read more and watch a video from Rice University’s Miller Lab.