Bit by the Research Bug: Priscilla’s Growth as a Scientist

This is the third post in a new series highlighting NIGMS’ efforts toward developing a robust, diverse and well-trained scientific workforce.

Priscilla Del Valle
Credit: Christa Reynolds.
Priscilla Del Valle
Academic Institution: The University of Texas at El Paso
Major: Microbiology
Minors: Sociology and Biomedical Engineering
Mentor: Charles Spencer
Favorite Book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
Favorite Food: Tacos
Favorite music: Pop
Hobbies: Reading and drinking coffee

It’s not every day that you’ll hear someone say, “I learned more about parasites, and I thought, ‘This is so cool!’” But it’s also not every day that you’ll meet an undergraduate researcher like 21-year-old Priscilla Del Valle.

BUILD and the Diversity Program Consortium

The Diversity Program Consortium (DPC) aims to enhance diversity in the biomedical research workforce through improved recruitment, training and mentoring nationwide. It comprises three integrated programs—Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD), which implements activities at student, faculty and institutional levels; the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), which provides mentoring and career development opportunities for scientists at all levels; and the Coordination and Evaluation Center (CEC), which is responsible for evaluating and coordinating DPC activities.

Ten undergraduate institutions across the United States have received BUILD grants, and together, they serve a diverse population. Each BUILD site has developed a unique program intended to engage and prepare students for success in the biomedical sciences and maximize opportunities for research training and faculty development. BUILD programs include everything from curricular redesign, lab renovations, faculty training and research grants, to student career development, mentoring and research-intensive summer programs.

Del Valle’s interest in studying infectious diseases and parasites is motivating her to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. focusing on immunology and pathogenic microorganisms. Currently, Del Valle is a junior at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP)’s BUILDing SCHOLARS Center Exit icon. BUILDing SCHOLARS, which stands for “Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity Southwest Consortium of Health-Oriented Education Leaders and Research Scholars,” focuses on providing undergraduate students interested in the biomedical sciences with academic, financial and professional development opportunities. Del Valle is one of the first cohort of students selected to take part in this training opportunity.

BUILD scholars receive individual support through this training model, and Del Valle says she likes “the way that they [BUILDing SCHOLARS] take care of us and the workshops and opportunities that we have.”

Born in El Paso, Texas, Del Valle moved to Saltillo, Mexico, where she spent most of her childhood. Shortly after graduating from high school, she returned to El Paso to start undergraduate courses at El Paso Community College (EPCC), to pursue an M.D. Del Valle explains that in Mexico, unlike in the United States, careers in medical research are not really emphasized in the student community or in society, so she did not have firsthand experience with research.

Del Valle discovered her passion for research when she was assigned a project on malaria as part of an EPCC course. She was fascinated by the parasite that causes malaria. “It impressed me how something so little could infect a person so harshly,” she says. Continue reading

Student Researcher Finds New Clues About Flu with Old Data

Do you like to find new uses for old things? Like weaving old shirts into a rug, repurposing bottles into candle holders or turning packing crates into tables? Katie Gostic, a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) graduate student, likes finding new uses for old data. She channeled this interest when she analyzed existing data to study whether childhood exposure to flu affects a person’s future immunity to the disease.

Katie Gostic
Gostic conducted research for the flu project during the summer of 2015 when she was visiting her boyfriend, a tropical biologist, in Alamos, Sonora, Mexico. Credit: Charlie de la Rosa.

As an undergraduate student at Princeton University, Gostic was originally pursuing a degree in engineering. Her focus shifted to biology after taking an infectious disease modeling class. Gostic’s background in math and programming allows her to take large, complex pre-existing data sets and reanalyze them using new tools and methods. The result: Information that wasn’t accessible when the data were first collected.

Now a graduate researcher in the ecology and evolutionary biology lab of James Lloyd-Smith Exit icon, Gostic studies infectious diseases. The lab builds mathematical models to investigate zoonotic diseases—diseases that animals can transmit to humans but that humans don’t frequently spread between each other. Examples include diseases caused by Leptospira, a type of bacteria that infects household pets and many other animals, and monkeypox, a virus whose transmission to humans is increasing since the eradication of smallpox. The lab also studies bird flus, a category of flu viruses that infect birds and other animals and only occasionally jump to people. A very small number of cases of human-to-human transmission of bird flus have been recorded. However, if a bird flu virus mutated in a way that allowed it to spread among humans, it could cause a pandemic. Continue reading

Not Discounting His Future: Austin Works Toward His Goals

This is the second post in a new series highlighting NIGMS’ efforts toward developing a robust, diverse and well-trained scientific workforce.

Austin Phanouvong
Credit: Christa Reynolds.
Austin Phanouvong
Academic Institution: Portland State University
Major: Biology
Minor: Chemistry
Mentor: Suzanne Mitchell
Favorite Book: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
Favorite Food: Sushi
Hobbies: Hiking, cooking and traveling

BUILD and the Diversity Program Consortium

The Diversity Program Consortium (DPC) aims to enhance diversity in the biomedical research workforce through improved recruitment, training and mentoring nationwide. It comprises three integrated programs—Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD), which implements activities at student, faculty and institutional levels; the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), which provides mentoring and career development opportunities for scientists at all levels; and the Coordination and Evaluation Center (CEC), which is responsible for evaluating and coordinating DPC activities.

Ten undergraduate institutions across the United States have received BUILD grants, and together, they serve a diverse population. Each BUILD site has developed a unique program intended to engage and prepare students for success in the biomedical sciences and maximize opportunities for research training and faculty development. BUILD programs include everything from curricular redesign, lab renovations, faculty training and research grants, to student career development, mentoring and research-intensive summer programs.

Austin Phanouvong, 21, likes biology because it teaches him about life.

“Even the way we walk, the way we breathe – there’s all these little components to it that we don’t even think about but they’re very helpful, and one hiccup in that system can lead to many diseases and sicknesses,” Phanouvong says.

Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Phanouvong is a senior at Portland State University (PSU), where he is in the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) EXITO program. As a student in BUILD EXITO Exit icon (which stands for “Enhancing Cross-Disciplinary Infrastructure and Training at Oregon”), Phanouvong takes biomedical science courses, conducts research and participates in professional development workshops and seminars. He has learned about preparing a CV and writing personal statements. In spring 2017, Phanouvong will graduate with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry. He will continue to pursue research opportunities as he applies for medical school, and he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of pursuing a Ph.D. in the future.

Since high school, Phanouvong’s desire has been to help people through a healthcare career. Originally, he was interested in nursing, but he decided he could push his career plans and education farther by going to medical school. Because of his interest in hands-on research, last year Phanouvong’s honors thesis advisor recommended he apply for the BUILD program, and Phanouvong realized BUILD EXITO would be a great opportunity to engage in research as an undergraduate student. Continue reading

Interview With a Scientist: Thomas O’Halloran, Metal Maestro

Inside our bodies is a surprising amount of metal. Not enough to set off the scanners at the airport or make us rich, but enough to fill each of our cells with billions of metal ions, including calcium, iron, copper and zinc. These ions facilitate critical biological functions.

However, too much of any metal can be toxic, while too little can cause disease. Our cells carefully monitor and control their metal content using a whole series of proteins that bind, sense and transport metal ions.

Keeping tabs on why and how metals flow into and out of our cells is a passion of Thomas O’Halloran Exit icon, professor of chemistry and molecular biosciences at Northwestern University in Illinois. For the past three decades, O’Halloran has investigated how fluctuations in the amount of metal ions inside cells influence gene expression, cell growth and other vital functions. Using a variety of approaches, he has uncovered new types of proteins that bind metal ions and investigated the role that imbalances in these ions play in a number of disease-related physiological processes.

One recent focus of his studies has been how zinc regulates oocyte (egg cell) maturation and fertilization. Ultimately, his work could help us better understand infertility, cancer and certain bacterial infections.

Getting It Done: Chyann’s Path to Graduate School and Research

This is the first post in a new series highlighting NIGMS’ efforts toward developing a robust, diverse and well-trained scientific workforce.

Chyann Richard
Credit: Christa Reynolds.
Chyann Richard
Academic Institution: California State University, Long Beach
Major: Psychology
Mentor: Michelle Barrack
Favorite Book: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
Favorite sports team: Los Angeles Lakers
Favorite music: R&B

“A lot of people would never guess that I’m in research and I take pride in that. I want to be able to represent people that don’t even go this far,” Chyann Richard, 20, says.

BUILD and the Diversity Program Consortium

The Diversity Program Consortium (DPC) aims to enhance diversity in the biomedical research workforce through improved recruitment, training and mentoring nationwide. It comprises three integrated programs—Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD), which implements activities at student, faculty and institutional levels; the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN), which provides mentoring and career development opportunities for scientists at all levels; and the Coordination and Evaluation Center (CEC), which is responsible for evaluating and coordinating DPC activities.

Ten undergraduate institutions across the United States have received BUILD grants, and together, they serve a diverse population. Each BUILD site has developed a unique program intended to engage and prepare students for success in the biomedical sciences and maximize opportunities for research training and faculty development. BUILD programs include everything from curricular redesign, lab renovations, faculty training and research grants, to student career development, mentoring and research-intensive summer programs.

Currently a junior at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), Richard is majoring in psychology. After she graduates with a bachelor’s degree in 2018, she plans to continue to a Ph.D. program and do research in behavioral neuroscience.

Richard is among a select group of undergraduate college students participating in the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) program. The BUILD programs focus on finding innovative approaches to increase student engagement in the biomedical sciences, through interventions at student, faculty and institutional levels. As a BUILD scholar, Richard is conducting laboratory research and preparing for graduate school through career development seminars, presentations and other activities.

Richard loves how research introduces her to new ideas and allows her to share these concepts with others, including her parents.

“Because they’ve been teaching me my whole life … now I’ve got a one-up because I know about research and they don’t. That’s really fun,” she says.

Richard’s interest in behavioral neuroscience is both personal and scientific. During Richard’s junior year of high school, her mother was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. This sparked Richard to take an Advanced Placement (AP) psychology course, where she began learning about the prevalence of and treatments for such disorders.

“[The class] started bringing [my mom’s condition] into perspective – that it wasn’t just some random thing,” Richard says. Continue reading

The Irresistible Resistome: How Infant Diapers Might Help Combat Antibiotic Resistance (sort of)

Gautam Dantas
Credit: Pablo Tsukayama, Ph.D.,
Washington University School of Medicine
Gautam Dantas
Born: Mumbai, India
Most proud of: His family, which brings him joy and pride
Favorite lab tradition: OOFF! Official Optional Formal Fridays, when members of his lab can dress up, eat bread—made in the lab’s own bread machine—and drink beer and wine together at the end of the day
When not in the lab, he: Enjoys home brewing, pickling and canning, and spending time with his wife and children. He also attends musical performances, including those of his wife, who sings in the St. Louis Symphony Chorus
Advice to aspiring scientists: Pursue hobbies, take risks, explore beyond your comfort zone. “You can do a Ph.D., but also have other experiences.” He says his own outside activities refine his focus in the lab, keep him grounded and help him be an empathetic mentor to his students. Plus, he met his wife while singing in the chorus of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota

When I Grow Up…

Gautam Dantas remembers the day in 10th grade when he first wanted to be a scientist. It was the day he had a new biology teacher, a visiting researcher from the U.S. The teacher passionately described his own biochemical studies of how organisms live together in communities. By the end of the class, Dantas had resolved to earn a Ph.D. in biochemistry.

He ended up doing much more—gaining expertise in computational biology, protein design and synthetic biology. He now combines his skills and knowledge in multifaceted research that spans four departments at Washington University in St. Louis. His goal: to better understand and help combat a vital public health threat—drug-resistant bacteria.

“Our motivation is that we are living in the antibiotic era, and antibiotic resistance is getting out of control,” Dantas says. “We have very few new antibiotics we can use, so we’re kind of scrambling [to find new ways to treat bacterial diseases].”

His research focuses on one of the groups most vulnerable to bacterial infections—newborn babies.

According to his lab’s website Exit icon, the research is “at the interface of microbial genomics, ecology, synthetic biology, and systems biology,” and it aims “to understand, harness, and engineer the biochemical processing potential of microbial communities.” They do it by scrounging around in infant diapers.

Antibiotic Angst

Since their introduction in the 1940s, antibiotic drugs have saved countless lives. Simultaneously, they weeded out strains of bacteria easily killed by the drugs, allowing drug-resistant strains to thrive. Every year, at least 2 million people in the U.S. become infected and at least 23,000 die from drug-resistant bacteria, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Continue reading

You’ve Got Questions, We’ve Got Answers: Cell Day 2016

Students from Connecticut to Washington State and points in between peppered our experts with questions during the recent live Cell Day web chat. They fielded questions about cell structures, microscopes and other tools, life as a scientist, and whether there are still discoveries to be made in cell biology. One of the Cell Day moderators, Jessica Faupel-Badger, even gave a shout-out to the Biomedical Beat blog as a great way to keep up with new and exciting discoveries being made every day. Thanks!

The full transcript with all the questions and answers is now available. We’ve recapped some of the highlights below.

[Check out our Facebook Live post-chat video Exit icon for a bonus answer to the question “If you put lizard DNA into human cells, could humans regrow their limbs?”]


Being a Scientist

Patrick Brown
Prior to joining NIGMS in 2016 as a program director, Patrick Brown, was a high school chemistry teacher in Maryland.

What do you think is the best thing about being a biologist? Why do you love your job so much? (Assuming you do!)

Patrick Brown answered: I love that question! And, I love being a scientist. There are so many things that I like about my career choice. The answer is simple—I like learning! I like learning about different living organisms and how they may be the same or different. I also really enjoy the multi-cultural aspect of science. I get to interact with so many different people from different parts of the world who are all studying different aspects of science that are just as interesting as my own, and we are all interested in knowing more about life.

Gram stained cerebrospinal fluid with gram-positive anthrax bacilli. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Yuval Madar.

How did you know that biology was the career for you? In other words, what motivated you to become a biologist?

Amy Kullas answered: I remember being in my high school biology class, gazing through a microscope, and seeing the mixture of beautiful purple and pink cocci after performing my first Gram stain Exit icon. It was at that moment that I got hooked on science. I majored in microbiology in college and then went on to graduate school.

What does a typical day at work look like?

... every day at work is an adventure.Amicia Elliott answered: The truth is that every day at work is an adventure. A typical day includes some of the following things: reading scientific papers, thinking about and designing experiments (my favorite part!), carrying out those experiments, data analysis and discussing results. Scientists work long hours to accomplish all of these things, but it is mostly a labor of love!

In a 2014 Molecular Cell Exit icon paper, NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch and colleagues determined the structure of initiation complexes.

What was the most interesting experiment you have conducted?

Jon Lorsch answered: In my lab, we study how proteins are synthesized by the eukaryotic ribosome. We have learned a great deal about how the ribosome and the proteins that help it (called translation factors) find the start codon in the messenger RNA. Recently, in collaboration with a group in the UK, we used cryo-electron microscopy to determine the three-dimensional structure of various ‘initiation complexes’ – the small subunit of the ribosome bound to mRNA, tRNA and initiation factors. Being able to see how this process works in three dimensions is amazing!
Continue reading

Interview With a Scientist: Laura Kiessling, Carbohydrate Scientist

The outside of every cell on Earth—from the cells in your body to single-celled microorganisms—is blanketed with a coat of carbohydrates, or sugar molecules, that extend from the cell surface, branching off and bending as they interface with the extra-cellular space. The specific patterns in which these carbohydrates are arranged serve as an ID code that help cells recognize each other. For example, human liver cells have one pattern, while human red blood cells another. Certain diseases can even alter the pattern of surface carbohydrates, which is one way the body can recognize damaged cells. On foreign cells, including invading bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae, the carbohydrate coat is even more distinct.

Laura Kiessling Exit icon, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, studies how carbohydrate coats are assembled and how cells use these coats to tell friend from foe. The implications of her research suggest strategies for targeting tumors, fighting diseases of inflammation and, as she discusses in this video, developing new classes of antibiotics.

Get Your Cell Biology Questions Ready for Cell Day

What do you get when you mix a room full of scientists with a classroom full of students who have questions about cells? Cell Day 2016! During this free web chat, middle and high school students will have the opportunity to ask our scientists at NIGMS about cell biology, biochemistry, research careers and more. Join us on Thursday, November 3 anytime from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. EDT. Registration (no longer available) is now open.

The Science of Size: Rebecca Heald Explores Size Control in Amphibians

Rebecca Heald
Credit: Mark Hanson.
Rebecca Heald
Grew up in: Greenville, Pennsylvania
Studied at: Hamilton College, Rice University, Harvard Medical School
Job site: University of California, Berkeley
Favorite hobby: Cycling

A 50-pound frog isn’t some freak of nature or a creepy Halloween prank. It’s a thought experiment conceived by Rebecca Heald, a cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley Exit icon, who is studying the factors that control size in animals.

Heald’s “50-pound frog project” speaks to the power of evolution and to scientists’ ability to modify the physical characteristics of an organism by altering its genome. The project also incorporates many of Heald’s fascinating discoveries studying amphibian eggs and embryos.

In amphibians, unlike in mammals, there are striking correlations among the size of the animals’ genomes (an organism’s complete set of genes) and several aspects of the animals’ size. For example, amphibians with large genomes tend to be bigger than those with smaller genomes. Larger genomes also correspond to larger cells and larger organelles (specialized cellular structures such as the nucleus). Heald has also demonstrated that these seemingly fixed parameters can be tweaked in the lab. Continue reading