Vern Schramm, professor of biochemistry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York. Credit: Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Enzymes drive life. Without them, we couldn’t properly digest food, make brain chemicals, move—or complete myriad other vital tasks. Unfortunately, in certain cases, enzymes also can trigger a host of health problems, including cancer, bacterial infections, and hypertension (high blood pressure).
Understanding how enzymes work has been the research focus of Vern Schramm for more than 4 decades.
“When we started our work, we were driven not by the desire to find drugs, but to understand the nature of enzymes, which are critical to human life,” Schramm says. But his research already led to one drug, and promises many more.
A network of capillaries supplies brain cells with nutrients. Tight seals in their walls keep blood toxins—and many beneficial drugs—out of the brain. Credit: Dan Ferber, PLOS Biol 2007 Jun; (5)6:E169. CC by 2.5 .
The blood-brain barrier—the ultra-tight seal in the walls of the brain’s capillaries—is an important part of the body’s defense system. It keeps invaders and other toxins from entering the human brain by screening out dangerous molecules. But the intricate workings of this extremely effective barrier also make it challenging to design therapeutics that would help us. And as it turns out, getting a drug across the blood-brain barrier is only half the battle. Once it’s across, the drug needs to effectively target the right cells in the brain tissue. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that challenges this complex are solved through collaboration among scientists from several different specialties.
Elizabeth Nance , an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle and a recent recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), focuses her research on understanding the barriers in the brain and other cell- and tissue-based barriers in the body to see how nanoparticles interact with them. Her lab uses nanoparticles to package therapies that will treat newborn brain injury, which can occur when the brain loses oxygen and blood flow, often during or immediately prior to delivery. This damage can lead to cerebral palsy, developmental delays, or sometimes death. Early interventions for newborn brain injury can be valuable, but they need to target specific, injured cells without harming healthy ones.
NIGMS and Scholastic, Inc., are excited to bring you the next edition of Pathways, a collection of free resources that teaches students about basic science, its importance to human health, and exciting research careers.
Pathways is designed for grades 6 through 12. The topic of this unit is regenerative medicine, a field that focuses on restoring or healing damaged body parts so that they function normally. The long-term goal is to stimulate tissue and organs to heal themselves.
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.
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.
We have a new Science Education and Partnership Award (SEPA) webpage, featuring free, easy-to-access, SEPA-funded resources that educators nationwide can use to engage their students in science. The SEPA program supports innovative STEM and informal science education projects for pre-kindergarten through grade 12. The program includes tools that teachers, scientists, and parents can use to excite kids about science and research, such as:
Viravuth (“Voot”) Yin, associate professor of regenerative biology and medicine at MDI Biological Laboratory and chief scientific officer at Novo Biosciences, Inc., in Bar Harbor, Maine. Credit: MDI Biological Laboratory.
In 1980, a week after his 6th birthday, Viravuth (“Voot”) Yin immigrated with his mother, grandfather, and three siblings from Cambodia to the United States. Everything they owned fit into a single, 18-inch carry-on bag. They had to build new lives from almost nothing. So, it’s perhaps fitting that Yin studies regeneration, the fascinating ability of some animals, such as salamanders, sea stars, and zebrafish, to regrow damaged body parts, essentially from scratch.
Yin’s path wasn’t always smooth. His family settled in Hartford, Connecticut, near an uncle who had been granted asylum during the Vietnam War. Yin got into a lot of trouble in school, trying to learn a new culture and fit in. Things improved when his mother moved him and his siblings to West Hartford, well known for its strong schools.
Jon Lorsch, from Swarthmore College’s class of 1990, returned to his alma mater in May to accept an honorary Doctor of Sciences degree for his accomplishments as a biochemist and his visionary leadership of NIGMS. During the university’s 147th commencement, he spoke to the 2019 graduating class, offering advice and examples of how we can look for opportunities in the least likely places.
Watch the 5-minute video to hear Lorsch’s advice to the graduates—and all future scientists—to venture into the unknown in search of the next big advance in biomedical research.
Dr. Melissa Wilson.
Credit: Chia-Chi Charlie Chang.
The X and Y chromosomes, also known as sex chromosomes, differ greatly from each other. But in two regions, they are practically identical, said Melissa Wilson , assistant professor of genomics, evolution, and bioinformatics at Arizona State University.