In a previous post, we highlighted two NIGMS-funded winners of the 2018 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM ). For January’s National Mentoring Month, we tell you about other awardees: J.K. Haynes, Virginia Shepherd, and Maria da Graça H. Vicente.
Category: Being a Scientist
Brain injuries, cancer, infections, and wound healing are some of the complex and pressing
health concerns we face today. Understanding the basic science behind these diseases and biological processes is the key to developing new treatments and improving patient outcomes. Physician scientists—medical doctors who also conduct laboratory research—are essential to turning knowledge gained in the lab into innovative treatments, surgical advances, and new diagnostic tools.
In this blog, we highlight the work and impact of three surgeon scientists funded by NIGMS at different stages in their careers: Dr. Nicole Gibran (current grantee), Dr. Rebecca Minter (former grantee), and Dr. Carrie Sims (former grantee). Their work, despite the historical underrepresentation of women in the physician scientist training community, has led to revolutionary surgical treatments, new therapeutics, better screening, and improved quality of life for patients.
Ten years ago, Chris McCulloh planned to enter medical school and fulfill his dream of becoming a surgeon. Instead, just months before he was to start med school, he ended up a patient. A freak accident—slipping on a hardwood floor, flying backwards, and landing neck-first on the edge of a glass coffee table—left him with both legs paralyzed at age 28. Undaunted, he deferred entering medical school for a year, undergoing surgery and spending months in rehab.
McCulloh has since finished medical school and recently completed a 2-year pediatric surgery research fellowship at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. He is now two-thirds of the way through his surgical residency at the Morristown (New Jersey) Medical Center, thanks to the assistance of a specialized wheelchair that allows him to stand nearly to his 6-foot-3 height and helps him perform five to six surgeries a day.
He’s received plenty of attention for being a surgeon with a disability. Along with several print media stories, he was interviewed in 2013 for CBS’ “The Doctors,” and in 2017, ABC’s “20/20” included McCulloh in an episode on physicians with disabilities. But it’s not the wheelchair that distinguishes McCulloh, says Gail Besner, a pediatric surgeon and researcher who hired McCulloh as a postdoctoral fellow. Rather, it’s his enthusiasm, natural research skills, and exceptional surgical prowess that make him special. Besner sees no reason why he won’t reach his goal of landing a highly competitive pediatric surgical residency. “I think he’s capable of doing anything he puts his mind to,” she says.
NIGMS cares deeply about our future generations of scientists. That’s why we continue to fund educational tools that make science exciting for students with the hope of steering them toward career paths in science. These materials are available to educators for free through the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program.
SEPA funds innovative Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM ) and Informal Science Education (ISE ) projects for pre-kindergarten through grade 12. By encouraging interactive partnerships between biomedical and clinical researchers and educators, schools, and other interested organizations, SEPA provides opportunities to:
- Motivate students from underserved communities to consider careers in basic or clinical research
- Improve community health literacy
Here are just a few SEPA-funded resources that educators can use to peak their students’ interest in science:
Charles Darwin Synthetic Interview (middle school through grade 9, and general public)
In this free interactive experience for iOS and Android devices, students learn about Charles Darwin, the naturalist, geologist, and leading contributor to the fundamental principles of evolution. Students select from a list of questions to ask a virtual Darwin and receive insight into topics that include:
- His childhood and personal quirks
- His adventures
- Principles of evolution
- Public response to his discovery
Modern-day biologists and other experts provide commentary and answer questions beyond Darwin’s 19th century knowledge. A pay version of the app includes many more questions and answers. Lesson plans and other lessons on evolution are also included with the apps, which were developed by The Partnership in Education at Duquesne University, along with several other SEPA-funded resources.
Six NIGMS grantees are among this year’s winners of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM). The award was established by the White House in 1995. This year, it went to 27 individuals and 14 organizations.
PAESMEM recipients were honored during a 3-day event in Washington, D.C. The event featured a gala presentation ceremony and a White House tour. In addition, each winner received a $10,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which manages PAESMEM on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The event also included the first-ever White House State-Federal STEM Education Summit. During the summit, awardees joined leaders in education and workforce development from across the nation, including U.S. territories and several Native American tribes, to discuss trends and future priorities in STEM education. The discussions will inform the development of the next Federal STEM Education 5-Year Strategic Plan, which must be updated every 5 years according to the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010.
- Ann L. Chester, Ph.D., West Virginia University
- John K. Haynes, Ph.D., Morehouse College
- John A. Pollock, Ph.D., Duquesne University
- Elba Elisa Serrano, Ph.D., New Mexico State University
- Virginia Shepherd, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University
- Maria da Graça H. Vicente, Ph.D., Louisiana State University
Many researchers who search for anti-cancer drugs have labs filled with chemicals and tissue samples. Not Rommie Amaro . Her work uses computers to analyze the shape and behavior of a protein called p53. Defective versions of p53 are associated with more human cancers than any other malfunctioning protein.
While DNA acts as the hard drive of the cell, storing the instructions to make all of the proteins the cell needs to carry out its various duties, another type of genetic material, RNA, takes on a wide variety of tasks, including gene regulation, protein synthesis, and sensing of metals and metabolites. Each of these jobs is handled by a slightly different molecule of RNA. But what determines which job a certain RNA molecule is tasked with? Primarily its shape. Julius Lucks, a biological and chemical engineer at Northwestern University, and his team study the many ways in which RNA can bend itself into new shapes and how those shapes dictate the jobs the RNA molecule can take on.
Cataloging the human microbiome—the complete collection of bacteria, fungi, archaea, protists, and viruses that live in and on our bodies—is an enormous task. Most estimates put the number of organisms who call us home on par with the number of our own cells. Imagine trying to figure out how the billions of critters influence each other and, ultimately, impact our health. Elhanan Borenstein, a computer scientist-cum-genomicist at the University of Washington, and his team are not only tackling this difficult challenge, they are also trying to obtain a systems-level understanding of the collective effect of all of the genes, proteins, and metabolites produced by the numerous species within the microbiome.
You’ve likely heard some variation of the statistic that there are at least as many microbial cells in our body as human cells. You may have also heard that the microscopic bugs that live in our guts, on our skins, and every crevice they can find, collectively referred to as the human microbiome, are implicated in human health. But do these bacteria, fungi, archaea, protists, and viruses cause disease, or are the specific populations of microbes inside us a result of our state of health? That’s the question that drives the research in the lab of Andrew Goodman , associate professor of microbial pathogenesis at Yale University.
For more than 30 years, NIGMS has supported the structural characterization of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) enzymes and viral proteins. This support has been instrumental in the development of crucial drugs for antiretroviral therapy such as protease inhibitors. NIGMS continues to support further characterization of viral proteins as well as cellular and viral complexes. These complexes represent the fundamental interactions between the virus and its host target cell and, as such, represent potential new targets for therapeutic development.
In this third in a series of three video interviews with NIGMS-funded researchers probing the structure of HIV, Michael Summers, professor of biochemistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, discusses his use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology to study HIV. Of recent interest to Summers has been using NMR to investigate how HIV’s RNA enables the virus to reproduce. His goals for this line of research are to develop treatments against HIV as well as learning how to best engineer viruses to deliver helpful therapies to individuals with a variety of diseases.