Category: Being a Scientist

PECASE Honoree Sohini Ramachandran Studies the Genetic Foundations of Traits in Diverse Populations

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Headshot of Sohini Ramachandran. Sohini Ramachandran, Brown University.
Credit: Danish Saroee/Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study.

Recent advances in computing enable researchers to explore the life sciences in ways that would have been impossible a few decades ago. One new tool is the ability to sequence genomes, revealing people’s full DNA blueprints. The collection of more and more genetic data allows researchers to compare the DNA of many people and observe variations, including those shared by people with a common ancestry.

Sohini Ramachandran Link to external web site, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Computational Molecular Biology and associate professor of biology and computer science at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. She is also a recent recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Dr. Ramachandran researches the causes and consequences of human genetic variations using computer models. Starting with genomic data from living people, her lab applies statistical methods, mathematical modeling, and computer simulations to discover how human populations moved and changed genetically over time.

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PECASE Honoree Michael Boyce on Sugar’s Role in Cell Signaling and on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Scientific Workforce

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Headshot of Michael Boyce. 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.

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Looking Back at the Top Three Posts of 2019

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Over the past 12 months, we’ve explored a variety of topics in genetics, cell biology, chemistry, and careers in the biomedical sciences. As we ring in the new year, we bring you our top three posts of 2019. If your favorite is missing, let us know what it is in the comments section below!

Amazing Organisms and the Lessons They Can Teach Us

Two Hawaiian bobtail squid with yellow skin, brown spots, and black eyes catching a neon green reflection. Hawaiian bobtail squid. Credit: Dr. Satoshi Shibata.

Studying research organisms, such as those featured in this post, teaches us about ourselves. These amazing creatures, which have some traits similar to our own, may hold the key to preventing and treating an array of complex diseases.

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The Meat of the Matter: Learning How Gut Microbiota Might Reduce Harm from Red Meat

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Drawing of intestines with a magnifying glass showing bacteria within the intestine.Microbiota in the intestines. Credit: iStock.

Research on how diet impacts the gut microbiota has rapidly expanded in the last several years. Studies show that diets rich in red meat are linked to diseases such as colon cancer and heart disease. In both mice and humans, researchers have recently discovered differences in the gut microbiota of those who eat diets rich in red meat compared with those who don’t. This is likely because of a sugar molecule in the red meat, called N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), that our bodies can’t break down. Researchers believe the human immune system sees Neu5Gc as foreign. This triggers the immune system, causing inflammation in the body, and possibly leads to disease over time.

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Block an Enzyme, Save a Life

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Vern Schramm in his lab, dressed in a white lab coat, standing with his arms folded across his chest. 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.

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PECASE Honoree Elizabeth Nance Highlights the Importance of Collaboration in Nanotechnology

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Black and white microscopic image of a capillary supplying blood to brain cells. 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 Link to external web site.

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 Link to external web site, 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.

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Pathways: The Regeneration Issue

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Cover of Pathways student magazine showing many zebrafish swimming underwater around grasslike plants, with the featured question: What do you and these zebrafish have in common? Cover of Pathways student magazine.

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.

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On the RISE: Joshua and Caleb Marceau Use NIGMS Grant to Jump-Start Their Research Careers

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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 examining a specimen in front of a large centrifuge.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.

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Back to School: Top Tips for Undergraduates Eyeing Careers in Biomedical Sciences

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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.

Mariajose Franco in a lab, using a pipette to fill a glass vial.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.

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Get Kids Excited About Science: Free STEM Resources

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Cover of the graphic novel Occupied by Microbes!, showing four teens racing downhill on skateboards. Credit: University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

We have a new Science Education and Partnership Award (SEPA) webpage, featuring free, easy-to-access, SEPA-funded Link to external web site resources that educators nationwide can use to engage their students in science. The SEPA program supports innovative STEM Link to external web site and informal science education Link to external web site  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:

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