Bacteria can cause many common illnesses, including strep throat and ear infections. If you’ve ever gone to the doctor for one of these infections, they likely prescribed an antibiotic—a medicine designed to fight bacteria. Because bacteria can also cause life-threatening infections, antibiotics have saved many lives. However, the widespread use of antibiotics has fueled a growing problem: antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can survive some or even all antibiotics. Other microorganisms, including fungi, can similarly become resistant to the medicines that are used to treat them. Infections from these microorganisms affect many people and are difficult to treat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the U.S. alone, resistant bacteria and fungi infect 2.8 million people each year, and more than 35,000 die as a result.
You might know that tiny individual units called cells make up your body. But did you know some of your cells die every day as a part of their normal life cycle? These deaths are balanced by other cells splitting into two identical cells, a process called mitosis.
Claira Sohn credits her grandfather with sparking her interest in science. Although he never studied science at a 4-year university due to financial limitations, he took many community college classes and worked in chemistry labs developing products such as hair dyes and dissolvable stitches. “Every morning, my grandfather would take me to school, and we’d stop to get orange juice and a cookie and talk about science. When I was in elementary school, he bought me a book about quantum mechanics written for kids,” she says. “He inspired me to ask questions and encouraged me to go to college.”
Claira enrolled at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff after graduating high school. She majored in biomedical sciences and planned to become a medical doctor until her microbiology professor talked to her about the possibility of a research career. “That was an epiphany for me, because while I knew that there was research going on in the world, I didn’t realize there could be a place for me there,” Claira says. During her junior year, she joined the lab of Naomi Lee, Ph.D., where she first experienced what it felt like to be a researcher.
The power of computer code has been a longtime fascination for Tomas Helikar, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). In college, when he learned he could use that power to help researchers better understand biology and improve human health, Dr. Helikar knew he’d found his ideal career. Since then, he’s built a successful team of scientists studying the ways we can use mathematical models in biomedical research, such as creating a digital replica of the immune system that could predict how a patient will react to infectious microorganisms and other pathogenicinsults.
A Career in Computational Biology
Dr. Helikar first became involved in computer science by learning how to build a website as a high school student. He was amazed to learn that simple lines of computer code could be converted into a functional website, and he felt empowered knowing that he had created a real product from his computer.
The average human brain is only about 3 pounds, but this complex organ punches well above its weight, acting as the control center for the whole body. Many of the brain’s intricacies still aren’t fully understood. To gain more insight into brain processes, scientists often peer into the brains of research organisms such as fruit flies and mice. These organisms have shed light on how our brains maintain circadian rhythms, how neuropsychiatric disorders develop, and more.
Although Dr. Santiago-Frangos wanted to become a scientist from a young age and always found biology interesting, by the time he was attending high school in his native country of Cyprus, he had developed a passion for physics and thought he’d pursue a career in that field. However, working at a biotechnology company for a summer changed his mind. “That experience made me want to dive into biology more deeply because I could see how it could be directly applied to human health. Physics can also be applied to human health, but, at least at that time, biology seemed to me like a more direct way to help humanity,” says Dr. Santiago-Frangos.
Adam Gormley, Ph.D., describes himself as a creative and adventurous person—albeit, not creative in the traditional sense. “Science allows me to be creative; to me, it’s a form of art. I love being outdoors, going on sailing trips, and spending time adventuring with my family. Research is the same—it’s an adventure. My creative and adventurous sides have combined into a real love for science,” he says. Dr. Gormley currently channels his passion for science into his position as an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Learning How the World Works
Both of Dr. Gormley’s parents worked in science and medicine—his mother as a medical doctor and his father as a physician-scientist—and they instilled in him a curiosity for how the world worked. When he was young, Dr. Gormley and his parents would tinker with cars or boats and fix broken household items together, all the while talking about the individual parts and how they functioned as a whole. “I always had that technical, hands-on side of me,” he says.
The word media may make many of us think about media outlets where we get our news or social media where we keep up with friends. But to biomedical researchers, media is a nutrient-rich liquid that fuels cell cultures—groups of cells grown in a lab. Scientists grow many types of cultures in media, from bacteria to human cells. They use these cultures to learn about basic biological processes and to develop and test new medicines.
Some might think that protein is only important for weightlifters. In truth, all life relies on the activity of protein molecules. A single human cell contains thousands of different proteins with diverse roles, including:
Providing structure. Proteins such as actin make up the three-dimensional cytoskeleton that gives cells structure and determines their shapes.
Aiding chemical reactions. Many proteins are biological catalysts called enzymes that speed up the rate of chemical reactions by reducing the amount of energy needed for the reactions to proceed. For example, lactase is an enzyme that breaks down lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. Those with lactose intolerance don’t produce enough lactase to digest dairy.
Supporting communication. Some proteins act as chemical messengers between cells. For example, cytokines are the protein messengers of the immune system and can increase or decrease the intensity of an immune response.
To make naturally colorless biological structures easier to study, scientists often use fluorescent tags and other tools to color them. Here, we feature images with purple hues and pair them with questions to test your knowledge of basic science concepts.
Visit our image and video gallery for more scientific photos, illustrations, and videos in all the colors of the rainbow.