Category: Tools and Techniques

Building a Digital Immune System

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A headshot of Dr. Helikar.
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Tomas Helikar.

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 pathogenic insults.

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.

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Using Robots and Artificial Intelligence to Search for New Medicines

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A portrait image of Dr. Gormley, wearing a white lab coat in the laboratory.
Courtesy of Dr. Adam Gormley.

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.

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Career Conversations: Q&A With Biochemist Prabodhika Mallikaratchy

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A headshot of Dr. Mallikaratchy.
Credit: CUNY School of Medicine.

“One of the biggest things I hope for in my career is that in 20 years, I still feel the same joy and enthusiasm for research and training that I feel now,” says Prabodhika Mallikaratchy, Ph.D., a professor in the department of molecular, cellular, and biomedical sciences at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Medicine. Dr. Mallikaratchy talks with us about her career path, research on developing new immunotherapies and molecular tools using nucleic acids, and her belief in the importance of being passionate about your career.

Q: How did you first become interested in science?

A: Growing up in Sri Lanka, I was always a curious child. I remember being drawn to science and math, but there was no particular incident that sparked my interest. By the time I reached high school, though, I had become especially interested in chemistry.

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Career Conversations: Q&A With Polymer Chemist Frank Leibfarth

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A headshot of Dr. Leibfarth.
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Frank Leibfarth.

“I love that you can change the molecular-level structure of a material, then pull it, bend it, or twist it and see firsthand how the molecular changes you introduced influence its stretchiness or bendiness,” says Frank Leibfarth Ph.D., an associate professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. In an interview, Dr. Leibfarth shares with us his scientific journey, his use of chemistry to tackle challenges in human health and sustainability, and his beliefs on what makes a career in science exciting.

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Automating Cellular Image Analysis to Find Potential Medicines

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A professional photo of Dr. Carpenter.
Dr. Anne Carpenter. Credit: Juliana Sohn.

When she started college, Anne Carpenter, Ph.D., never guessed she’d one day create software for analyzing images of cells that would help identify potential medicines and that thousands of researchers would use. She wasn’t planning to become a computational biologist, or even to focus on science at all, but she’s now an institute scientist and the senior director of the Imaging Platform at the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard in Cambridge.

Starting Out in Science

Before beginning her undergraduate studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, Dr. Carpenter’s strongest interests were reading and writing. Then, her subjects expanded. “In college, I liked science as much as anything else, and I realized that was unusual, as a lot of other people really struggled with it. I decided to pursue science because I enjoyed it and the field had good job prospects,” she says. Dr. Carpenter majored in biology because she felt it had the “juiciest questions” as well as a direct impact on human health.

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Career Conversations: Q&A With Evolutionary Biologist William Ratcliff

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Dr. Ratcliff wearing a lab coat and safety goggles and sitting at a microscope.
Dr. William Ratcliff. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. William Ratcliff.

“Being a researcher is special because there aren’t many jobs that allow you to spend the majority of your time thinking about the things you find the most interesting in the whole world,” says William Ratcliff, Ph.D., an associate professor of biological sciences and the director of the interdisciplinary graduate program in quantitative biosciences at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta. We talked with Dr. Ratcliff about his career path, research on yeast, and advice to budding scientists.

Q: How did you first become interested in science?

A: My family owns land in Northern California that has been passed down for more than 100 years. When I was a child, my brother and I would spend summers on that land getting lost in the woods. We would really see the forest for its parts: seeing how organisms interacted with one other, tracking stages of development, and listening to birdcalls. My grandmother would identify plants by their scientific names, and we’d discuss their reproduction strategies. We became amateur natural historians during those summers. Perhaps it’s no surprise my brother and I both got Ph.Ds. in biology.

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Five Outstanding Stories From 2022

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Throughout 2022, we shared the stories of dozens of NIGMS-supported researchers, trainees, and programs. We also highlighted new STEM education resources, tested your knowledge with quizzes, showcased extraordinary scientific images, and more. To celebrate the upcoming new year, we’re highlighting five of our most popular posts from 2022. Check out the list below, and let us know in the comments section which of this year’s posts you liked best!

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Career Conversations: Q&A With Biomolecular Engineer Markita Landry

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A headshot of Dr. Landry.
Dr. Markita Landry. Credit: Vilcek Foundation.

“I have a hard time envisioning a career more exciting than science. It’s really magical to see an experimental result and, for a moment, be the only person in the universe to know something about the world,” says Markita Landry, Ph.D., an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. In an interview, Dr. Landry shares with us her scientific journey, research with nanoparticles, and interests outside of the lab.

Q: What sparked your interest in science?

A: I was indirectly exposed to science growing up because my mom was in computer science, but I think moving to the United States is what made me very interested in it. My mother is Bolivian; my father is French-Canadian; and I grew up mostly in Quebec, Canada. When I was halfway through high school, we moved to the United States, and, for the first time, my classes were taught in English. I really gravitated to math and science because they made sense regardless of the language they were taught in.

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The Chemistry Clicked: Two NIGMS-Funded Researchers Receive Nobel Prize

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Since its creation in 1962, NIGMS has supported the work of the recipients of 94 Nobel Prizes—44 in physiology or medicine and 50 in chemistry. NIGMS-funded investigators perform cutting-edge basic research that is foundational to understanding normal life processes and disease. Such important breakthroughs in chemistry and biology often fuel more focused research that, years later, leads to important medical advances or products such as medicines or biotechnology tools.

Sketches of Drs. Carolyn R. Bertozzi and K. Barry Sharpless above their printed names.
Credit: Niklas Elmehed.

The most recent NIGMS-supported Nobel laureates are Carolyn R. Bertozzi, Ph.D., the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University in Stanford, California, and K. Barry Sharpless, Ph.D., the W.M. Keck Professor of Chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. They, along with Morten Meldal, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, are being recognized with the 2022 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on a transformative scientific approach known as “click chemistry.” The three scientists will receive their awards during a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, on December 10, 2022.

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Sepsis Sleuths

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Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies without even realizing it. One devastating example is sepsis: our body’s overwhelming or impaired immune response to an insult—usually an infection or an injury to the body. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sepsis affects at least 1.7 million people in the United States each year, and it can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death. (See our sepsis fact sheet for more information.)

An outline of the United States composed of people icons, above text that reads: “Get ahead of sepsis. Know the risks. Spot the signs. Act fast.” Next to the map outline is text that reads: “At least 1.7 million adults in the U.S. develop sepsis each year, and nearly 270,000 die as a result.
Credit: CDC.
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