Biomedical Researchers RISE From the University of Texas, San Antonio

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“One thing that we try to develop in students is a sense of belonging and scientific identity,” says Edwin Barea-Rodriguez, Ph.D., the director of the Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement (RISE) program at the University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA). The program provides undergraduate and graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds with research experiences, professional development opportunities, and faculty mentorships. The UTSA RISE program has helped hundreds of students build strong foundations for scientific careers over its more than 20-year history. Here, we share the stories of three students who have benefited from RISE.

Support Beyond the Lab

A headshot of Kaira Church.
Kaira Church. Credit: Courtesy of Kaira Church.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, Kaira Church knew she loved research but wasn’t sure if graduate school was right for her. She took a job as a lab technician in the research group of Astrid Cardona, Ph.D., a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at UTSA, where she learned firsthand what being a graduate student entailed. She was also introduced to RISE and was impressed by the variety of opportunities it offered. She decided to pursue a Ph.D. and applied to the program.

Kaira is now in her fourth year as a RISE trainee. “I really like the professional development and the networking that RISE offers,” she says. “A lot of science majors are stuck in the lab all the time. RISE ensures that we’re meeting people in our field so we have plenty of job opportunities when we graduate.”

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Science Snippet: Get to Know Your Nerve Cells!

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Nerve cells, also known as neurons, carry information through our bodies using electrical impulses and chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. A nerve cell’s size and shape depend on its role and location, but nearly all nerve cells have three main parts:

  • Dendrites that extend like branches and receive signals
  • A cell body containing the nucleus that holds the genetic material of the cell and controls its actions
  • An axon, a long structure that transmits messages
An illustration of a nerve cell that shows a round cell body with dendrites and a long axon branching away from it.
A typical nerve cell. Credit: iStock.
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From Potatoes to Pharmaceuticals: Idaho INBRE Alumni’s Diverse Careers

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A headshot of Jenny Durrin in a greenhouse.
Jenny Durrin. Credit: University of Idaho.

Jenny Durrin says she would never have become the director of the Seed Potato Germplasm Program at the University of Idaho, Moscow, without the experience she gained through the Idaho IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) program. Another Idaho INBRE alum, Steve Van Horn, credits the program with enabling him to start a career in the pharmaceutical industry.

Providing undergraduate students with research opportunities and preparing them for STEM careers in biomedical sciences are key goals of INBREs across the country, including Idaho’s program. Here, we share Jenny’s and Steve’s stories and the pivotal role that INBRE played for them.

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Career Conversations: Q&A with Neuroimmunology Researcher Jingru Sun

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Dr. Jingru Sun. Credit: Cori Kogan.

“If you want to pursue a career in science, it’s very important to foster a hardworking attitude, a creative mind, and critical thinking,” says Jingru Sun, Ph.D., an associate professor of translational medicine and physiology at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Spokane. Our interview with Dr. Sun highlights how her career path led her to research the way the nervous system regulates immune responses.

Q: How did you become interested in science?

A: In high school, I had an amazing teacher who introduced me to the scientific world, guided me to ask the right questions, and encouraged me to find answers by myself. I asked questions like: How do trees produce oxygen? How can we see bacteria through a microscope? Why are humans smarter than other animals?

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Photographing the Physics of Cells

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Dr. Lakadamyali sitting behind a large, complex microscope in a lab.
Dr. Melike Lakadamyali with a microscope. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Lakadamyali.

“It would be a dream come true if I could look at a cell within a tissue and have a Google Maps view to zoom in until I saw individual molecules,” says Melike Lakadamyali, Ph.D., an associate professor of physiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her lab is helping make part of that dream a reality by developing super-resolution microscopy tools that visualize cells at a near-molecular level.

Blending Physics and Biology

Science and math fascinated Dr. Lakadamyali since childhood, and she felt especially drawn to physics because she enjoyed using logic to solve problems. After graduating high school in her native country of Cyprus, she chose to study physics at the University of Texas, Austin. She never gave much thought to applying physics methods to biological
questions—a field known as biophysics—until her third year as an undergraduate, when she gained her first research experience in the lab of Josef Käs, Ph.D.

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In Other Words: Not All Tissues Are For Runny Noses

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When most of us hear the word tissue, we think of something we reach for when we have a runny nose. But in biology, a tissue is a group of cells that act together to carry out a specific function.

Below the title “Tissue: In Other Words,” two images are separated by a jagged line. On the left is a box of tissues, and on the right is an image of brain tissue showing individual cells. Under the images, text reads: “Did you know? In biomedical science, tissue refers to a group of cells that act together to carry out a specific function in the body.”
Credit: NIGMS; and Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman, NCMIR.

Your body has four basic types of tissues:

  • Muscle tissue provides movement. Types include voluntary muscles, like those in the arms and legs, and involuntary muscles, such as those that move food through the digestive system.
  • Nervous tissue carries messages throughout the body and includes the brain, spinal cord, and nerves.
  • Connective tissue supports other tissues and binds them together. Examples include ligaments, tendons, bones, and fat.
  • Epithelial tissue creates protective barriers and includes the skin and the linings of internal passageways.
Together, these different tissues form organs. For example, the stomach contains all four basic types of tissues.

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How Research Works: Understanding the Process of Science

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Have you ever wondered how research works? How scientists make discoveries about our health and the world around us? Whether they’re studying plants, animals, humans, or something else in our world, they follow the scientific method. But this method isn’t always—or even usually—a straight line, and often the answers are unexpected and lead to more questions. Let’s dive in to see how it all works.

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Career Conversations: Q&A with Structural Biologist Lauren Parker Jackson

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Dr. Lauren Parker Jackson. Credit: Vanderbilt University.

“A confusing experimental result almost always means you’ve stumbled upon something interesting and maybe even exciting. I think that’s what makes science fun,” says Lauren Parker Jackson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Jackson to learn how she became a biologist and what she studies in her lab.

Q: What sparked your interest in science?

A: I credit my high school chemistry, physics, and biology teachers with getting me interested in science. They were quirky, they were talented, they were energetic, and they weren’t afraid to push us. As a teenager, I did a lot of science fairs and quiz bowls, where two teams compete to answer academic questions. As a high school junior, I took part in the Governor’s School for the Sciences and Engineering, where I spent a month at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, studying chemistry in a lab. That exposed me to research for the first time.

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From Music to Mathematics: MARC Scholar Pursues Career as Biostatistician

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Raven standing in a desert landscape.
Raven Delfina Otero-Symphony. Credit: Julie Custer.

At 9 years old, Raven Delfina Otero-Symphony wanted to be an astronaut. As a fourth-year statistics student at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, she still dreams of working for NASA—but as a statistician. You might be surprised to learn that she spent high school and her first semester of college preparing for a career in music, convinced that science and mathematics weren’t for her.

Strings to Stats

Raven enjoyed and excelled in both STEM and humanities classes as a child. As she got older, her interest in STEM wasn’t encouraged, and she began to believe she “just wasn’t a science person.” She concentrated on music because she felt very supported in that pursuit. She played the viola—a stringed instrument slightly larger and deeper in tone than a violin—and performed in symphonies throughout high school.

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A Roundup of 2021’s Quality Quotes

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Happy almost New Year! Throughout 2021 we spoke to more than two dozen NIGMS-supported researchers for the Biomedical Beat blog. They shared their work, career journeys, experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic, and more. Here, we’re showcasing a few of their outstanding quotes. You can learn more about these scientists by checking out the links to the original blog posts.

Quality Quotes
A headshot of Sally Hodder, M.D., on a black background with fireworks and the title Quality Quotes a 2021 Roundup.
“When folks participate in the science, when there is good community discussion about the trial designs and the results, then I think those populations may be more trusting of the results.”

Read more: COVID-19 Vaccine and Therapeutic Trials ACTIV-ate in West Virginia
Credit: West Virginia University.
A headshot of Brian Munsky, Ph.D., on a black background with fireworks and the title Quality Quotes a 2021 Roundup.
“Having a career in science is really the best way to rechannel the inner child, to remain forever curious about the world.”

Read more: Career Conversations: Q&A with Biological Engineer Brian Munsky
Photo Credit: Colorado State University.
A headshot of Akhila Rajan, Ph.D., on a black background with fireworks and the title Quality Quotes a 2021 Roundup.
“There’s always uncertainty associated with science: whether a project that you propose is going to take off, whether you’re chosen for a certain job, whether you get the grant that you applied for. Learning to embrace that uncertainty is an important skill.”

Read more: Career Conversations: Q&A with Biologist Akhila Rajan
Photo Credit: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
A headshot of Marcos Ramos-Benítez, Ph.D. on a black background with fireworks and the title Quality Quotes a 2021 Roundup.
"The importance of research in people’s day-to-day lives has never been so exemplified as during the pandemic. You could see how a basic science observation, something that was done in the lab, could translate in a matter of weeks into a public health recommendation and then shape how people were behaving."

Read more: Researcher Shares Science en Español and Builds a Community
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Ramos-Benítez.