Discovering Better Ways to Build Medicinal Molecules

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Dr. Baran standing in front of a chemistry fume hood with molecular structures drawn on it.
Dr. Phil Baran. Credit: Scripps Research.

“I love the mystery of chemistry. It explores the great unknown of the universe,” says Phil Baran, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry at Scripps Research, La Jolla, California. His passion for the subject catalyzed a successful career in organic synthesis—building molecules that are the foundation of living things and can be developed as medicines.

Setting His Sights on Science

School didn’t interest Dr. Baran until he found chemistry in 10th grade. “From there, the mission was clear: do whatever was required to do chemistry for the rest of my life,” he says. At the time, that meant achieving certain grades, so he focused on improving his academic performance. He also took courses at a community college and graduated with his high school diploma and associate degree simultaneously.

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Career Conversations: Q&A with Clinician-Scientist Faheem Guirgis

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Dr. Guirgis in a white lab coat.
Dr. Faheem Guirgis. Credit: University of Florida, Jacksonville.

“Patients at urban and inner-city hospitals are in dire need of high-quality care and frequently don’t have access to clinician-scientists doing cutting-edge research. That’s part of what has made me committed to performing research in these settings,” says Faheem Guirgis, M.D., an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine, Jacksonville. Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Guirgis below to learn how he became a doctor and what inspired him to conduct research on sepsis.

Q: How did you become interested in science and medicine?

A: After the phase of wanting to be a firefighter or police officer, the next thing I remember wanting to be was a doctor. My father was and is my ultimate inspiration for pursuing a career in medicine. He was a family-practice physician committed to providing the best care possible for his patients before retiring recently, and they loved him.

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Cloudy With a Chance of Scientific Discoveries

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The cloud. To many, it’s a mysterious black hole that somehow transports photos and files from their old or lost phone to their new one. To some researchers, though, it’s an invaluable resource that allows them access to data analytics tools they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Hands typing on a laptop with a digitized cloud and computer icons floating above them.
Credit: iStock.

Scientists have begun using cloud computing to store, process, and analyze their data through online bioinformatics tools. Biological data sets are often large and hard to interpret, requiring complex calculating instructions—or algorithms—to understand them. Fortunately, these algorithms can run on local computers or remotely through cloud computing.

One advantage of cloud-based programs over local computers is the ability to analyze data without taking up the user’s personal storage space. With cloud-based storage, researchers can store their large data files, including their labeled notes called annotations. Another benefit is that users have easy access to software packages within the cloud for data analysis. The cloud also encourages collaboration among scientists by making it easy to share large amounts of data.

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Slideshow: Mitosis Masterpieces

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The intricate process of mitosis—a cell splitting into two identical daughter cells—plays a pivotal role in sustaining life. Many scientists study this process to understand what’s needed for it to progress normally and why it sometimes goes awry, such as in cancer. During their research, the scientists often create eye-catching images and videos, and we showcase some of those visuals here.

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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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