Dr. Darden with her mentor, Dr. Philip Efron. Credit: Courtesy of Lyle Moldawer, Ph.D.
“I’m an African American woman from Memphis, Tennessee; you don’t see very many people like me in medicine or in science,” says Dijoia Darden, M.D. She’s working toward becoming an academic physician, which will allow her to treat patients, teach, and conduct research. “I’m hoping that as an academic physician, I can inspire other women, especially women of color, to pursue things they’re passionate about.”
A Path to Medicine
Dr. Darden was drawn to science from a young age, inspired by her microbiologist mother. She recalls that her mom often helped her create science fair projects, including one where she grew penicillin-producing bacteria taken from a lemon. Later on, during her high school summer breaks, Dr. Darden worked in a lab that studied how certain genes might contribute to cancer.
Dr. Brian Munsky. Credit: Colorado State University.
“I think having a career in science is really the best way to rechannel the inner child, to remain forever curious about the world,” says Brian Munsky, Ph.D., an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at Colorado State University, Fort Collins. Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Munsky below to learn how his childhood practical jokes led to him running a research group that uses computational and experimental methods to study complex processes inside cells.
Dr. Akhila Rajan. Credit: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“What makes being a scientist exciting is that I don’t know what I’m going to find tomorrow,” says Akhila Rajan, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the basic sciences division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. Dr. Rajan is supported by an NIGMS early stage investigator Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award. These awards provide stable and flexible funding for a program of research that falls within NIGMS’ mission. Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Rajan to learn about her research and journey as a scientist.
“If I was going to do science, I wanted it to help people,” says Julia Bohannon, Ph.D., an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
Dr. Bohannon researches therapies that could help prevent infections in patients with severe burn injuries. Infections are common in these patients because burn injuries typically suppress the immune system. Dr. Bohannon originally planned to become a burn surgeon, inspired by the doctor who treated her after she was severely burned as a child. But during her junior year of college at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, she started working in a genetics lab and enjoyed it so much that she began considering a research career.
Choosing a Path Forward
After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Dr. Bohannon worked for 2 gap years in a translational research lab at the University of Kentucky to decide between pursuing an M.D. or a Ph.D. She ultimately entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and conducted research in the lab of Tracy Toliver-Kinsky, Ph.D., at the Shriners Children’s burn center. Upon earning her Ph.D., Dr. Bohannon took a postdoctoral position with Edward Sherwood, Ph.D., at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where she studied potential treatments to improve immune cell function after burns. To continue her work, she followed Dr. Sherwood a year later when he moved to Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Dr. Ramos-Benítez researches interactions between pathogens—such as the viruses that cause Ebola and COVID-19—and their hosts. He’s also the founder and president of Ciencia en tus Manos (“Science in Your Hands”), a nonprofit organization that presents scientific information in Spanish and aims to provide a community to support the next generation of scientists.
“You’re not going to be able to do biology without understanding programming in the future,” Melissa Wilson, Ph.D., an associate professor of genomics, evolution, and bioinformatics at Arizona State University, said in her 2019 NIGMS Early Career Investigator Lecture. “You don’t have to be an expert programmer. But without understanding programming, I can assert you won’t be able to do biology in the next 20 years.”
A growing number of researchers, like Dr. Wilson, are studying biology using computers and mathematical methods. Some of them started in traditional biology or other life science labs, while others studied computer science or math first. Here, we’re featuring two researchers who took different paths to computational biology.
“A scientific career is really worth it,” says Hong Liu, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana. Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Liu below to learn about his journey as a scientist and his advice for students.
Q: What makes a career in science exciting?
A: I think there are at least two things that make a science career very exciting. The first is that doing science means you have freedom to explore a lot of new ideas. The second thing is it’s rewarding. The “rewarding” I’m talking about here is not like how much money you can make. It’s rewarding in the answers you find and the new knowledge you reveal.
Josephine (Josie) Chandler, Ph.D., first became interested in science when she took a high school chemistry class. In college, she fell in love with microbiology and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in the field. Today, she’s an associate professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where her lab investigates interactions in bacterial communities. By better understanding these interactions, scientists may find new ways to stop infections or break down environmental pollutants—a process known as bioremediation.
NIGMS’ Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program works toward more effective methods for patient screening, diagnosis, and treatment.
Translating lab discoveries into health care products requires large investments of time and resources. Through STTR funding, NIGMS supports researchers interested in transitioning their discoveries and/or inventions into products. Here are the stories of three researchers working with the XLerator Hub, one of the funded programs that supports six southeastern IDeA states and Puerto Rico.
Ending Diagnostic Delays for Endometriosis
Dr. Idhaliz Flores-Caldera. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Flores-Caldera.
Idhaliz Flores-Caldera, Ph.D., a professor of basic sciences and OB-GYN at Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico, has studied endometriosis for nearly 20 years. Endometriosis occurs when endometrial tissue, which typically lines the uterus, grows elsewhere in the body. Dr. Flores-Caldera first had the idea for a noninvasive diagnostic test for the disorder about 10 years ago. But it was only when she learned about funding opportunities from the XLerator Hub that she saw a path to validating her preliminary research findings and eventually commercializing her test.
Dr. Flores-Caldera applied for and was accepted into the hub’s proof-of-concept program, Ideas to Products, which funds researchers to flesh out ideas they want to commercialize. “I am very appreciative of how the program has provided me with tools and knowledge about commercializing a product and the process of patenting a product,” she says. “In general, scientists aren’t educated on this important topic.”
Osvaldo Gutierrez, Ph.D., was born in Rancho Los Prietos, a small town in central Mexico where his grandmother served as a midwife. Seeing how his grandmother helped people through her work inspired Dr. Gutierrez to pursue a career where he, too, could help people. His family emigrated to the United States when he was young. Despite challenges he faced in a new country, he graduated from high school, attended community college, and was accepted to the University of California, Los Angeles. He originally planned to become a medical doctor, but an undergraduate research experience sparked an interest in chemistry, and he ultimately earned a Ph.D. in the field.