PECASE Honoree Elizabeth Nance Highlights the Importance of Collaboration in Nanotechnology

Black and white microscopic image of a capillary supplying blood to brain cells. A network of capillaries supplies brain cells with nutrients. Tight seals in their walls keep blood toxins—and many beneficial drugs—out of the brain. Credit: Dan Ferber, PLOS Biol 2007 Jun; (5)6:E169. CC by 2.5 Link to external web site.

The blood-brain barrier—the ultra-tight seal in the walls of the brain’s capillaries—is an important part of the body’s defense system. It keeps invaders and other toxins from entering the human brain by screening out dangerous molecules. But the intricate workings of this extremely effective barrier also make it challenging to design therapeutics that would help us. And as it turns out, getting a drug across the blood-brain barrier is only half the battle. Once it’s across, the drug needs to effectively target the right cells in the brain tissue. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that challenges this complex are solved through collaboration among scientists from several different specialties.

Elizabeth Nance Link to external web site, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle and a recent recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), focuses her research on understanding the barriers in the brain and other cell- and tissue-based barriers in the body to see how nanoparticles interact with them. Her lab uses nanoparticles to package therapies that will treat newborn brain injury, which can occur when the brain loses oxygen and blood flow, often during or immediately prior to delivery. This damage can lead to cerebral palsy, developmental delays, or sometimes death. Early interventions for newborn brain injury can be valuable, but they need to target specific, injured cells without harming healthy ones.

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On the RISE: Joshua and Caleb Marceau Use NIGMS Grant to Jump-Start Their Research Careers

A college degree was far from the minds of Joshua and Caleb Marceau growing up on a small farm on the Flathead Indian Reservation in rural northwestern Montana. Their world centered on powwows, tending cattle and chicken, fishing in streams, and working the 20-acre ranch their parents own. Despite their innate love of learning and science, the idea of applying to and paying for college seemed out of reach. Then, opportunities provided through NIGMS, mentors, and scholarships led them from a local tribal college to advanced degrees in biomedical science. Today, both Joshua and Caleb are Ph.D.-level scientists working to improve public health through the study of viruses.

Joshua Discovers Unexpected Opportunities

Joshua Marceau examining a specimen in front of a large centrifuge.Joshua Marceau at Salish Kootenai College, where he gained research experience as an undergraduate. Credit: Joshua Marceau.

As the oldest of four brothers, Joshua was the trailblazer in the family. But like most trailblazers, his path to a scientific career wasn’t always smooth. He attended a reservation school until sixth grade, then was homeschooled. He earned his GED through the local tribal community college, Salish Kootenai College (SKC) in Pablo, so he could begin to take college-level chemistry.

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Back to School: Top Tips for Undergraduates Eyeing Careers in Biomedical Sciences

Finding a career path in biomedical research can be challenging for many young people, especially when they have no footsteps to follow. We asked three recent college graduates who are pursuing advanced degrees in biomedical sciences to give us their best advice for undergrads.

Tip 1: Talk with mentors and peers, and explore opportunities.

One of the most challenging things for incoming undergraduates is simply to find out about biomedical research opportunities. By talking to professors and peers, students can find ways to explore and develop their interests in biomedical research.

Mariajose Franco in a lab, using a pipette to fill a glass vial.Credit: Mariajose Franco.

Mariajose Franco, a first-generation college student, recently graduated with honors and dual degrees in molecular and cellular biology and physiology from the University of Arizona in Tucson. She’s now in a postbaccalaureate program at the National Cancer Institute and has her eye on combined M.D.-Ph.D. programs.

As an undergraduate, a course in cancer biology piqued her interest, and she reached out to her professor, Justina McEvoy, to see if she could join her lab. As a sophomore, Franco began working on rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare childhood cancer that arises from cells that normally develop into skeletal muscle. Through the NIGMS Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, she received support to conduct two research projects during her junior and senior years. In addition to offering research opportunities, the MARC program was instrumental in providing training in scientific writing and conference poster presentations, and navigating applications, Franco says.

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Get Kids Excited About Science: Free STEM Resources

Cover of the graphic novel Occupied by Microbes!, showing four teens racing downhill on skateboards. Credit: University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

We have a new Science Education and Partnership Award (SEPA) webpage, featuring free, easy-to-access, SEPA-funded Link to external web site resources that educators nationwide can use to engage their students in science. The SEPA program supports innovative STEM Link to external web site and informal science education Link to external web site  projects for pre-kindergarten through grade 12. The program includes tools that teachers, scientists, and parents can use to excite kids about science and research, such as:

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PREP Scholar’s Passion for Understanding Body’s Defenses

Photo of Charmaine Nganje, with curly red shoulder-length hair and eyeglasses, smiling..

Charmaine N. Nganje, PREP scholar at Tufts University in Boston.
Credit: Katherine Suarez.

Charmaine N. Nganje

Hometown: Montgomery Village, Maryland

Influential book : The Harry Potter series (not exactly influential, but they’re my favorite)

Favorite movie/TV show: The Pursuit of Happyness/The Flash

Languages: English (and a bit of Patois)

Unusual fact: I’m the biggest Philadelphia Eagles fan from Maryland that you’ll ever meet

Hobbies: Off-peak traveling

Q. Which NIGMS program are you involved with?

A. The Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) Link to external web site at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University in Boston.

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NIGMS Grantees Receive National STEM Mentoring Award

In a previous post, we highlighted two NIGMS-funded winners of the 2018 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM Link to external web site). For January’s National Mentoring Month, we tell you about other awardees: J.K. Haynes, Virginia Shepherd, and Maria da Graça H. Vicente.

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How Three Physician Scientists Are Taking Strides to Improve Our Health

Brain injuries, cancer, infections, and wound healing are some of the complex and pressing
health concerns we face today. Understanding the basic science behind these diseases and biological processes is the key to developing new treatments and improving patient outcomes. Physician scientists—medical doctors who also conduct laboratory research—are essential to turning knowledge gained in the lab into innovative treatments, surgical advances, and new diagnostic tools.

In this blog, we highlight the work and impact of three surgeon scientists funded by NIGMS at different stages in their careers: Dr. Nicole Gibran (current grantee), Dr. Rebecca Minter (former grantee), and Dr. Carrie Sims (former grantee). Their work, despite the historical underrepresentation of women in the physician scientist training community, has led to revolutionary surgical treatments, new therapeutics, better screening, and improved quality of life for patients.

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Surgeon Chris McCulloh Stands Up to Disability

Profile picture of Chris McCulloh with short, light brown hair and wearing a suit, smiling.
Credit: Chris McCulloh.
Chris McCulloh

Job: 4th-year general surgical resident, Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey
Grew up in: Manhattan
When not at work, he’s: Programming, coding, thinking about artificial intelligence, and machine learning
Hobbies: Writing/producing electronic music, weightlifting

Ten years ago, Chris McCulloh planned to enter medical school and fulfill his dream of becoming a surgeon. Instead, just months before he was to start med school, he ended up a patient. A freak accident—slipping on a hardwood floor, flying backwards, and landing neck-first on the edge of a glass coffee table—left him with both legs paralyzed at age 28. Undaunted, he deferred entering medical school for a year, undergoing surgery and spending months in rehab.

Chris McCulloh on a specialized wheelchair that holds him upright, wearing surgical scrubs and cap, in a hospital hallway alongside Elizabeth Vargas, also in scrubs and cap..
McCulloh prepares for surgery while “20/20” host Elizabeth Vargas stands alongside him as part of a 2017 interview.
Credit: Morristown Medical Center.

McCulloh has since finished medical school and recently completed a 2-year pediatric surgery research fellowship at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. He is now two-thirds of the way through his surgical residency at the Morristown (New Jersey) Medical Center, thanks to the assistance of a specialized wheelchair that allows him to stand nearly to his 6-foot-3 height and helps him perform five to six surgeries a day.

He’s received plenty of attention for being a surgeon with a disability. Along with several print media stories, he was interviewed in 2013 for CBS’ “The Doctors,” and in 2017, ABC’s “20/20” included McCulloh in an episode on physicians with disabilities. But it’s not the wheelchair that distinguishes McCulloh, says Gail Besner, a pediatric surgeon and researcher who hired McCulloh as a postdoctoral fellow. Rather, it’s his enthusiasm, natural research skills, and exceptional surgical prowess that make him special. Besner sees no reason why he won’t reach his goal of landing a highly competitive pediatric surgical residency. “I think he’s capable of doing anything he puts his mind to,” she says.

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Excellence in Science Mentoring Honored in Washington, D.C.

Six NIGMS grantees are among this year’s winners of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM)Link to external web site. The award was established by the White House in 1995. This year, it went to 27 individuals and 14 organizations.

PAESMEM recipients were honored during a 3-day event in Washington, D.C. The event featured a gala presentation ceremony and a White House tour. In addition, each winner received a $10,000 grant from the National Science Foundation,Link to external web site which manages PAESMEM on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The event also included the first-ever White House State-Federal STEM Education Summit. During the summit, awardees joined leaders in education and workforce development from across the nation, including U.S. territories and several Native American tribes, to discuss trends and future priorities in STEM education. The discussions will inform the development of the next Federal STEM Education 5-Year Strategic Plan,Link to external web site which must be updated every 5 years according to the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010.Link to external web site

The six NIGMS-supported PAESMEM winners are listed below. In this blog, we will highlight the work of each one, starting with Ann L. Chester and John A. Pollock.

  • Ann L. Chester, Ph.D., West Virginia University
  • John K. Haynes, Ph.D., Morehouse College
  • John A. Pollock, Ph.D., Duquesne University
  • Elba Elisa Serrano, Ph.D., New Mexico State University
  • Virginia Shepherd, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University
  • Maria da Graça H. Vicente, Ph.D., Louisiana State University

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Teens Explore Science and Health through Game Design

Educators often struggle to teach teens about sexual and reproductive health. Hexacago Health Academy (HHA) Link to external web site, an education program from the University of Chicago, leverages the fun activity of gameplay to impart these lessons to young people from Chicago’s South Side community. Funded by the Student Education Partnership Award (SEPA), part of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), in 2015, HHA assists teachers in their goal of helping teen students gain awareness and control over their health and also learn about careers in STEM Link to external web site and health fields.

Woman in a black buisness suit with arms crossed standing against a wall and smiling
Melissa Gilliam, founder of Ci3. Credit: Anna Knott, Chicago Magazine.

Genesis of HHA

HHA was cofounded by Melissa Gilliam Link to external web site, a University of Chicago professor of Obstetrics/Gynecology and Pediatrics and founder of the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry & Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3) Link to external web site. During a 2013 summer program with high school students, Gilliam and Patrick Jagoda Link to external web site, associate professor of English and Cinema & Media Studies, and cofounder of Ci3’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab Link to external web site, introduced the students to their STEM-based alternate reality game called The Source Link to external web site, in which a young woman crowdsources player help to solve a mystery that her father has created for her.

From their experience with The Source, Gilliam and Jagoda quickly learned that students not only wanted to play games but to design them too. What followed was the Game Changer Lab’s creation of the Hexacago game board, as well as the launch of HHA, a SEPA-funded project that the lab oversees.

Hexacago Game Board

At the core of HHA is the Hexacago game board Link to external web site, which displays the city of Chicago, along with Lake Michigan, a train line running through the city, and neighborhoods gridded into a hexagonal pattern.

HHA students not only play games designed from the Hexacago board template, but also design their own games from it that are intended to inspire behavior change in health-related situations and improve academic performance.

High school students seated at a table with a glossy, laminate test model of the Hexacago game and game pieces on top of it
Credit: Ci3 at the University of Chicago.

In this way, HHA is much more than just game design and play. “Students have no idea that what they’re doing is learning. In their minds, they’re really focused on designing games,” says Gilliam. “That’s the idea behind Hexacago Health Academy: helping people acquire deep knowledge of science and health issues by putting on the hat of a game designer.” Moreover, through the process of gameplay and design, students practice all the rich skills that result from teamwork, including collaborative learning, leadership, and communication.

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