Symposium Shows Off NIH Graduate Students' Research

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The NIH’s main campus in Bethesda, Maryland, may have the look and feel of a university campus, but the world-renowned research institution does not grant credentials like an M.D. or Ph.D. Instead, the Graduate Partnerships Program offers graduate students from schools around the world the opportunity to complete research for their Ph.D. dissertations in IRP labs while pursuing advanced degrees from their ‘host’ institutions.

More than 100 of those students presented their graduate research at the NIH’s annual Graduate Student Research Symposium on Thursday, February 21. From investigating how native bacteria in the human mouth and stomach influence autoimmune disease to exploring sex differences in the brain structure of individuals with autism spectrum disorder, the event highlighted the impressive breadth of research questions these students are pursuing, as well as the incredible rigor of their training. Here is just a sampling of the cutting-edge work these bright and passionate individuals have performed in the IRP:

Anahit Mkrtchian: Probing Absent Pleasure in Patients with Depression

NIH graduate student Anahit Mkrtchian

Hailing from Sweden and pursuing her Ph.D. at University College London (UCL) through the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program, Anahit hopes to determine why the antidepressant compound ketamine has a unique knack for alleviating the loss of pleasure, or anhedonia, that plagues many patients with treatment-resistant depression. By examining how ketamine affects reward-related neural pathways in the brain, she and her IRP mentor, Carlos Zarate, M.D., hope to improve treatment for this common but often intractable symptom and maybe even develop a method for predicting which depressed individuals are most likely to benefit from ketamine treatment.

“The NIH is really different from my university in London because this is a research institute, so you get to interact with people who are doing really different research from your own, and it has really opened up my exposure to other research,” Anahit says. “My lab itself is also really different: it’s a clinical lab, whereas my lab at UCL is very experimental, so my experience has really combined these two strengths of each side – NIH and UCL – and I’m really enjoying it.”

Pei-Lun “Perry” Kuo: Assessing the Ailments of Aging

NIH graduate student Pei-Lun “Perry” Kuo

After working as a physician in his native Taiwan, Perry decided to continue his education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. At the NIH, he is working with Luigi Ferrucci, M.D., Ph.D., to create a measure that represents the multiple characteristics that change as individuals age, such as the degradation of neurons and the ratio of fat to lean tissue in the body. By combining this metric with information about how various molecules and genes are affected by aging, he hopes to identify the main biological mechanisms that are primarily driving the aging process.  

“What is aging? I think this question is very mysterious,” Perry says. “For me, being at NIH gives me opportunities to go to all kinds of talks where some people tell us about functional changes in aging and some people talk about the molecular part of aging. I can absorb that knowledge from the molecular to the functional level, and my work is a bridge between the both of them.”

David Diaz-Jimenez: Investigating Inflammation-Inducing Cells

NIH graduate student David Diaz-Jimenez

Though he completed his dissertation research in the lab of the IRP’s John Cidlowski, Ph.D., David received his graduate degree from the Universidad de Chile back in his home country. Now a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Cidlowski’s lab, David’s graduate work investigated how substances released by the body called glucocorticoids affect the behavior of immune cells called macrophages. His experiments have revealed that glucocortiocoids rev up a gene in macrophages called DPP-4 that causes the cells to promote inflammation in the body. Because inflammation is associated with a variety of conditions, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, learning about the inflammatory pathways in which macrophages are involved could help scientists develop treatments for those ailments.

“Here at the NIH, I have the possibility to do anything that I want to do,” David says. “I have the expertise from the people around me who can help me and I have the facilities. I can develop my research as a real scientist here.”

Ashley Pitt: Scrutinizing Cellular Security Guards

NIH graduate student Ashley Pitt

A graduate of Florida State University, Ashley was born in Jamaica but moved to Florida with her family during elementary school. She is now working towards her graduate degree at Johns Hopkins University while conducting her dissertation research in the lab of IRP senior investigator Susan Buchanan, Ph.D. In Dr. Buchanan’s lab, Ashley studies a group of proteins called the TOM complex that act as gatekeepers for cells’ energy-producing mitochondria by only allowing certain substances inside them. By analyzing the structure of these molecules, Ashley hopes to determine how the TOM complex recognizes what should be admitted into the mitochondria and what must be kept out. She hopes her work will provide insights into processes like aging and certain diseases like cancer, both of which can involve misbehaving mitochondria. 

“One of my favorite things about doing my graduate research at NIH has been my lab environment,” Ashley says. “Everyone at NIH has so many resources in terms of cores and facilities and equipment, and also we have the luxury of secure funding, so for me, here, it’s more important that you pick the right lab, and I think my lab experience has really contributed positively overall. Just having a mentor who gives you enough room to explore things but says, ‘Hey, maybe focus on this a bit more,’ and having supportive co-workers. You’re usually the only graduate student in your lab, so you’re surrounded by a lot of postdocs who have a lot of advice and input and can tell you what they wish they had done differently during their own graduate experiences.”

Alex Waldman: Examining the Mysteries of Multiple Sclerosis

NIH graduate student Alex Waldman

Alex’s graduate education has taken him far from the mid-West where he grew up. Now working towards a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford in England, he recently began conducting research in the lab of IRP senior investigator Michael Lenardo, M.D. Alex’s work focuses on multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease that causes the gradual destruction of the fatty material, called myelin, that surrounds neurons and helps them send electrical signals throughout the brain. During the early stages of MS, patients repeatedly experience periods of more severe symptoms interspersed with periods of improvement. Eventually, in most patients, the disease moves into a progressive phase that causes a gradual and sustained decline in motor and cognitive function. Alex is searching for genetic variants that influence whether, and how soon, a person with MS transitions from the first phase of the disease to the second, which could shed light on the mechanisms by which the disease affects the brain.

“What’s really nice about being at NIH is you have such a high concentration of experts in one place,” Alex says. “You can just walk down the hall and there’s an expert in anything that you can think of, and they can be there to help mentor you, so you have this interconnected web of mentorship and access to people who study many different things.”

Xiaoyi Li: Delaying Degeneration in the Eye

NIH graduate student Xiaoyi Li

Xiaoyi is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, just an hour’s drive from her hometown of Rockville, Maryland. Under the guidance of IRP senior investigator Jeffrey Diamond, Ph.D., she is studying a mouse model of retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that causes the degeneration of sensory cells in the eye, eventually leading to night blindness and tunnel vision. Her goal is to find a way to slow the decline in vision that occurs as the disease destroys those light-sensitive cells. Despite having studied hearing as a postbaccalaureate IRTA in a different IRP lab, the transition to studying the visual system was nevertheless a significant challenge.

“It’s been a huge learning curve joining this lab because I’d never worked in the eye before, but Dr. Diamond is a very good mentor and I have really good mentorship from everyone in the lab,” she says. “I have a lot of people helping me out, and I already feel exponentially more comfortable working in this area than when I first started.”

By performing their Ph.D. research in IRP labs, NIH’s graduate students are able to take advantage of an extremely rich academic environment and the expertise and mentorship of scientists at the top of their fields. Their experiences in the IRP will almost certainly prove a boon when they begin working as fully-fledged researchers and, one day, start labs of their own.

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Category: Science