Postbac Poster Day Showcases Young Scientific Talent
Monday, May 10, 2021
Despite the challenges of working during a global pandemic, IRP scientists continue to make groundbreaking discoveries and mentor the next generation of researchers. This includes the hundreds of recent college graduates conducting research in NIH labs through the Postbaccalaureate IRTA program. On April 28, 29, and 30, many of these budding scientists presented the fruits of their efforts at this year’s virtual Postbac Poster Day. Read on to learn about a small sampling of the scientific strides NIH’s postbacs are making.
Malcom Udeozor: Training Participants to Pilot Prosthetic Limbs
After completing his undergraduate education at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Malcom returned home to Maryland and joined the lab of IRP senior investigator Christopher Baker, Ph.D. Dr. Baker’s lab focuses on how learning changes the brain, and Malcolm is working specifically on a project led by a graduate student in his lab, Hunter Schone, to investigate the effects of learning to control a prosthetic limb.
“The question I am most concerned about is whether or not humans can ever learn to control a prosthetic limb like we control our own biological limbs,” Malcom explains. “The answer to this question will guide engineers toward the most optimal design for prosthetic limbs.”
Using a setup seemingly straight out of science fiction, the healthy volunteers in the study learn to control a motorized prosthetic hand connected to a brace worn around one of their arms. The artificial hand receives signals from electrodes connected to the same arm, and participants learn to control their new third limbs by flexing and gesturing with their real body parts, which sends signals to the electrodes that cause the prosthetic to move in specific ways. Malcolm plans to gauge not only how well his participants learn to control the artificial hand, but also to use neuroimaging to assess how training changes the way the robotic limb is represented in their brains.
For an aspiring physician like Malcolm, studying a healthy population in a lab without any clinicians in it might seem like an odd fit. However, studies like his have clear implications for patients who lose or are born without limbs, as well as stroke patients, who often experience weakness in the limbs on one side of their bodies. Plus, the members of his lab have provided him with an environment that is both challenging and supportive.
“Dr. Baker has taught me so much about how to be a great scientist,” Malcolm says. “He allows me to think independently, and he can answer basically any question that I throw at him. But most importantly, he makes me feel comfortable. Being an African American, it can be very hard to find mentors who do not make me feel like I have to try 10 times harder than everyone else to belong in such a competitive environment.”
Kiana Amini: Measuring Mistrust’s Role in Vaccine Research Participation
Kiana had never lived outside of Chicago before she came to the NIH as a postbac, but the Univeristy of Chicago graduate couldn’t pass up the opportunity to join the social and behavioral research group led by Vence Bonham, J.D. The group’s “very clear orientation towards issues of equity and justice” perfectly matched her personal interests in “disparity and inequity within medicine,” she says. On the other hand, since Kiana’s social science research does not require her to operate equipment or handle cells or solutions in an NIH laboratory, the COVID-19 pandemic has so far required her to complete all of her work remotely.
Like many researchers at the NIH, however, the global outbreak of COVID-19 presented not just a challenge but also a unique opportunity for Kiana. While the overall goal of her research has been to examine how the pandemic has affected the lives of individuals living with sickle cell disease, the results she presented at Postbac Poster Day focused specifically on the considerations that influence their decisions about joining clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines.
“This question is important because vaccine research participation and uptake are both critical efforts in response to this crisis, but little is known about how mistrust affects decisions on these fronts for those living with chronic diseases,” Kiana explains.
Contrary to her expectations, she ultimately found that a lack of trust in the government or the medical establishment did not play a significant role in that population’s feelings about the importance of participating in COVID-19 vaccine research. Concerns about the health consequences of catching COVID-19, on the other hand, were significantly associated with perceptions of COVID-19 vaccine research, pointing to factors that may help future vaccine campaigns and other public health initiatives more effectively engage patient populations with chronic illnesses like sickle cell disease.
Even with the unprecedented obstacles thrown at her by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kiana says she has still grown immensely during her time at the NIH. She has particularly relished virtually attending NIH events like scientific lectures, as well as interacting with the members of her own research group.
“While it has been challenging to step into this new chapter completely remotely, I have greatly enjoyed being a postbac at the NIH,” she says. “Within our own lab, we are always having very stimulating conversations about different issues ranging from our work to just things happening in the world. I also really appreciate the great deal of support here for postbacs, especially with events like Postbac Poster Day where I get to enhance my scientific communication skills.”
Emma Hope: A Helping Hand for Healing Wounds
Science has been a part of Emma’s life from a very early age. She recalls listening to her mother, a pediatric endocrinologist, talk about her patients with missing or extra sex chromosomes. This sparked an interest in genetics that led Emma to join a developmental biology lab as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, where she investigated the role of a particular gene in eye development. Nowadays, she studies how wounds heal in the lab of IRP senior investigator Maria Morasso, Ph.D.
“My motivations for joining Dr. Morasso’s lab were two-fold,” Emma says. “I wanted to continue developmental biology research, but I also wanted to reorient the focus of my research to something more clinically applicable. In this lab, I have been able to continue to investigate molecular pathways impacting cell fate decisions but have done so within the context of wound healing.”
Her research at the NIH focuses on how two particular proteins, SOX2 and PITX1, affect wound healing. As ‘transcription factors,’ these two molecules alter the activity of a multitude of genes. They are also much more abundant in the lining of the mouth, known as the ‘oral mucosa,’ than in the skin, and help promote more rapid and scarless wound healing in the mouth.
Preliminary results from Emma’s studies using a mouse model with abnormally high SOX2 and PITX1 levels in their skin suggest that the increased abundance of those two molecules prompts skin cells important for wound healing to behave more like their counterparts in the mouth, potentially boosting their ability to repair damage. Ultimately, her research could point to new strategies to promote wound healing, which could be especially helpful for people with certain diseases that interfere with that process, such as diabetes and the skin condition known as psoriasis.
Emma says her time at the NIH has been “a unique and humbling experience.” In addition to helping hone her scientific skills, she has learned a great deal about the importance of teamwork in science.
“Working in an environment in which everyone shares the goal of furthering our collective understanding of the sciences has been inspiring to say the least,” Emma says. “Moreover, this experience has opened my eyes to the collaborative spirit of scientific research. I have seen first-hand how collaborations between investigators with different areas of expertise can facilitate the success of a project.”
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Jonathan Martinez: Evaluating Exercise Interventions to Combat Fatigue
Jonathan’s interest in science emerged when he made an important change to his life. The Tenessee native became much more physicially active during high school and experienced first-hand how exercise can affect the body. He would go on to major in exercise science at Elon University in North Carolina, where he studied the patterns of brain activity that mental and physical exercises produced in healthy individuals and people who had suffered from strokes.
“My thesis work in undergrad was centered around an exercise intervention in a healthy college-age population, but towards the tail end I had the opportunity to work with stroke patients and it changed my perspective on research and my post-graduate plans,” Jonathan says. “I wanted to understand more about the role of exercise in a clinical setting and its effects on patients with unique medical conditions, which is exactly the goal of my research team at the NIH.”
For the past eight months, Jonathan has been working in the Rehabiliation Medicine Department at the NIH Clinical Center under the guidance of IRP senior investigator Leighton Chan, M.D. Jonathan’s presentation at Postbac Poster Day focused on a study on the benefits of aerobic exercise for women with the autoimmune disease lupus, which often causes patients to become easily fatigued. His results showed that the women tired less easily after completing a 12-week exercise program. He is also assisting with a study, still in its early stages, examining whether a similar exercise program could improve quality of life and relieve lingering symptoms in people who had recovered from COVID-19.
“Working with clinical patients and seeing the impact exercise can have on their health and wellbeing has been such a rewarding experience,” he says. “In addition, being part of a dynamic team and receiving mentorship from clinicians and researchers has inspired me to pursue an educator role in my future career as a doctor.”
Eliana Ramirez: Scrutinizing Sleep’s Relationship to Eating Behaviors
Eliana’s first experience with research as a student at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts could scarcely have been more different from the work she has done during her nearly two years in the IRP. After spending her undergraduate years studying the development and genetics of fruit flies, she decided she wanted to do more human-focused work at the NIH.
“As an undergraduate, I enjoyed my research, but I also knew that I especially appreciated pediatric patient interactions from past clinical experiences,” Eliana says. “My lab allows me to do research and have that clinical interaction with children, which is a perfect fit for my interests.”
Under the mentorship of IRP senior investigator Jack Yanovski, M.D., Ph.D., Eliana has been parsing through data from the NIH’s Children’s Growth and Behavior Study, which aims to understand how genetic and environmental factors influence children’s eating behavior and health over time. Specifically, she wanted to figure out whether children who woke up and went to sleep much later on weekends than during the week would have different eating behaviors than children with a more consistent sleep schedule.
In the end, Eliana found that there was no statistically significant relationship in her data between shifts in kids’ and teens’ sleep habits and their food consumption. Despite the anticlimactic result, she says her time at the NIH has been “an incredible and positive experience,” and the way her project turned out has done nothing to discourage her from pursuing a career in science.
“At first it was a bit disappointing to see non-significant findings, but then I realized how these findings are in themselves important when trying to answer questions,” Eliana says. “It challenges me to uncover other associations between sleep and behavior or possible mediating factors that might help explain the associations others have observed.”
Over the past year and a half, the NIH community has shown itself to be remarkably resilient. Even with COVID-19 precautions placing constraints on in-person laboratory work and events, NIH’s postbacs have been putting great effort into getting the most out of their time at the prestigious institution. That determination, as well as the skills they gain from working in the IRP, will undoubtedly serve them well in the future.
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