NIH Family Members Giving Back: Kafui Dzirasa

Kafui Dzirasa at UMBC

Caption: Kafui Dzirasa (front center) with the current group of Meyerhoff Scholars at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Credit: Olubukola Abiona

Kafui Dzirasa keeps an open-door policy in his busy NIH-supported lab at Duke University, Durham, NC. If his trainees have a quick question or just need to discuss an upcoming experiment, they’re always welcome to pull up a chair. The donuts are on him.

But when trainees pop by his office and see he’s out for the day, they have a good idea of what it means. Dzirasa has most likely traveled up to his native Maryland to volunteer as a mentor for students in a college program that will be forever near and dear to him. It’s the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Since its launch in 1988, this groundbreaking program has served as a needed pipeline to help increase diversity in the sciences—with more than 1,000 alumni, including Dzirasa, and 270 current students of all races.

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H3Africa: Fostering Collaboration

Osafo-Raji-Burke-Glover

Caption: Pioneers in building Africa’s genomic research capacity; front, Charlotte Osafo (l) and Yemi Raji; back, David Burke (l) and Tom Glover.
Credit: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

About a year ago, Tom Glover began sifting through a stack of applications from prospective students hoping to be admitted into the Master’s Degree Program in Human Genetics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Glover, the program’s director, got about halfway through the stack when he noticed applications from two physicians in West Africa: Charlotte Osafo from Ghana, and Yemi Raji from Nigeria. Both were kidney specialists in their 40s, and neither had formal training in genomics or molecular biology, which are normally requirements for entry into the program.

Glover’s first instinct was to disregard the applications. But he noticed the doctors were affiliated with the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) Initiative, which is co-supported by the Wellcome Trust and the National Institutes of Health Common Fund, and aims in part to build the expertise to carry out genomics research across the continent of Africa. (I am proud to have had a personal hand in the initial steps that led to the founding of H3Africa.) Glover held onto the two applications and, after much internal discussion, Osafo and Raji were admitted to the Master’s Program. But there were important stipulations: they had to arrive early to undergo “boot camp” in genomics and molecular biology and also extend their coursework over an extra term.

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LabTV: Curious About Improving American Indian Health

Deana Around HimNovember is National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, and so I can’t think of a better time to introduce you to Deana Around Him, a social and behavioral health researcher active in efforts to improve the health of infants and children in native communities. Deana is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, where she grew up with her mother and sisters after losing her father to a car accident when she was only 3 years old.

Deana’s father was a pharmacist, and, as a child, Deana thought that she would follow in his footsteps. But after participating in the National Youth Leadership Forum for Medicine one summer in high school, she set her sights instead on a career in medicine and made her way to Brown University, Providence, RI. Attending an Ivy League school was something she “never in her wildest dreams imagined” as a kid.

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Creative Minds: Lessons from Halfway Around the Globe

Transporting a patient in Nepal

Caption: Duncan Maru (right) and Community Health Director Ashma Baruwal (left) evaluating a patient in rural Nepal.
Credit: Allison Shelley

A decade ago, as a medical student doing volunteer work at a hospital in India’s capital of New Delhi, Duncan Maru saw a young patient who changed the course of his career: a 12-year-old boy in a coma caused by advanced tuberculosis (TB). Although the child had been experiencing TB symptoms for four months, he was simply given routine antibiotics and didn’t receive the right drugs until his parents traveled hundreds of miles at considerable expense to bring him to a major hospital. After five weeks of intensive treatment, the boy regained consciousness and he was able to walk and talk again.

That’s quite an inspiring story. But it’s also a story that haunted Maru because he knew that if this boy had access to good primary care at the local level, his condition probably never would have become so critical. Determined to help other children and families in similar situations, Maru has gone on to dedicate himself to developing innovative ways of providing high-quality, low-cost health care in developing areas of the world. His “lab” for testing these efforts? The South Asian nation of Nepal—specifically, the poverty-stricken, rural district of Achham, which is located several hundred miles west of the national capital of Kathmandu.

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LabTV: Curious About Bacteria

Robert Morton IIIOther than wondering what might be lurking in those leftovers stashed in the back of the fridge, you probably don’t think much about bacteria. But Robert Morton III—a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the focus of our latest LabTV profile—sure does. He’s fascinated by the complicated and even beautiful ways in which bacteria interact with their environments. In fact, scientists can learn a whole lot about biology by studying bacteria and other single-celled organisms.

Working in the NIH-funded lab of Yves Brun, Morton has spent many of his days peering through microscopes into the otherwise invisible world of bacteria. His sights are set on the relatively simple, two-component interactions that enable bacteria to sense and respond to various external factors. Each of these interactions features a histidine kinase sensor partnered with a response regulator. Specifically, Morton has focused much of his research on one particular protein thought to play a role in these interactions—a protein that he calls an “orphan” because no scientist has yet identified its partner or determined quite what it does.

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