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Lessons from a High School Student: Motivation + Perseverance = Success

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Emily Ashkin Video

It may surprise you to learn that the poised young woman featured in this video was a sophomore in high school at the time the film was made. Today, Emily Ashkin is a high school senior with impressive laboratory experience and science awards to her name.  As it happens, she’s also introducing me when I deliver a keynote address at the Melanoma Research Alliance’s annual scientific meeting — today, here in Washington, D.C.

What struck me most when I heard Emily’s story was her fearlessness. When mentoring young students, helping some to believe in themselves can be a real challenge. Not Emily. She faces her challenges by seeking solutions, asking—as she does in the video—“Why can’t that be me?”

Cool Videos: HIV in Action

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

HIV Video

There aren’t too many molecular biologists who have spent a 3-month stint in Hollywood. But Janet Iwasa is not your average molecular biologist. After earning her PhD in 2006, she took a break from the lab to take a crash course in animation techniques at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects.

While her classmates produced lots of cool footage worthy of the silver screen, Iwasa wanted to learn how to depict in colorful 3D action, some of the complex molecular processes that are so difficult to convey using static 2D illustration. Among her creations is this 2-minute, rough-draft animation showing how the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) recognizes and infects a type of immune cell known as a T cell.

Creative Minds: Tackling Chemotherapy Resistance

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Aaron Meyer

Aaron Meyer

For many young scientists, nothing can equal the chance to have a lab of one’s own. Still, it often takes considerable time to get there. To help creative minds cut to the chase sooner, the NIH Director’s Early Independence Awards this year will enable 17 outstanding young researchers to skip post-doctoral training and begin running their own labs immediately.

Today, I’d like to tell you about one of these creative minds. His name is Aaron Meyer, a cell signaling expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and his research project will take aim at one the biggest challenges in cancer treatment: chemotherapy resistance.

Promoting Health, Science, and Public Trust through Laboratory Safety

Posted on by Drs. Francis Collins, Sally Rockey, Lawrence Tabak, and Amy Patterson

Biosafety in the labAs you may know from recent news reports, there have been lapses in safety practices at federal laboratories involving potentially lethal microbes such as avian flu (H5N1) and anthrax, including an incident involving discovery of 60-year old smallpox vials in an FDA laboratory building located on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, MD. Such lapses, which undermine public confidence in biomedical research and could put people’s health at risk, remind us of the need for constant attention to biosafety standards.

Scientists can never become complacent in routine safety practices—one mistake could have serious repercussions. Consequently, we at NIH are taking remedial action and precautionary steps to improve our lab safety protocols and procedures, minimize the risk of recurrence, and increase timely reporting of potential problems.

Strengthening Clinical/Translational Research in the U.S.

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

At NIH, our job—in a nutshell—is to turn discoveries into health. Even if you’ve only read this blog a few times, you know we conduct and support basic science advances, clinical breakthroughs—and everything between. We call that “between” process, “translation.” And it takes sustained creativity, innovation, attention—and collaboration—to do it well.

Which brings me to today’s Institute of Medicine (IOM) Report on NIH’s Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) program [1].

In Celebration of Mentors

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Whether you’re 6 or 60, your path through life has probably been guided in more ways than you completely realize by a short list of individuals who inspired you. Maybe they opened your eyes to an unforeseen opportunity. Maybe they challenged you to reach higher than you thought you could, and helped you believe in yourself. Maybe they guided you over a rough spot when all your dreams seemed to be coming apart. Maybe they modeled the kind of honesty, integrity, and generosity that drew you to them—and made you want to follow their example.

We call those people mentors. And the gifts they give us are priceless.

I have been fortunate to have been guided by a number of wonderful mentors. First and foremost were my parents—free spirits who taught me to love learning and seek out new experiences. Then there was a chemistry teacher in 10th grade who inspired me to pursue a career in science. And there were many others in college, graduate school, medical school, and beyond.

Image of Henry Neil Kirkman, M.D.

Henry Neil Kirkman, Jr., M.D.

But today, I want to recognize Henry Neil Kirkman, M.D., a dedicated pediatrician in North Carolina who introduced me to the amazing field of human medical genetics and started me down a lifelong path of discovery.

I met Dr. Kirkman in December 1973. I was a first year medical student at UNC Chapel Hill, and he had come to my class to teach just three lectures in genetics. I had migrated into medicine from physical chemistry, but I was still searching for something that would unite my affection for mathematics with my awe and appreciation for the intricacies of the human body. Dr. Kirkman’s approach to teaching was perfect—he taught us the principles of inheritance, and he insisted that we not memorize anything (which was in stark contrast to the rest of the medical school curriculum!). Most important, however, was that he brought patients to class. As he presented a child with Down syndrome and a young man with sickle cell disease, I could see the connection between those abstract concepts of inheritance and their human consequences. And I was utterly transformed. I knew I wanted this to be my lifelong focus in medicine.

As a medical student I only met with Dr. Kirkman occasionally, but his influence was profound. He was always soft-spoken, modest, and self-effacing—but his dedication to patients, research, and teaching spoke volumes. He showed me how merging genetics and medicine could become a vision for the future. That vision became an abiding passion for me, giving rise to the development of gene hunting techniques that ultimately led to the discovery of the cystic fibrosis gene—and other puzzles in human genetics that continue to intrigue me to this day, as my lab conducts research on diabetes and aging.

I was saddened to hear of Dr. Kirkman’s passing a few days ago. I will miss him, and I will always be grateful that I had a chance to tell him what a profound impact he had on me.

Do you have mentors that have given you gifts of inspiration and encouragement?  I hope so. And if you do, and if you have never told them how much that meant, this would be a great day to write a note.

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