Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” At NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), we believe that educating future and current scientists from diverse backgrounds benefits the entire biomedical research enterprise, changing the world through advances in disease diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.
As the summer winds down and students and educators embark on a new school year, I thought I’d highlight some of our educational resources that complement science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula. I’d also like to draw your attention to training programs designed to inspire and support research careers.
STEM Programs and Resources from NIH
The NIGMS Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPAs) are resources that provide opportunities for pre-K-12 students from underserved communities to access STEM educational resources. It lets them aspire to careers in health research.
The SEPA grants in almost every state support innovative, research-based, science education programs, furthering NIGMS’ mission to ensure a strong and diverse research ecosystem. Resources generated through SEPAs are free, mapped to state and national teaching standards for STEM, and rigorously evaluated for effectiveness. These resources include mobile laboratories, health exhibits in museums and science centers, educational resources for students, and professional development for teachers.
One SEPA program at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, West Lafayette, IN, pairs veterinarians from their nationwide “superhero” League of VetaHumanz with local schools or community centers that support underserved students. These professional veterinarians, also from diverse backgrounds, strive to help young students from underrepresented groups envision future careers caring for animals.
Another SEPA program at Baylor University, Waco, TX, is increasing access to chemistry labs for high schoolers with blindness. It uses a robotic reactor with enhanced safety features to eliminate many dangers of synthetic organic chemistry. Students with blindness can control the robot to conduct experiments in a similar fashion to their sighted counterparts. The robot is housed within an airtight, blast-proof glove box, and it can perform common chemistry operations such as weighing and dispensing solid or liquid reagents; delivering solvents; combining reagents with the solvents; and stirring, heating, or cooling the reaction mixtures.
As noted in the 2021 report from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, “equity and inclusion are fundamental prerequisites for making high-quality STEM education accessible to all Americans and will maximize the creative capacity of tomorrow’s workforce.” I believe this statement falls right in line with the spirit of SEPAs.
New NIH-Wide STEM Teaching Resources Website
To help educators find free science education content, we recently launched a STEM teaching resources website. It includes NIH-wide teaching materials as well as those from SEPA programs for grades K-12, categorized by different health and research topic areas.
The NIGMS free educational resource Pathways, designed for educators and aspiring scientists in grades 6-12, is one of many resources available through the STEM website. Each issue of Pathways provides information about basic biomedical science and research careers and includes a student magazine, teacher lesson plans, and interactives such as Kahoot! classroom quizzes. Our most recent vaccine science issue teaches students how COVID-19 vaccines work in the body and introduces them to scientists dedicated to vaccine research.
Programs for Early Career Scientists
While SEPA grants focus on future scientists (and their educators) in grades pre-K-12, NIGMS also has a robust research training portfolio for those at the undergraduate through postdoctoral and professional levels. These programs aim to enhance diversity by engaging and training scientists from diverse backgrounds early in their careers.
At the undergraduate level, programs like Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) provide students from diverse backgrounds with mentorship and career development. We recently highlighted the MARC program at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, on our Biomedical Beat blog showing the program’s impact on students.
At the other end of the spectrum, our Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) program helps promising postdoctoral researchers from diverse backgrounds transition into independent faculty careers. The MOSAIC scholars become part of a career development program to expand their professional networks and gain additional skills and mentoring through scientific societies. You can learn more about each of these impressive early career scientists on our MOSAIC Scholars webpages.
At NIGMS, we’re dedicated to increasing the diversity of the biomedical research workforce. Through STEM content and outreach, as well as scientist training resources, we focus on emphasizing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. This holds true with funding and programming for current scientists, and in the inspiration and training of future scientists.
SEPA Award (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)
The League of VetaHumanz: Encouraging Kids to Use Their Powers for Good! (Biomedical Beat Blog/NIGMS)
Catching Up With ReMARCable Vanderbilt Graduates (Biomedical Beat Blog/NIGMS)
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 15th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
The standard view of biology is that every normal cell copies its DNA instruction book with complete accuracy every time it divides. And thus, with a few exceptions like the immune system, cells in normal, healthy tissue continue to contain exactly the same genome sequence as was present in the initial single-cell embryo that gave rise to that individual. But new evidence suggests it may be time to revise that view.
By analyzing genetic information collected throughout the bodies of nearly 500 different individuals, researchers discovered that almost all had some seemingly healthy tissue that contained pockets of cells bearing particular genetic mutations. Some even harbored mutations in genes linked to cancer. The findings suggest that nearly all of us are walking around with genetic mutations within various parts of our bodies that, under certain circumstances, may have the potential to give rise to cancer or other health conditions.
Efforts such as NIH’s The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) have extensively characterized the many molecular and genomic alterations underlying various types of cancer. But it has remained difficult to pinpoint the precise sequence of events that lead to cancer, and there are hints that so-called normal tissues, including blood and skin, might contain a surprising number of mutations —perhaps starting down a path that would eventually lead to trouble.
In the study published in Science, a team from the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, led by Gad Getz and postdoctoral fellow Keren Yizhak, along with colleagues from Massachusetts General Hospital, decided to take a closer look. They turned their attention to the NIH’s Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) project.
The GTEx is a comprehensive public resource that shows how genes are expressed and controlled differently in various tissues throughout the body. To capture those important differences, GTEx researchers analyzed messenger RNA sequences within thousands of healthy tissue samples collected from people who died of causes other than cancer.
Getz, Yizhak, and colleagues wanted to use that extensive RNA data in another way: to detect mutations that had arisen in the DNA genomes of cells within those tissues. To do it, they devised a method for comparing those tissue-derived RNA samples to the matched normal DNA. They call the new method RNA-MuTect.
All told, the researchers analyzed RNA sequences from 29 tissues, including heart, stomach, pancreas, and fat, and matched DNA from 488 individuals in the GTEx database. Those analyses showed that the vast majority of people—a whopping 95 percent—had one or more tissues with pockets of cells carrying new genetic mutations.
While many of those genetic mutations are most likely harmless, some have known links to cancer. The data show that genetic mutations arise most often in the skin, esophagus, and lung tissues. This suggests that exposure to environmental elements—such as air pollution in the lung, carcinogenic dietary substances in the esophagus, or the ultraviolet radiation in sunlight that hits the skin—may play important roles in causing genetic mutations in different parts of the body.
The findings clearly show that, even within normal tissues, the DNA in the cells of our bodies isn’t perfectly identical. Rather, mutations constantly arise, and that makes our cells more of a mosaic of different mutational events. Sometimes those altered cells may have a subtle growth advantage, and thus continue dividing to form larger groups of cells with slightly changed genomic profiles. In other cases, those altered cells may remain in small numbers or perhaps even disappear.
It’s not yet clear to what extent such pockets of altered cells may put people at greater risk for developing cancer down the road. But the presence of these genetic mutations does have potentially important implications for early cancer detection. For instance, it may be difficult to distinguish mutations that are truly red flags for cancer from those that are harmless and part of a new idea of what’s “normal.”
To further explore such questions, it will be useful to study the evolution of normal mutations in healthy human tissues over time. It’s worth noting that so far, the researchers have only detected these mutations in large populations of cells. As the technology advances, it will be interesting to explore such questions at the higher resolution of single cells.
Getz’s team will continue to pursue such questions, in part via participation in the recently launched NIH Pre-Cancer Atlas. It is designed to explore and characterize pre-malignant human tumors comprehensively. While considerable progress has been made in studying cancer and other chronic diseases, it’s clear we still have much to learn about the origins and development of illness to build better tools for early detection and control.
 RNA sequence analysis reveals macroscopic somatic clonal expansion across normal tissues. Yizhak K, Aguet F, Kim J, Hess JM, Kübler K, Grimsby J, Frazer R, Zhang H, Haradhvala NJ, Rosebrock D, Livitz D, Li X, Arich-Landkof E, Shoresh N, Stewart C, Segrè AV, Branton PA, Polak P, Ardlie KG, Getz G. Science. 2019 Jun 7;364(6444).
The Cancer Genome Atlas (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Pre-Cancer Atlas (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Getz Lab (Broad Institute, Cambridge, MA)
NIH Support: Common Fund; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute of Mental Health; National Cancer Institute; National Library of Medicine; National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke