Marie Bragg is a first-generation American, raised by a mother who immigrated to Florida from Trinidad. She watched her uncle in Florida cope effectively with type 2 diabetes, taking prescription drugs and following doctor-recommended dietary changes. But several of her Trinidadian relatives also had type 2 diabetes, and often sought to manage their diabetes by alternative means—through home remedies and spiritual practices.
This situation prompted Bragg to develop, at an early age, a strong interest in how approaches to health care may differ between cultures. But that wasn’t Bragg’s only interest—her other love was sports, having played on a high school soccer team that earned two state championships in Florida. That made her keenly aware of the sway that celebrity athletes, such as Michael Jordan and Serena Williams, could have on the public, particularly on young people. Today, Bragg combines both of her childhood interests—the influence of celebrities and the power of cultural narratives—in research that she is conducting as an Assistant Professor of Population Health at New York University Langone Medical Center and as a 2015 recipient of an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award.
As a child, Patrick Hsu once settled a disagreement with his mother over antibacterial wipes by testing them in controlled experiments in the kitchen. When the family moved to Palo Alto, CA, instead of trying out for the football team or asking to borrow the family car like other high school kids might have done, Hsu went knocking on doors of scientists at Stanford University. He found his way into a neuroscience lab, where he gained experience with the fundamental tools of biology and a fascination for understanding how the brain works. But Hsu would soon become impatient with the tools that were available to ask some of the big questions he wanted to study.
As a Salk Helmsley Fellow and principal investigator at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA, Hsu now works at the intersection of bioengineering, genomics, and neuroscience with a DNA editing tool called CRISPR/Cas9 that is revolutionizing the way scientists can ask and answer those big questions. (This blog has previously featured several examples of how this technology is revolutionizing biomedical research.) Hsu has received a 2015 NIH Director’s Early Independence award to adapt CRISPR/Cas9 technology so its use can be extended to that other critically important information-containing nucleic acid—RNA.Specifically, Hsu aims to develop ways to use this new tool to examine the role of a certain type of RNA in cancer drug resistance.
After graduating college with degrees in physics and computer science, Amanda Randles landed her dream first job. She joined IBM in 2005 to work on its Blue Gene Project, which had just unveiled the world’s fastest supercomputer. So fast, in fact, it’s said that a scientist with a calculator would have to work nonstop for 177,000 years to perform the operations that Blue Gene could complete in one second. As a member of the applications team, Randles was charged with writing new code to make the next model run even faster.
Randles left IBM in 2009 for graduate school, with the goal to apply her supercomputing expertise to biomedical research. She spent the next several years developing the necessary algorithms to produce a high-resolution 3D model of the human cardiovascular system, complete with realistic blood flow. Now, an assistant professor at Duke University, Durham, NC, and a 2014 NIH Director’s Early Independence awardee, Randles will build on her earlier work to attempt something even more challenging: simulating the movement of cancer cells through the circulation to predict where a tumor is most likely to spread. Randles hopes all of her late nights writing code will one day lead to software that helps doctors stage cancer more precisely and gives patients accurate personalized computer simulations that put an earlier, potentially life-saving bullseye on secondary tumors.
Perry Hystad Credit: Hannah O’Leary, Oregon State University
After college, Perry Hystad took a trip to India and, while touring several large cities, noticed the vast clouds of exhaust from vehicles, smoke from factories, and soot from biomass-burning cook stoves. As he watched the rapid urban expansion all around him, Hystad remembers thinking: What effect does breathing such pollution day in and day out have upon these people’s health?
This question stuck with Hystad, and he soon developed a profound interest in environmental health. In 2013, Hystad completed his Ph.D. in his native Canada, studying the environmental risk factors for lung cancer [1, 2, 3]. Now, with the support of an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, Hystad has launched his own lab at Oregon State University, Corvallis, to investigate further the health impacts of air pollution, which one recent analysis indicates may contribute to as many as several million deaths worldwide each year .
While attending college in her native Colombia, Yakeel T. Quiroz joined the Grupo de Neurociencias de Antioquia. This dedicated group of Colombian researchers, healthcare workers, and students has worked for many years with a large extended family in the northwestern district of Antioquia that is truly unique. About half of the more than 5,000 family members inherit a gene mutation that predisposes them to what is known locally as “la bobera,” or “the foolishness,” a devastating form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Those born with the mutation are cognitively healthy through their 20s, become forgetful in their 30s, and descend into full-blown Alzheimer’s disease by their mid-to- late 40s. Making matters worse, multiple family members sometimes are in different stages of dementia at the same time, including the caregiver attempting to hold the household together.
Quiroz, now a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, vowed never to forget these families. She hasn’t, working hard to understand early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and helping to establish the Forget Me Not Initiative to raise money for affected families. With an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, Quiroz also recently launched her own lab to pursue an even broader scientific opportunity: discover subtle pre-symptomatic changes in the brain years before they give rise to detectable Alzheimer’s. What she learns will have application not only to detect and possibly treat early-onset Alzheimer’s in Colombia but also to understand the late-onset forms of the dementia that affect an estimated 35.6 million people worldwide.