The *NSPIRE fellowship is a competitive scholarship program for senior graduate students at Scripps Research. *NSPIRE Fellows will receive a educational allowance stipend and will have the opportunity to present a seminar at the *NSPIRE Symposium. The seminar will not only feature Fellows’ doctoral research, but also highlight their unique educational journey in a way that is compelling to a diverse audience of students, faculty, and staff from CSU San Marcos, Palomar Community College, Mira Costa Community College, and Scripps Research. A recording of the *NSPIRE Symposium keynote speakers can be seen here.
2020 *NSPIRE Fellows
I am largely interested in the intersections of chemistry and biology and their relations within the context of biological aging. We all age, but the basic mechanisms by which this happens are not well understood. Furthermore, there are many diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, in which aging is the greatest risk factor. Scientists have shown that if we understand the genetics of aging, we can prevent certain “age–associated” diseases in many different animal models by targeting aging itself. Thus, I find new chemicals that extend lifespan and understand how they work, their mechanism of action. Specifically, I have found compounds that inhibit protein translation significantly extend lifespan and improve proteostasis. The second component of my academic journey involves Indigenous knowledge, which typically is not included in western institutional paradigms. My personal channeling of this ancestral knowledge is that my research interests extend beyond chemistry and biology. I am interested in researching how knowledge and power are used for/against Indigenous peoples in academic settings. I ask, in the realm of drug discovery, what are the stakes of indigenous people in this so-called scientific exchange? All science is political. I seek to understand the basic science reiterate it into a discipline practiced by and for Indigenous peoples, who are often left out of scientific enterprises. Unsurprisingly, Black and Indigenous people are most at risk of dying from age–associated diseases, so I am making space in my PhD for the hard fact of conducting research in a settler–colonial society.
My non-traditional path to graduate school led to my developing expertise in environmental and forensic population genetics, as well as bioinformatics and cell biology. I’m excited to share my story and insights with the *NSPIRE community! It all began in undergrad, where I electrofished in a Virginia stream and used slab gels to sequence fish DNA. After graduating, I became a forensic DNA analyst where I helped to identify over 276 missing US service members using mitochondrial and nuclear DNA markers. Then I moved to Washington DC, where I worked with over 100 labs at the National Institutes of Health to design and implement DNA and RNA sequencing experiments. As a volunteer at the Rare Genomics Institute, I analyzed the exomes of three families of children with rare and debilitating diseases. After spending nearly 10 years working in genetics, I decided to attend Scripps Research for my PhD and study non-inherited diseases. Specifically, I study cellular stress signaling in ischemic stroke. Even day-to-day activities like waking up, eating lunch, and learning something new can be stressful to cells. In order to cope with these minor stresses, cells activate signaling pathways that upregulate different genes to restore cellular equilibrium. During a stroke, cerebral cells experience major stresses that disrupt nearly every system critical for their survival which can lead to cell death and neurologic damage. I study how compounds that activate the unfolded protein response, a pathway used to deal with everyday stress, protect against the severe cellular stress and cell death associated with stroke. After graduating from Scripps, I hope to lead my own research lab and study neurologic damage associated with acute brain injury.
I am grateful to be an NSPIRE fellow and for the NCHEA that brought this coalition of academic programs together to foster relationships and provide students STEM opportunities. I would not be where I am today without the pivotal intervention of programs like these. As a graduate student, I develop diagnostics for neglected tropical diseases and drug discovery screening assays for cancer targets. My research focuses on identifying limitations in current assay technology and utilizing innovative strategies to address them. An example of this is the development of a simple and inexpensive point-of-care diagnostic for the parasitic disease onchocerciasis. Onchocerciasis is a leading cause of preventable blindness, afflicting more than 18 million people worldwide, despite an available treatment. When efforts shifted from prevention to surveillance and elimination, the lack of a robust, point-of-care diagnostic for active infection became a limiting factor. Our group identified a biomarker for the disease, N-acetyl-tyramine-O-glucuronide (NATOG), in human urine samples and demonstrated its ability to track treatment progression. With this knowledge we generated NATOG antibodies, employed them in a lateral flow immunoassay, and validated the assay with patient samples. The finished assay accurately diagnosed 85% of analyzed patient samples relative to mass spectroscopy and is under development by a diagnostics company.