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Diverse Roads Lead to NIH

By Susan Athey

Like many at NIH, they have come from across the country — Colorado, California, New Jersey, even right here in Maryland — to work alongside top-notch scientists and scientist-administrators. But they have something else in common: They are former participants in NIGMS programs aimed at increasing the number of underrepresented minority biomedical scientists.

The institute's Division of Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE) supported these students-turned-scientists at various stages of their education by providing them with training opportunities, mentors and role models, lab equipment and supplies, and often, their first experience in a research lab.

Working a "Dream Job"

Dr. Brandi Mattson calls her job at NIH a "dream postdoctoral position." She spends her days doing molecular neuroscience research in a NIDA lab in Baltimore, where her work focuses on integrating the behavioral and molecular aspects of drug abuse, specifically how the brain changes when stimulated by drugs. Mattson hopes this research will aid in the understanding of how drugs of abuse work and assist in developing new treatments for addiction.

But performing experiments and a love of science are nothing new to Mattson — they are something she traces back to childhood.

Postdoctoral fellow Dr. Brandi Mattson studies how the brain changes when stimulated by drugs in a NIDA lab in Baltimore.

"By the time I was 5, I already had my own microscope and histology slides," she said.

An avid violin and piano player, Mattson's "other" love — of music — got her accepted into two of the top 10 music schools in the country with full scholarships. But her passion for science won out, ultimately landing her as an undergraduate at Southwestern University in Texas and later at the University of Colorado (CU), Boulder. While attending CU, Mattson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Refusing to let her illness stand in the way of her dreams, she moved back home to be closer to her network of support and enrolled in the University of Southern Colorado, Pueblo, where she finished her bachelor's degree in psychology with minors in mathematics and sociology.

The first in her family to earn a bachelor's degree, Mattson continued her education at Rutgers, where she earned a Ph.D. in behavioral and neural sciences in 2002.

Throughout her college education, NIGMS's Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) Program was behind Mattson just about every step of the way. Her first experience with MBRS was right after she finished high school, when she enrolled in a small summer program for high school graduates offered by the University of Southern Colorado. It was this program that gave Mattson her first opportunity to work in a research lab.

"I really enjoyed it and I came back the following summer to do more research," she said.

Mattson continued as an MBRS participant at both the University of Southern Colorado and Rutgers. She credits the program for providing her with research supplies, mentors and opportunities to attend national scientific meetings.

"Without the MBRS program, graduate school would have been much more difficult for me to complete," she said. "The program provided me with a network of mentors — both faculty and students — to advise me on my research and plan my long-term career goals, and to support me in my non-scientific endeavors. Even though I no longer participate in the program, I still have the same mentors to turn to. I am fortunate that my mentors will be there for the duration of my career — as advisors and research collaborators."

As to what the future holds for Mattson, we'll just have to wait and see. She plans to be at NIH for another year and a half, and then hopes to move back west and possibly do some biotechnology research and look for a faculty position.

"My goal is to continue conducting medical research and unraveling the mysteries of neurological and psychiatric diseases," she said.

Realizing One's Potential

Some people are just not born farmers. Growing up in a farming family on the central coast of California helped Dr. David Cerna realize this early on.

"I decided being a farm laborer wasn't for me," he said, adding that this was a major influence in his decision to attend college.

West Coast transplant Dr. David Cerna studies the effect of radiation on cancer in an NCI lab.

During his undergraduate years at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Cerna was exposed to biomedical research through the NIGMS Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) Program.

"One of the great things about the MARC program was that it gave me one-on-one time with my professors and instructors — this is something I wouldn't have had the courage or the opportunity to do otherwise," he said.

Also the first in his family to attend college, Cerna received a stipend, tuition assistance and funds for books through the MARC program. He says this support was a "great relief" to his parents back on the farm.

Cerna went on to finish his undergraduate degree in biology at Santa Cruz and credits the MARC program with helping him to recognize his potential.

"Getting involved with MARC helped me to realize that I wanted to do something more than getting a bachelor's degree, so I applied for and was accepted into a Ph.D. program at the University of California, Davis," he said. He received his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology in 2003.

Cerna now does cancer research at NCI through the Cancer Research Training Award (CRTA) Program. He is studying why certain drugs make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy. The goal is to find and establish "molecular targets" for use in the potential design of new drugs and to shed light on the effect of radiation on cancer.

"Working at NIH is great," Cerna said. "Having the opportunity to perform real-life research that is directly correlated to patients is the best part," he added, noting that all his previous research was done on non-human models, like yeast or E. coli.

After his term in the CRTA program ends, Cerna hopes to stay on the east coast and find a faculty position or a job in industry.

"My ideal job would be one that allows me to perform my own research, and hopefully this research will have direct application in patients."

Hooked on Research

Dr. Senator Hazelwood credits the MBRS program with introducing him to research.

"My interest in science didn't begin until I was an undergraduate student at Rutgers," he said, "and this was a direct result of my involvement with MBRS."

Hazelwood's initial plan was to get a medical degree, but MBRS sparked his interest in research as well.

Dr. Senator Hazelwood
After completing a bachelor's degree in chemistry at Rutgers, Hazelwood went on to Temple University School of Medicine, where he completed his medical degree in 2000. During medical school, he also worked at NIH for 2 years as a Howard Hughes fellow. He was hooked.

"That experience was wonderful. NIH is unique: Everyone is concentrating on research here on campus — you're free to walk down the hall and collaborate with other scientists — and this gives you an edge you don't find anywhere else," he said.

Hazelwood received further postdoctoral training at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and interned in general surgery at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center. But he always hoped to return to NIH at some point during his training. He applied to the Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) Program, designed to give junior scientists the opportunity to further their development as researchers, and returned to NIH in September 2003.

Today, when he's not fishing the Northeast waters or trying his hand at boating, he's working in an NIDDK lab where he studies the role of receptor signaling in breast cancer.

"My research involves examining the signaling pathway of sigma receptors, which are a novel class of drug-binding proteins that have been implicated in various biochemical, physiological and behavioral processes. These receptors are highly expressed in breast tumor cell lines, while there is little or no expression in normal breast tissue," Hazelwood explained. "These receptors represent a potentially novel approach for understanding and treating breast cancer."

After his IRTA fellowship ends, Hazelwood hopes to further his medical training, perhaps in general surgery or internal medicine.

"My ultimate goal is to be an academic clinician — to be a researcher and a practicing M.D. in an academic environment."

Giving Back

Dr. LaShawn Drew spends her days administering grants for the very program that helped her obtain her doctoral degree. As a program director in the NIGMS MORE division, Drew manages training grants and fellowship programs at colleges and universities across the country.

"I am not only responsible for maintaining some of our current science programs, but I am also charged with thinking of new ways to help meet the mission of the MORE division," Drew said of her new position.

Dr. LaShawn Drew
She joined the division last fall after directing the NIH Academy for 3 years. Her NIH experience also includes working as a chemist in NEI for a couple of years after receiving her bachelor's degree in natural science from Spelman College, as well as doing predoctoral and postdoctoral research at NIDDK.

Drew, who admits to once starting a kitchen fire during an at-home science project in the 7th grade, says she accepted the job with MORE because she "wanted to give back" to the organization that aided her scientific career.

A former MBRS program participant at Howard University, Drew earned her Ph.D. in biology in 1998. She credits MBRS with giving her the opportunity to conduct experiments and inform the scientific community about her research on sickle cell anemia, something of great importance to her since the disease afflicts several family members.

"The program also allowed me to present my research at national scientific conferences, while meeting other students and scientists much like myself, in a field where too few underrepresented professionals exist," she added.

Drew says she made the move from bench research to program administration in the hopes of making a difference.

"I believe science administration is where I can make the greatest impact to aid NIH's goals and ensure the training of underrepresented researchers is met. Helping students become competitively trained, helping faculty develop into professional researchers capable of obtaining grant awards and providing mentorship to students, and helping academic institutions develop outstanding science programs are important processes that I participate in through my work in MORE," Drew said. "I am very excited about this task and have several ideas brewing," she added.

More on MORE

Dr. Clifton Poodry, director of the MORE division, is pleased to see former MORE participants choose NIH for research experiences and, in some cases, for their careers.

"These shining examples are evidence that NIGMS programs aimed at increasing the number of underrepresented minority researchers have an impact — that we are motivating and inspiring the next generation of biomedical scientists," he said, quickly noting that these are just a handful of the MORE success stories here at NIH.

"There are other former MORE participants working at NIH, and there are even more at other federal agencies, at colleges and universities, and at companies throughout the United States and elsewhere," he added. "We are proud of them all."

For more information see http://www.nigms.nih. gov/minority/.

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