NIEHS Visiting Fellow Natalie Saini, Ph.D., won the 2017 Environmental Mutagenesis and Genomics Society (EMGS) Young Scientist Award. The EMGS scientific review panel selected her over three other finalists.
Saini received the most votes on a research video she wrote and produced herself. She will present the 2017 Young Scientist Award Winner Plenary Lecture on the research described in the video at the 48th Annual EMGS Meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina, September 9-13, 2017.
As a member of the Mechanisms of Genome Dynamics Group headed by Dmitry Gordenin, Ph.D., Saini works to identify the various types of mutations that are generated in healthy individuals.
"If we sequence enough healthy people, maybe we can come up with a way to see if a person is prone to getting cancer someday," Saini explained.
Public votes on video entries
EMGS strives to promote research that examines the possible health impacts of damage to human DNA. Its Young Scientist Award is unique, because at the last stage of competition, candidates are challenged to create a video of 3 minutes or less, which succinctly describes their research using language geared toward a general audience. Videos of the finalists are uploaded onto the crowdfunding website Indiegogo, and the finalist collecting the most votes is given the opportunity to present at the annual meeting.
Saini's mentor, Gordenin, believed she would do well in the competition, and nominated her for the award. "Natalie has high productivity in designing, conducting, and publishing top quality research that will be competitive for funding at her independent career stage," he said.
Damage and the genome
Saini said mutations in the human genome are linked to aging and cancer, but comparing genomes from patients with and without cancer was challenging.
"I had a really straightforward idea, which was to take skin cells from a person without cancer, make a single clone out of it and sequence to see what mutations it had," Saini said. "We found the number of mutations in a 60-year-old without cancer was very similar to the number of mutations from a person with cancer," Saini said.
Saini also looked at the impact of ultraviolet radiation on human skin cells by comparing exposed cells from the forearm with cells from the hip that were protected by clothing. She found that exposed cells had more mutations compared with cells protected by clothing. Saini theorizes that figuring out the consequences of these errors will ultimately help diagnose and treat cancers.
(Salahuddin Syed, Ph.D., is an Intramural Research Training Award fellow in the NIEHS DNA Replication Fidelity Group.)