The NIEHS Scholars Connect Program (NSCP) celebrated another successful year pairing undergraduate students interested in conducting research with institute scientists who inspired and prepared them to pursue a career in environmental health sciences. During the April 14 annual symposium, 11 NSCP participants presented their 2022-2023 research projects.
The annual symposium is a scientific conference to mark the end of NSCP internships for the 2022-2023 academic year for students commuting from area colleges. Jason Watts, M.D., Ph.D., a Stadtman investigator in the Transcriptional Responses in Disease Group, served as session chair of the event.
Shivani Ayyagari, a student at North Carolina State University (NCSU), and Kyra Varley, a student at Duke University, shared the Outstanding Scholar Award. Thusna Gardiyehewa, also an NCSU student, earned an honorable mention. Read on to learn more about this year’s award winners and NSCP scholars, who presented in person at the annual symposium.
Outstanding Scholar Award
Presentation title: “Evaluation of the Causal Relationship Between PFAS and Lactation Impairment.”
Major: Senior in bioengineering, biomedical engineering, NCSU.
Research Mentor: Sue Fenton, Ph.D.
2022-2023 Best Presenter Awards: Summer Connection Presentation (Tie); Fall Connection Presentation (Honorable Mention).
Research description: I am working on a reproductive toxicology project to evaluate the relationship between a common environmental contaminant and lactation impairment. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are manufactured chemicals found in numerous consumer products. PFAS have been detected in breastmilk and contribute to shortened lactation duration.
The goal of this research is to uncover some of the biological mechanisms underpinning PFAS effects on lactation to help women living in polluted communities. Our research motto is “healthy mothers, healthy babies, and a happy future!”
Lessons learned: Before pursuing this project, I had never heard about PFAS and their prevalence in society. I have learned so much about these chemicals from reviewing regulations and literature. Moreover, I was able to expand my research skills by using new lab techniques, equipment, and analyses. This experience fostered a positive attitude toward reproductive and developmental toxicology.
Favorite NIEHS memory: Networking with fellow scholars and scientists, having weekly lab meetings, and walking around Discovery Lake (sometimes with geese for company).
Advice for future NSCP Scholars: Be adaptable to change and growth and never say no to an opportunity that requires you to step out of your comfort zone. Trust yourself and do not compare your journey with others because you are unique.
Expected graduation date: May 2023.
Future plans after graduation: Travel over the summer and pursue a postbaccalaureate position.
Outstanding Scholar Award
Presentation title: “Exploring the Intersection of the Effect Climate Change has on the Health of Pregnant People and Environmental Health Disparities.”
Major: Senior in social determinants of health and inequality, Duke University.
Research Mentors: Melissa Judd-Smarr, Ph.D., and Claudia Thompson, Ph.D.
2022-2023 Best Presenter Awards: Fall Connection Presentation (Tie); Spring Connection Presentation (Honorable Mention).
Research description: My project investigated how climate change impacts pregnancy. I found a myriad of ways that climate change exacerbates and creates health disparities. These risk factors are compounded by structural discrimination that further disadvantages populations, such as racial and ethnic minorities and people with low socioeconomic status. Our research helps people to understand just how many things affect your health every day, many of them entirely out of your control.
Lessons learned: I learned an incredible amount during my time at NIEHS, and I will forever remember this formative experience and everything it taught me about myself, research, and the professional world. It was truly an honor to be surrounded with such supportive and impressive people.
Favorite NIEHS memory: My favorite memory, among many, was the fall communication presentation. The three-minute format pushed me outside of my comfort zone and taught me how to communicate my work in a succinct, powerful way.
Advice for future NSCP Scholars: My advice for future scholars would be to make sure you are interested in your mentor’s work and are a good fit for their work environment. Pick a project that you will be interested in for a sustained period because you will invest a lot of time into it.
Expected graduation date: May 2023.
Future plans after graduation: After graduation I will be working as a caretaker for an adult with disabilities as I prepare for medical school. I will also be working on a publication about racial bias in artificial intelligence and writing a chapter for a textbook titled, “Hot Topics in Transgender Health.” Additionally, I will continue my work with Lay Mental Health Advocates, an emerging nonprofit organization.
Other NSCP awardees
Thusna Gardiyehewa was awarded best presentation at the NSCP Spring Symposium for her presentation titled “Investigating the Effect of Hyaluronan on Ozone-Induced Injury of Bronchial Epithelial Cells.” Gardiyehewa, who was awarded an honorable mention for the Outstanding Scholar Award, is a junior studying molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at NCSU.
Outstanding Scholar Award Honorable Mention
Research Mentors: Vandy Parron, Ph.D., and Stavros Garantziotis, Ph.D.
2022-2023 Best Presenter Awards: Summer Connection Presentation (Tie); Fall Communication Presentation (Tie).
Research description: Ground-level ozone exposure contributes to disease and death globally, and ozone levels are predicted to increase in the future. The goal of my research was to study how a naturally existing sugar that coats the airways, called hyaluronan, plays a role in the response to ground-level ozone exposure. I grew human cells into fully functioning tissue, which replicate the airways in our body. I put together an exposure system for these tissues to develop a procedure for modeling ozone exposure in humans. I studied the uptake of extrinsic hyaluronan by cells after it was added to the tissue, and overall, we found that the addition of natural hyaluronan showed some protective effects in the tissue. Restoring the balance of natural hyaluronan in the airways may prevent or treat ozone-induced injury.
Lessons learned: One of my biggest takeaways from the program is the importance of science communication. A quote from one of our seminars particularly stuck with me: ‘Science not communicated efficiently is science not done.’ I gained a greater appreciation for the impact of dissemination of knowledge.
Favorite NIEHS memory: The very first successful run of our exposure system after working on it for months and experiencing many trials and errors.
Advice for future NSCP Scholars: Make connections, be curious, and be patient. You will start with a plan, but what you achieve by the end might look vastly different. Research is a fluid process; you will likely need to adapt as new questions come up along the way. Be prepared for the unexpected and think creatively to overcome any challenges you face in the research process.
Expected graduation date: December 2023.
Future plans after graduation: I plan to pursue an M.D., Ph.D. to become a physician-scientist in the biomedical field.
NSCP scholar Charles Coleman also earned an award this academic year for research conducted at NIEHS.
Research title: “Mechanism of Incoming dNTP Binding to the Active Site of DNA Polymerase Mu.”
Major: Senior in bioengineering at North Carolina A&T University.
Research Mentor: Lalith Perera, Ph.D.
2022-2023 Best Presenter Awards: Summer Connection Poster Presentation (Honorable Mention).
Research description: Polymerase is an enzyme in your body that aids in the DNA repair process, and my project analyzed how the environment surrounding the polymerase guides nucleotides to repair the broken portions in DNA. My project was computational and involved both creating and analyzing biomolecular systems. DNA is broken and reassembled millions of times a day, but the human body has the mechanisms to ensure it is working at optimal capacity all the time.
Lessons learned: My lasting impression is to be open to new experiences outside of your desired field and relish in a space surrounded by science to deepen your knowledge any way you can.
Favorite NIEHS memory: My favorite memory is presenting with my fellow scholars and colleagues and showcasing my work to those who do not know anything about the subject but are able to walk out of my presentation having learned something.
Advice for future NSCP Scholars: Communication is the most important part of the entire experience. Always make sure that your communication is solid with your colleagues and your mentor.
Expected graduation date: May 13, 2023.
Future plans after graduation: I was accepted into the biomedical engineering doctoral program at the University of Michigan but will be taking a gap year to work as a quality engineer for Abbott Inc. in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
(Jennifer Harker, Ph.D., is a technical writer-editor in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)