By Ricky Baylis

When I was 8 years old, my parents took me and my siblings to Disney World. I can still remember the feeling of unbridled awe I experienced passing through the gates of the amusement park. I had similar feeling as a scientist driving across the bridge into Lindau. This past summer I was one of 29 students from the United States nominated by ORAU to attend the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting for Physiology and Medicine. These meetings transform the quaint, Bavarian island-town of Lindau into a scientific wonderland. Located in Southern Germany in the shadow of the Austrian mountains and surrounded by Lake Constance, Lindau’s buildings are painted in vibrant reds, greens, and yellows, and its narrow streets carve seemingly stochastic cuts in and out of the main roads. It takes about five minutes to walk from one end to the other. For one week, the town’s hotels reach capacity with “young scientists” (i.e., those under 35). This year, more than 600 of us came from 84 different countries – our common thread, a passion for biomedical research. The purpose of all the excitement is simply that 39 scientific giants, Nobel Laureates in Physiology and Medicine, had also arrived on the island to meet with and inspire the next generation of scientists.

The days were full of science, the Nobel laureates gave lectures on their past and current research endeavors. The lectures were nothing-short of remarkable. They started with Michael Rosbash and Michael Young – the most recent recipients of the prize for their efforts in deciphering the cellular clock, and ended with a lecture by Ada Yonath, the woman (and now personal hero) who had asked the question of how RNA was translated into protein and went on to describe in elegant simplicity, the ribosome. It continued in a similar way – the discoverer of telomerase and reverse transcriptase, the invention of CryoEM, the creation of recombinant DNA, the role of viruses in the development of certain cancers, key components of the innate and adaptive immune systems – it was difficult to think of a topic of contemporary biomedical research that was not started or revolutionized by this small group of scientists. All this in a single generation of science – I had taken for granted their accomplishments and underappreciated the pace and importance of research.

There were many instances where I caught myself questioning the reality of the moment. For instance, I found myself eating dinner with Avram Hershko and his wife, Judith, listening to them recount the discovery of ubiquitin and the proteasome – he is 80 years old and he still does experiments in his lab (his wife claimed that if he doesn’t get to pipet each day he becomes grouchy). Or the time I got lunch with Erwin Neyer and heard about his difficulty getting an adequate seal as he invented the patch-clamp technique that revolutionized the field of electrophysiology. Or sitting across from Michael Levitt and Rainer Blatt as they discussed the possibilities and false starts of quantum computing. Perhaps subtler but no less inspiring were my many interactions with the other young scientists. Indeed, the students – from each country – were exceptional. Biomedical science can rest peacefully in the knowledge that there are young people all across the globe poised to dedicate themselves to her understanding.

It is almost certain that I will never find myself again in Lindau as a scientist – non-Nobel Laureates are only allowed to attend once during their lifetime. But alas it is equally certain that I leave Lindau in awe of those who came before me, inspired by the next generation of scientists, and whole-heartedly committed to playing a small role in advancing this beautiful field forward.

 


Paige Kulling: what she learned from her PhD experience

Before leaving for her postdoctoral fellowship in California, Paige was interviewed about her experience as a graduate student at UVA. During her PhD, Paige authored several publications, presented at international conferences, received multiple grants, and graduated in 4 years. Supportive mentorship was one aspect of graduate school that Paige attributes to her success. She was in Dr. Thomas Loughran’s lab, which turned out to be a very good choice for her. It’s a large lab, where she was able to work closely with other faculty members in the lab, but still benefit from the wealth of clinical experience offered by Dr. Loughran. Due to the lab’s size, every member of the lab had valuable expertise on a multitude of techniques and areas of research. This allowed Paige to pursue multiple projects in different areas of research from virology to metabolism to vitamin D. By pursuing multiple projects at once, when two of them failed, she still had a viable project to concentrate on for her dissertation. This resulted in a lot less wasted time than if she had waited until each project was completely exhausted before beginning the next one.

Paige believes that her passion for her project motivated her to continually design experiments and collect data. She has always been passionate about translational research and she knew she wanted to identify a project that could have clinical impact. Her final project revolved around the effect of vitamin D on cancer-driven inflammation. The use of vitamin D as an anti-cancer agent is something that is being evaluated in clinical trials for other diseases but was previously unstudied for the leukemia that was the focus of her dissertation. By the end of her second year, she had a second author paper and by the end of her fourth year, she had two first-author papers and another on the way as well as several second author publications.

Paige’s ultimate career goal is to direct a clinical microbiology laboratory and she will be starting a clinical microbiology fellowship at UCLA this July.

 


Richard Baylis

Richard Baylis has recently been invited to attend the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany this June. These meetings began in 1951 and aim to create a global community of scientists spanning different cultures, generations, and disciplines. The 68th meeting will be dedicated to physiology and medicine. A record 43 Nobel Laureates will meet with young scientists from 84 different countries to discuss the topics of global relevance to the scientific community. Applicants undergo a rigorous multi-stage selection process including an internal nomination and scientific review panel appointed by the Lindau Council.

“I am thankful for the support of great mentors at UVA and for a learning environment that empowers students to pursue opportunities like the Lindau meetings. I am most interested to discuss how to better translate the rapid expansion of big-data driven scientific discovery to practical improvements in patient care and ways to improve the communication of science to an increasingly skeptical society.”

Richard is an MD/PhD student in the lab of Dr. Gary Owens, Director of UVA’s Robert M. Berne Cardiovascular Research Center. He is studying the influence of inflammation on key cell types thought to regulate the stability of high-risk atherosclerotic lesions.

 


Kathy Michels

UVA researchers Borna Mehrad, left, and Kathryn Michels found that the hormone hepcidin limits the spread of the pneumonia bacteria by hiding the iron in the blood that the bacteria need to survive and grow. (UVA Health System photo)

Researcher Kathryn Michels, a graduate student in Mehrad’s lab and the first author of a manuscript outlining the findings, noted that many people lack the hormone because of genetic illnesses or liver disease.

“It’s quite common,” she said. “We think this line of research is very relevant to the many people who can’t make this hormone very well and are, clinically, very susceptible to these infections.”

She noted that there is already a drug in development that mimics the function of hepcidin and could be used to decrease the iron levels in the blood of pneumonia patients who lack hepcidin. That drug has been developed primarily to treat chronic iron overload, such as is seen in people with hereditary hemochromatosis, but the new research may give it another, lifesaving application.

The findings have been published online by the scientific journal JCI Insight.

(UVA Today, 3/27/17)