Graduate students in Mills College’s pre-med program are doing research at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI), from studying the origin of diabetes to the link between low income and nutrient deficiency.
Elizabeth Hawley, a second year graduate student, is working in the Shigenaga lab, a part of the larger Nutritional Genomics Center. In her work, Hawley performs tests on blood samples taken from experimental groups of mice.
“I try to determine the effect of poor diet on the levels of sugar, insulin and cholesterol in the blood,” said Hawley.
A second focus of her work is on the process of bacterial translocation, or leakage, from the intestine to other organs of the body. She tests for the presence of bacterial components in organs such as the liver in an attempt to determine whether diets can wear away the body’s defenses and reduce its ability to keep bacteria out. Her lab hypothesizes that intestinal bacteria play a role in many diseases and health in general. The lab regards many bacteria as beneficial, though Lab Manager Aria Eshraghi said that “some can harm us when we absorb their toxins into our bodies or create conditions in our gut that allow them to overgrow.”
Liz Samuels, another student in her second year, is studying the process of aging in human cells. Her lab, headed by David Killilea, is focused on the effect of nutrient deficiency on a cell’s ability to grow and thrive. Samuels’ work also has a social science component, addressing the link between poverty and nutrient deficiency.
This research conducted by Mills women at the Institute has relevance to the wider world. Samuels’ research group is working on “fingerprinting” the levels of various nutrients in the body’s cells in order to diagnose abnormal levels in clinical patients. Her work is also aimed at determining the optimal levels of nutrients in a person’s diet, information which could aid the government in fine-tuning the “Recommended Daily Allowance” found on the back of packaged foods. Hawley’s work is especially important in light of the growing diabetes and obesity epidemics.
“If current trends continue, it is estimated that one-third of children born today will develop diabetes in their lifetime. I believe that we are helping society to understand the mechanisms by which diabetes operates and develop a viable post-diagnosis treatment method,” said Hawley.
She is looking to diet modification, rather than pharmaceutical medication, for the answer; this is welcome news to many in light of the increasing cost of health care.
Both student scientists say they initially became interested in doing research after attending a lecture delivered by a CHORI scientist at Mills. “After the talk, I sent out an e-mail stating my interest to a number of principal investigators and received a handful of replies,” said Hawley.
The students say their Mills education helped prepare them for the challenging lab work they engage in while doing research. “Getting any kind of knowledge in science is helpful for understanding what’s going on here,” said Samuels. “Mills provided a general knowledge about biology and chemistry, which is a basis and foundation to build knowledge from.” Hawley found the lab component of General Chemistry particularly helpful in learning how to manipulate scientific data and said she feels she is also bringing her knowledge and experience from the lab back into the classroom.
“[Working in a lab] has really helped me with lab component of courses … I know what graphs and write-ups should look like [and] I also know what it’s like for really bright people to look at your work and have a lot of positive feedback for you,” she said.
Samuels stated that she appreciates the scientific tools she has developed at the lab and sees the research as valuable experience for achieving her ultimate career goal. “The reason I came [to Mills] is to go to medical school, not to be a researcher. I want to see what research is like, how to ask and answer questions, so when I’m a clinician I can read a research article critically and determine an [effective] treatment for my patient,” she said.
Both students say they recommend the experience to other Mills students.
“You’ll learn a lot. It’s exciting and interesting to work in a real lab, very different from your lab class. What’s difficult to accept is that science is about making mistakes and it’s about what to do with those mistakes. You can’t look up the answer in the back of the book,” said Samuels.
Hawley agreed, admitting that while the work and open environment will be challenging, “it will be instrumental in defining your critical thinking and experimentation skills.”
Samuels and Hawley have both opted to keep working at the lab part-time throughout the school year, which they say wasn’t necessarily the plan when they began. “I didn’t imagine I’d like it so much when I started,” said Hawley.
The students said they appreciate the environment provided by the lab, and the senior staff has said they appreciate them. “I have had an outstanding experience with the two Mills College post-baccalaureate students in our laboratory. Their professional nature and intelligence has allowed them to fully participate in the development of our hypothesis,” said Eshraghi.