NIAMS Scientists Diverse Backgrounds, Shared Goals

August 19, 2011 (historical)

Photo of Amber Grace
Amber Grace

For Future Pharmacist, Research Provides an Opportunity to Discover Innovative Aspects of Science

Amber Grace is a recent graduate of Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, where she majored in chemistry. She is one of 16 young scientists-in-training selected to participate in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Academy, a post-baccalaureate biomedical research program for recent college graduates with an interest in domestic health disparities, differences in the frequency or severity of diseases and other adverse health conditions among populations in the United States. Academy members spend one or two years working side by side with NIH investigators exclusively on biomedical research. They also complete a curriculum that combines the study of health disparities with career and professional development workshops. During their stay at the NIH, Academy members are expected to apply to graduate or professional (medical/dental/pharmacy) school. An accomplished student, Grace received an award for Outstanding Poster Presentation at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Microbiology last fall, and won 1st place in the Emerging Researchers National Conference for Undergraduate Oral Presentation in Biological Sciences in the Microbiology/Genes category in February. In her interview, Grace discusses her student "career" at NIAMS (in summer 2010, she interned in the Molecular Immunology and Inflammation lab), her passion for health disparities research and what inspired her interest in science starting at age 12.

What will your research involve at NIAMS as an Academy member?

I am here at NIAMS as part of the NIH Academy for 1-2 years. I will be doing biomedical research in Dr. Richard Siegel's lab. My project is on TRAPS (TNF receptor-associated periodic syndrome), a genetic autoinflammatory disorder that causes periodic fevers (7-21 days), severe pain in the abdomen, chest or joints, skin rash, inflammation in or around the eyes and an elevated risk of amyloidosis, a potentially fatal build-up of protein in vital organs. I am very excited to be here! It's a great opportunity. I really enjoyed working here last summer, so it's great that I can stay a little longer this time. It will be a very rewarding experience.

How did you first learn about NIAMS/NIH and opportunities to do internships here?

During my junior and senior years at Tuskegee, I was in the MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) U-STAR (Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research Awards) program, which is funded by NIH. As a requirement, after my junior year, I had to do an internship project that focused on a condition that adversely affects minority populations. The goal of my project was to test the effectiveness of a biological therapy to reduce and/or prevent inflammation and tumors in an IL-10 knockout mouse model. The mouse was a model for inflammatory bowel disease, which can potentially lead to colon cancer, a type of cancer that disproportionately affects the African American population. At the end of my senior year, I worked on another study to better understand the biological and physical changes that occur in the body that cause lupus, which disproportionately affects African American women.

What led to your interest in science and research?

Science was one of my favorite subjects throughout elementary, junior high and high school. Chemistry was interesting and challenging, and not redundant. It was new, fresh, different and something I could see myself learning in detail for a long time. I have an interest in pharmacy research, and I thought chemistry would be a good major for that.

What and/or who influenced you?

I have always liked research. It gives me an opportunity to discover new things. If it's health-related, it's for a good cause, particularly if it's a disease that has no cure. I had microscopes in elementary and junior high school. I really asked for microscopes for Christmas and birthdays!

What do you like about science and research? What attracted you to them?

It's challenging. Research shows you things about biology, and things about life, that you don't learn in school. You can get more in-depth about the science of life. It's a good way to gain more knowledge and learn. I still remember everything I learned last summer. I could probably repeat it all!

Do you want a career in science or research? If so, what would you like to pursue and why? What do you see yourself doing as your career?

I want to go to pharmacy school. I really have an interest in researching treatments and innovative drugs. Most projects at school and internships I've done have been about using a new type of drug for something. I would like to become a hospital pharmacist because that has more of a clinical aspect to it than a drug store pharmacist. As a hospital pharmacist, I would have more opportunities to work with new, innovative drugs. It seems like a perfect combination of the lab and the clinic, being involved with patient care and patients and working with things that help them, like treatments. It also involves the chemical, biomedical, clinical and innovative aspects of science that are most interesting to me.

What have been some of the most rewarding and fulfilling aspects of your experiences with science and research so far? What has been the most exciting or interesting experience?

It is rewarding to be able to see the effects of research and to work alongside clinicians and researchers. The interactions among pharmacists, M.D.s, Ph.D.s and everyone involved in the research process are great to see. Even if the result of my research is negative, at least I know I need to try something else, especially if I'm working with diseases that have no cure. When I get good results and I'm learning different techniques, I take in so much information that actually might be helpful—it's a really rewarding feeling and I like being involved in that process.

By participating in different research programs, I can work on developing my general communication and presentation skills. For example, when I go to conferences, I have the opportunity to present my research, and I meet other people who are doing the same thing as I am, so I can talk to them about the research. Also, when I am working on health disparities research, like I have done with diabetes and colon cancer, I feel I am doing what I can do to help out my community. At the same time, I can learn if I and other African Americans are at higher risk for certain diseases and learn more about them, which is a big plus.

What activities do you enjoy outside of school?

I like going to football games, shopping, hanging out with friends, movies and writing. I have written plays for church, a little poetry, and I just won an essay competition at Tuskegee. During college, I was editor of the school newspaper my junior year, and I also worked on staff as a copy editor. Over my last Christmas break, I learned how to decorate cakes—which can be a stress reliever and it tastes good!

Do you think other students from communities of color should pursue a career in science or research? If so, why?

Definitely. It's really important to see more minorities in this field, especially because of health disparities. They are really needed. If more minorities go into the field, I believe people from minority communities would be more trusting of research. They would have the benefit of knowing there are researchers who know about diseases that affect them. And, as a minority researcher, it's good to know if you're at higher risk for certain diseases. For minority students considering research as a career, having minority researchers to serve as mentors would be very appealing.