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November 2009


Tuning Up the Engines of Research

Fellows find fuel for their careers at the NEI

By Susan E. Johnson
NEI Science Writer

Early-career researchers, or fellows, are drawn to the National Eye Institute (NEI) for the chance to take part in ground-breaking vision research and prepare for an independent scientific career.

"The NEI and the entire National Institutes of Health (NIH) offer a challenging and stimulating environment," says Cesar Perez-Gonzalez, Ph.D., program manager for the NEI's Intramural Training Program in Bethesda, Md.

"I'm learning all of the latest research ideas and techniques," says fellow Xiao-Guang Cao, M.D.

He knows this firsthand--he used to be an NIH fellow himself. "Fellows have opportunities to learn and network, and to initiate collaborations that will extend far into their scientific careers," he says.

The term "fellow" is difficult to define. Fellows are various ages and have completed different levels of education, but all of them assist in ongoing laboratory and clinical research. Most of the Institute's 100-plus fellows have already received their doctorate or medical degree, and come to the NEI for a few years to gain advanced research experience or familiarity with rare eye diseases.

A fellow might have grown up 10 miles away from the NEI, like Ethan Bromberg-Martin, Ph.D., from Fairfax County, Va., or 10,000 miles away, like Xiao-guang Cao, M.D., from Beijing, China. He or she could be planning a career as a clinician, like Cao, or as a writer, like Monika Deshpande, Ph.D.

But inside the lab or the clinic, fellows share a common bond.

"Many of the discoveries that are made here have anywhere from a small to a very significant contribution by a fellow," Perez-Gonzalez says. "They're one of the engines that drive research."

A new way of thinking

Xiao-Guang Cao, M.D., examines eye tissue through a microscope in the NEI Laboratory of Immunology.

Before July 2008, Xiao-Guang Cao, M.D., never had to struggle with English verbs. He spoke Chinese to patients at Peking University People's Hospital in China, where he was pursuing his medical degree and ophthalmology training.

A different person might have chosen to stay in these familiar surroundings, but when his advisor recommended that he journey to the NEI for a two-year research fellowship, Cao couldn't resist.

"The NEI is the best place in the world for eye research," he says.

Cao had completed his 10-year-long combined medical and ophthalmology training in 2007. Though he conducted a small research project on cataracts at People's Hospital, he knew he needed advanced research training to support his planned career as a clinician-scientist.

So he packed up his bags--including his favorite computer games and pictures of his wife--and came halfway around the world, alone, to the NEI.

More than a year after leaving China for Bethesda, Md., Cao believes that the training he has received in the NEI's Laboratory of Immunology has made his sacrifices worthwhile. "I'm learning all of the latest research ideas and techniques," he says.

But one of his most difficult adjustments, besides the English language, has been the unfamiliar scientific mindset he has had to adopt.

"Because I'm a clinician, my thinking is sometimes different from a researcher's," says Cao, who is studying inflammation in mouse models of age-related macular degeneration.

As a clinician in China, he was more focused on results, such as identifying a patient's disease and the best treatment. As a researcher at the NEI, he explores, step-by-step, how and why a disease happens.

Cao says he's looking forward to integrating his new "research thinking" into his medical mindset when he returns to People's Hospital next summer.

"I need to mix these thoughts to find the best way to work with patients," he says.

The pull of the lab

Ethan Bromberg-Martin, Ph.D., programs an experiment to test the brain's reward system in the NEI Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research.

Ethan Bromberg-Martin, Ph.D., might just be attached to the NIH with an invisible bungee cord. Since he spent a summer at the Institutes after graduating from high school in northern Virginia, he has kept coming back, year after year.

Every summer of college, he conducted research in NIH labs. When he fell in love with neuroscience and decided to pursue graduate work in that field, he applied for Brown University's graduate partnership program with the NIH.

"I was interested in a lot of aspects of neuroscience, and I didn't know which specific one I wanted to research," he explains. "That's one of the reasons I applied to the Brown-NIH program. The NIH has more faculty than a university, so I thought there would be a better chance of finding someone who did what I liked."

During his visits to the NIH, Bromberg-Martin says he "gravitated" toward the work of NEI scientist Okihide Hikosaka, M.D., Ph.D., involving the neuroscience of motivation. It was exactly what he had hoped to find.

After completing a year of classes at Brown, Bromberg-Martin spent three years conducting his Ph.D. research in Hikosaka's lab. His project involved measuring the activity of nerve cells in the brain's reward system.

This work could lead him to a teaching or research position at a university, but for now he is happy to take advantage of the resources available at the NEI, from the financial support for his research to the machinists who manufacture the laboratory equipment that he needs.

So when he finished his Ph.D. this June, he just couldn't leave--he's now a fellow in the same lab.

"I already started a new project extending my Ph.D. work," he explains. "It looks promising so far, so I want to make sure that I do it justice."

Eyeing her options

Monika Deshpande, Ph.D., presents her award-winning research from the NEI Laboratory of Retinal Cell and Molecular Biology at the NIH Research Festival.

Monika Deshpande, Ph.D., is used to being teased by her friends about her research.

"I'm at the National Eye Institute, but I'm studying prostate cancer," she says. "And they say, ' does that work, exactly?'"

She studies a protein molecule called PEDF, which is produced in the eye and has many beneficial properties--such as protecting nerve cells, including the eye's light-sensitive photoreceptors.

Deshpande specifically looks at how PEDF interacts with a certain receptor on cell surfaces, and how this interaction affects the cell. Cancer cells, it turns out, have an abundance of the receptor and very little PEDF. This allows her to gradually add the protein to cancer cells to see how the receptor responds to different amounts.

"This is just one thing that I absolutely love about the NEI--the flexibility," Deshpande explains. "My supervisor was extremely supportive and helpful in letting me work on this project, even though it doesn't involve the eye yet. Once I know how things are working with PEDF in the cancer system, I will move back to the eye."

For Deshpande, the freedom to explore is a central theme in her life as an NEI fellow. After she arrived at the Institute for her second post-doctoral position in vision science, she discovered that research might not be her true calling.

"I really like my project here, but I'm more inclined to move away from the bench," Deshpande says.

After 12 years of research, she realized that she needs a scientific career that takes her beyond a focus on one protein.

"I gravitated toward scientific writing because it allows me to stay intimately connected with science, yet with a broader perspective," she says. "It also is my way of contributing to public awareness of science, and making science more approachable."

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