Healing the world with science and medicine | Science News for Students

Healing the world with science and medicine

These women in biomedicine and medicine are out to cure disease, one germ at a time
Sep 27, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
Danielle Twum

Danielle Twum studies how the immune system responds to cancer.

D. Twum

When Science News for Students decided to write a feature about women in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — we wondered how to illustrate the story. Buying photos from a commercial photography shop was one option. But that seemed like a poor way to illustrate the breadth of girls and women interested in science.

Then we thought, what better way to illustrate a story about women in STEM than showing the women at work — or blowing off steam after a day in the lab? We put out a call asking for women to send us their photos, videos and sound clips. And boy did they ever.

Catlyn Blanchard
Catlyn Blanchard blows off scientific steam by taking to the stage as an Irish dancer.
Maureen Blanchard

We received more than 150 submissions from around the world! We used some to illustrate our feature. But we didn’t want to leave the rest out. So we’re posting our submissions in blog posts.

Today, we meet 25 women who don’t flinch in the face of disease. These scientists and medical students are out to save lives, one person or experiment at a time.

Catlyn Blanchard

Why be a scientist or a doctor when you could be both? Blanchard is a graduate student at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. In addition, she’s just started medical school at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. In her graduate work, she has spent six years studying how to combat infections caused by bacteria. These studies inspired her to go to medical school. There, Blanchard says, she loves “applying my research and science knowledge to the treatment of patients.”

Carri-Ann Bloom
Carri-Ann Bloom presents her research findings by them on a poster at a scientific conference.
Carminita Frost

But life can’t be all science all the time. “To stay sane and get a little bit of exercise,” she notes, “I have been a competitive Irish dancer for the past five years.” This coming November, Blanchard will be dancing across the stage in her third regional competition.

Carri-Ann Bloom

Most people think of scientists as people who wear white coats. But why white? “I have a bright yellow lab coat that I fashionably like to wear,” notes Bloom. She attends graduate school in biochemistry at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Molly Bristol

Molly Bristol
Molly Bristol at work in her lab.
Molly Bristol

Bristol is out to defeat cancer. She’s a pharmacologist — someone who studies medicines and the way they interact with the body. When she was getting her PhD, she says, “I worked in a laboratory that looked at combinational therapies in breast cancer treatment." As she explains, the team she worked on was probing "how to combine two drugs that aren't toxic on their own, but together kill cancer cells.” Now, she works with the human papilloma virus (HPV). This is a sexually transmitted infection that also can cause cancer. Bristol hopes her project will “determine what genetic factors help certain patients respond better to treatments.”

But she doesn’t let her work take over her life. “I have a lot of non-scientific hobbies,” she says. “I sew, bake, paint, make jewelry and love yoga and cycling. I also love to travel." So far, she has been to 39 states and seven countries.

Isabella Capilla
Isabella Capilla Navarro working in the lab in Brazil.
Isabella Capilla

Isabella Capilla Navarro

Capilla Navarro is in graduate school for cell biology and neurobiology at the Kaiserslautern University of Technology in Germany. Before that, she worked in a laboratory at São Paulo State University in Brazil. “In the lab, I feel I am in my ‘natural habitat,’” she says. Someday, she wants to combine her love of technology with her love of biomedicine.

Carol Lynn Curchoe

Annoyed with the short battery life on your phone? So is Curchoe. So she started a company called 32ATPs. The company’s goal is to find ways to build longer-lasting batteries, using energy-generating methods found in living cells.

(Story continues below video)

Carol Lynn Curchoe talks about her company, 32ATPs.
Michelle Gumz gives a talk about her research.
Michelle Gumz gives a talk about her research.
Valerie Werner

Michelle Gumz

Everything in your body runs on its own cycle — even the kidneys that produce your urine. Gumz wants to find out how this “clock” in the kidney affects its function. She’s a biochemist and molecular biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. And she refused to let anything slow her down. She’s already survived cancer herself — twice. 

Charlotte “Bob” Keith

Keith is a clinical scientist who helps analyze chromosomes — threadlike pieces of DNA found in a cell’s nucleus. Her work at the South East Scotland Genetic Service in Edinburgh helps to diagnose genetic diseases in people.

C. Keith
Bob snaps a selfie at work.
C. Keith

And yes, Keith says, people really do call her Bob. “Been called it since high school, [it’s a] very long and very immature story,” she quips. “It’s also one of the hazards of being called Charlotte. You get everything: Charlie, Lotte, Cha-cha, and also get Bob, Charbob [and] Boblette.”

Rikki Harrison

When you go to the doctor and give a blood sample, have you ever wondered where it goes next? Well, if you’re at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, it might go to Harris. She’s a cytogenic technologist. That means that she prepares and analyzes chromosomes from blood, bone marrow and prenatal samples. This can “help diagnose and treat genetic diseases,” she explains.

Rikki Harrison snaps a selfie.
Rikki Harrison snaps a selfie.
R. Harrison

But that’s not all. “I am a big animal lover and a few years ago I fought in the courts to rescue a bear being kept in a roadside attraction,” she says. “Our story was featured on an episode on Nat Geo Wild. He now lives in a beautiful sanctuary in California!”

Cara Heuser

Some people might “meet” a woman using science the very day they are born. That someone could be Heuser, who works in maternal-fetal medicine. Her place of work: Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. She’s a doctor who takes care of women when they are pregnant or having babies. “My job is so rewarding because not only do I have the privilege of caring for families during some of the most joyful (and some of the saddest) times in their lives, but I also get to teach,” she says. Her research is helping her team “find new and better ways of taking care of patients.”

C. Heuser
Cara Heuser’s daughter loves science, too. Here she plays with a microscope.
C. Heuser

Heuser enjoys getting her whole family interested in science. “I am a mother of two and my entire family enjoys nerding-it-out together,” she says. “My husband is an engineer (now a stay at home dad) so we all enjoy science outings together. We take our kids to national parks, caves, museums, and to enjoy the local nature.”


Divya Kernik

Divya Kernik traveled to Singapore.
Divya Kernik traveled to Singapore.
D. Kernik

What does math have to do with medicine? Quite a bit. Ask Kernik. She is a graduate student in biomedical engineering at the University of California, Davis. “I'm working to use math to create computer models of heart cells,” she says. “We use these computational heart cells to test the safety of new drugs before they're tested on people or animals. I hope to be able to predict why some people's hearts react differently to drugs and use that information to predict the best drugs to treat heart disease.”

Outside of work, Kernik says, “I love to travel!” On a trip to Malaysia, she recalls, “I thought a three-legged monkey was trying to attack me,. In the end, it turned out he only wanted her ice cream. "Once I gave up the ice cream," she notes, "he left me alone!”

M. McReynolds
Follow Melanie McReynolds on Snapchat for an inside look at science.
M. McReynolds


Melanie McReynolds

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to go through graduate school, follow McReynolds on Snapchat (her handle is dr_ohsopretty). She’s a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University in State College. McReynolds wants to develop medicines that address people’s problems individually. She explains that she has chosen to study biochemistry because “I truly believe that one day my science will change the world.”

Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay

Not all scientists end up in the lab. Mukhopadhyay is the managing editor of ASBMB Today. It’s a magazine published by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She started out as a scientist in biophysics, molecular biology and biochemistry. But Mukhopadhyay ended up taking her love of learning and bringing it to the magazine world.

“These days, I learn about new aspects about molecular biology and biochemistry as I put together an awesome monthly magazine." She says it's all about "cutting-edge research and issues concerning researchers in the life sciences.” 

Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay shows you what a scientist looks like.

Outside of the publishing business, Mukhopadhyay lets her voice ring out. Quite literally.

“I sang the national anthem at a minor league baseball game earlier this year,” she says. “I became a U.S. citizen two years ago. And singing the national anthem at a ball game was a huge item to mark off on my new-American-citizen bucket list!”

G. Radu
Georgiana Radu poses in a selfie.
G. Radu

Georgiana Radu

Radu is a fourth-year medical student at Carol Davila University of Medicine and Pharmacy. It's in Bucharest, Romania. Radu believes that “women everywhere should really follow their passions and do whatever makes them happy.” She’s following her passion and hopes to one day soon work as a surgeon. She’s also a big fan of rollerblading. And she can enjoy it from the inside. It’s been one of her athletic pursuits for 15 years!

Emma Richards strikes a pose in her lab coat.
Emma Richards strikes a pose in her lab coat.
E. Richards, Andrea Sirianni

Emma Richards

Some scientists spread their love of research beyond the lab. Richards is in graduate school at Imperial College in London, England studying microbiology. She focuses on a nasty germ that can cause severe diarrhea that is very, very hard to treat. Its formal name: Clostridium difficile (Klos-TRID-ee-um Dif-oh-SEEL).

Outside of the office she’s “written a few articles as a freelance writer on topics of scientific debate, such as the potential destruction of the remaining smallpox vials.” (Smallpox is a virus that has been eradicated from the world. It exists in only a few samples held in labs under a lot of security.)

Richards is a big fan of girl power. “I once sang a solo in a school performance, promoting girl power as Queen Boudica, ‘The Warrior Queen,’ she says. “Feels like quite an appropriate experience for this feature, don't you think?”

Jacqualyn Schulman
Don’t worry, Jacqualyn Schulman’s lab coat is tie-dyed, not covered in chemicals!
Jim McKeever

Jacqualyn Schulman

Schulman performs research in the field of pharmacology at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. Such studies focus on the role of chemicals to promote health or fight disease.

In her free time, Schulman likes to go bowling. “I have been bowling since I was five years old and have competed in tournaments,” she says. “I have yet to bowl a 300 [a perfect score] but my high game is a 289!”

K. Steding-Ehrenborg
Katarina Steding-Ehrenborg studies how to keep the heart healthy.
K. Steding-Ehrenborg

Katarina Steding-Ehrenborg

You may have heard that exercise is good for your heart. We know that because of scientists like Steding-Ehrenborg. She works at Lund University in Sweden. “I study how long-term endurance exercise affects the heart,” she notes. But that’s not all. Her work also investigates how long-term space flight affects that blood-pumping organ in astronauts. Her tool of choice: advanced cardiac magnetic resonance imaging. That’s a technique that uses magnets to image the inside of the body. “I also write children's books,” she says, because “it amuses me.”

Danielle Twum

Twum studies how the immune system — the body’s defense mechanism — responds to breast cancer at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. “One interesting fact about myself is that when I give seminars, my accent changes depending on which part of the seminar you catch me at.” She notes that she is originally from Ghana, West Africa. But she has lived in theUnited States for some time. "As a result," she observes, "I have developed an arsenal of accents that make themselves known during seminars!”

Twum also likes to include a fun feature in her talks — her favorite food. “I am obsessed with croissants,” she says, “and have been known to even feature them in every talk I give.”

G. Valantaine
Glory Valantaine loves horror films, even though none of her friends do.
G. Valantaine

Glory Valantaine

Valantaine is about to start graduate school in molecular medicine at Brunel University in Uxbridge, England. She started research in college. Telomeres are protective “caps” at the end of chromosomes — the threadlike pieces of DNA in a cell’s nucleus. The projects she worked on have explored a possible link between teleomeres and a particular gene. It’s known as BRCA2, short for breast cancer gene 2. She says she has “really enjoyed conducting the research and putting all the information together.”

She never gets tired of learning. “I took Tamil lessons for a year and a half, so I could learn to read and write it,” she says. Tamil is a language spoken in India and Sri Lanka. But in class, she stuck out a bit. “As a beginner I was put with 5- to 8-year-old girls.”

Eve Crane, Kati Ahlqvist, Malea Murphy, Jennifer Gill, Stacy Yuan and Bookyung Ko

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Eve Crane, Kati Ahlqvist, Malea Murphy, Jennifer Gill, Stacey Yuan and Bookyung Ko
The scientists at the Children’s Research Institute at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas made us an infographic!

If you enjoyed this post, make sure to check out other posts in this series. We’ve got women in astronomy who are reaching for the stars, women studying the secrets of life and women who are harnessing the power of chemistry. And make sure to keep an eye out for future posts on women in geology, paleontology, math, engineering and more. 

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

astronomy     The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers.

battery     A device that can convert chemical energy into electrical energy.

biochemistry     A field that marries biology and chemistry to investigate the reactions that underpin how cells and organs function. People who work in this field are known as biochemists.

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

biomedical     Having to do with medicine and how it interacts with cells or tissues.

biomedical engineering     Combining engineering and biology to aid human health. Professions in this field develop artificial limbs, use biotechnology to produce new drugs and develop models to understand how diseases work.

biomedicine     The field of research that explores the biological basis of injuries or disease and their treatments.

biophysics     The study of physical forces as they relate to living things. People who work in this field are known as biophysicists.

blog     Short for web log, these Internet posts can take the form of news reports, topical discussions, opinionated rants, diaries or photo galleries.

bug     The slang term for an insect. Sometimes it’s even used to refer to a germ.

cancer     Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

cardiac     arrhythmia An irregular heartbeat. There are several types of arrhythmias; the heart can beat too fast, too slow or in a pattern that’s not normal. Some arrhythmias are mild and have little if any effect; others can be life-threatening.

cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the naked eye, it consists of watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells, depending on their size. Some organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

chemistry     The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact with one another. Chemists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) The term is used to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties.

chromosome     A single threadlike piece of coiled DNA found in a cell’s nucleus. A chromosome is generally X-shaped in animals and plants. Some segments of DNA in a chromosome are genes. Other segments of DNA in a chromosome are landing pads for proteins. The function of other segments of DNA in chromosomes is still not fully understood by scientists.

clinical     (in medicine) A term that refers to diagnoses, treatments or experiments involving people.

Clostridium difficile     A bacterium that releases one or moe toxins, which can attack the lining of the intestines. This microbe can trigger colitis and severe diarrhea — conditions that can kill. In just the United States, C. difficile infections kill an estimated 14,000 people each year.

computer model     A program that runs on a computer that creates a model, or simulation, of a real-world feature, phenomenon or event.

diagnose     To analyze clues or symptoms in the search for their cause. The conclusion usually results in a diagnosis — identification of the causal problem or disease.

engineer     A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

function     A relationship between two or more variables in which one variable (the dependent one) is exactly determined by the value of the other variables.

gene     (adj. genetic) A segment of DNA that codes, or holds instructions, for producing a protein. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genes influence how an organism looks and behaves.

genetic     Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.

geology     The study of Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it. People who work in this field are known as geologists. Planetary geology is the science of studying the same things about other planets.

graduate school     A university program that offers advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or PhD degree. It’s called graduate school because it is started only after someone has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

graduate student     Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

habitat     The area or natural environment in which an animal or plant normally lives, such as a desert, coral reef or freshwater lake. A habitat can be home to thousands of different species.

high school     A designation for grades nine through twelve in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.

immune     Able to ward off a particular infection. Alternatively, this term can mean to show no impacts from a particular poison or process. More generally, the term may signal that something cannot be hurt by a particular drug, disease or chemical.

immune system     The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infections and deal with foreign substances that may provoke allergies.

infection     A disease that can spread from one organism to another. It’s usually caused by some sort of germ.

kidney     Each in a pair of organs in mammals that filters blood and produces urine.

magnetic resonance     The vibration of two magnetic waves in synchrony, allowing one of them to strengthen.

magnetic resonance imaging     (MRI) An imaging technique to visualize soft, internal organs, like the brain, muscles, heart and cancerous tumors. MRI uses strong magnetic fields to record the activity of individual atoms.

marrow     (in physiology and medicine) Spongy tissue that develops inside of bones. Most red blood cells, infection-fighting white blood cells and blood platelets all form within the marrow.

mechanism     The steps or process by which something happens or “works.” It may be the spring that pops something from one hole into another. It could be the squeezing of the heart muscle that pumps blood throughout the body. It could be the friction (with the road and air) that slows down the speed of a coasting car. Researchers often look for the mechanism behind actions and reactions to understand how something functions.

microbiology     The study of microorganisms, principally bacteria, fungi and viruses. Scientists who study microbes and the infections they can cause or ways that they can interact with their environment are known as microbiologists.

model     A simulation of a real-world event (usually using a computer) that has been developed to predict one or more likely outcomes.

molecular biology     The branch of biology that deals with the structure and function of molecules essential to life. Scientists who work in this field are called molecular biologists.

nucleus     Plural is nuclei. (in biology) A dense structure present in many cells. Typically a single rounded structure encased within a membrane, the nucleus contains the genetic information. (in astronomy) The rocky body of a comet, sometimes carrying a jacket of ice or frozen gases. (in physics) The central core of an atom, containing most of its mass.

paleontology     The branch of science concerned with ancient, fossilized animals and plants. The scientists who study them are known as paleontologists.

pharmacology     The study of how chemicals work in the body, often as a way to design new drugs to treat disease. People who work in this field are known as pharmacologists.

prenatal     An adjective referring to something that occurs before birth.

STEM     An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

telomere     A natural protective “cap” on the ends of chromosomes, made by successions of a six-nucleotide sequence of chemicals. This chemical sequence is found only on the ends of chromosomes. It’s known as TTAGGG, where each T corresponds to a molecule of thymine, each A is a molecule of adenine and each G is a molecule of guanine. Over time, telomeres shorten as they cell they’re in copies itself. If the telomere length gets too short, the cell stops dividing and dies.

toxic     Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.

virus     Tiny infectious particles consisting of RNA or DNA surrounded by protein. Viruses can reproduce only by injecting their genetic material into the cells of living creatures. Although scientists frequently refer to viruses as live or dead, in fact no virus is truly alive. It doesn’t eat like animals do, or make its own food the way plants do. It must hijack the cellular machinery of a living cell in order to survive.