News Around NIDDK
Network of Minority Health Research Investigators celebrates 20 years
By Lisa Yuan
In 2003, Dr. Carmen Castaneda Sceppa was an assistant professor at Tufts University looking for mentors who could relate to her experiences as a minority scientist. She found the mentorship she was seeking, and much more, in NIDDK’s Network of Minority Health Research Investigators, or NMRI. Today, Sceppa is dean of Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University in Boston and credits much of her career success to the nearly two decades of support she’s gained through NMRI.
“In NMRI, I found a group of colleagues with whom I could interact and learn from, whose experiences resonated with the issues I was facing,” said Sceppa, who is Latina and a native of Guatemala. “It’s been great to have a network with such a depth of experiences and insight to tap into.”
This year, NMRI celebrates its 20th anniversary. In that time, the network has been unwaveringly dedicated to increasing the number of minority researchers in the biomedical research workforce and fostering their career growth and success. With more than 700 members, NMRI aims to facilitate mentoring relationships between senior and junior investigators, connects researchers with similar interests for potential collaboration, and provides opportunities for sharing ideas and information.
At the virtual 2022 NMRI Annual Meeting, held in April, Sceppa presented on how the network helped shape her journey from associate professor to college dean. Being able to connect with other NMRI members over the years has been critical to her professional growth, she said.
“I’ve received such an array of insight from colleagues and mentors, including in areas I never learned in school, like negotiating, managing difficult conversations, and talking about collaborative work,” said Sceppa.
One research collaborator Sceppa met through NMRI is Dr. Patricia Heyn, another Latina scientist, who is a professor and the founding director of the Marymount Center for Optimal Aging. Both Sceppa and Heyn received the “20th Anniversary Recognition Award” at April’s event, along with several other longtime NMRI members, for their contributions to the network.
“NMRI was the most impactful and positive professional experience of my life,” said Heyn, a Brazilian-American scientist. Heyn’s sentiment echoes messages that Winnie Martinez, program director in NIDDK’s Office of Minority Health Research Coordination, said she receives often from NMRI members. To Martinez, who has managed NMRI since its creation, the feedback demonstrates the program’s significant impact.
“I receive so many messages from members telling me what a difference NMRI has made in their lives – that because of the network, they were able to find a mentor, or collaborate and publish with other researchers within the network,” said Martinez.
Looking ahead, Martinez is excited at the continued success of the program, its goals which align with those of NIDDK’s new Strategic Plan in aiming to improve workforce diversity and health equity.
“This network embodies NIDDK’s strategic vision to increase the number of talented researchers from diverse backgrounds, who may be more likely to pursue studies on minority health and health disparities,” she said.
Sceppa’s current research, for example, focuses on community-based interventions to address chronic disease outcomes and quality of life among underserved, disadvantaged Hispanic adults. By bringing her research into the community, she said, she aims to educate and empower people to be “protagonists of their own health.”
Sceppa is also using wisdom she’s gained from NMRI to give back, mentoring her own faculty and staff, and developing the next generation of researchers and scholars interested in improving health and wellness for all. This commitment to cultivating a talented, diverse biomedical workforce is shared among many NMRI members and exemplifies how the network can have a lasting positive impact, far beyond its membership.
“I have met so many amazing people through NMRI, and we all have that goal to help future researchers and doctors connect with the role models and opportunities that we can provide,” said Martinez. “Having that spectrum of people, I feel confident we’re making a difference."
NIDDK opens funding opportunities for post-COVID diabetes research
By Alyssa Voss
Several reports have shown a startling increase of new diabetes cases among adults and children who previously had COVID-19. To understand and combat this urgent public health problem, the Institute issued a notice of special interest (NOSI) funding opportunity.
Open to any researcher with an active NIDDK grant or cooperative agreement, the funding will allow recipients to conduct population-level studies examining diabetes that occurs after infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These studies will examine risk factors, social determinants of health, and severity of COVID-19 in diverse populations of children and adults.
Major questions about these new diabetes cases include whether pandemic conditions and stress combined with pre-existing obesity are contributing to more disease onset in vulnerable people, or if the SARS-CoV-2 virus is causing tissue damage leading to diabetes.
Applications are due June 1.
“There is an urgent need to figure out if there is a high-risk population of people who are susceptible to developing type 1 or type 2 diabetes after infection with SARS-CoV-2, or if this is a completely new type of diabetes caused by COVID-19 that we’ve never seen before,” said Dr. Maren Laughlin, NIDDK program director who led the working group that developed this initiative.
In addition to the special interest opportunity, NIDDK plans to open a second funding opportunity in July to develop a multicenter clinical study to understand newly diagnosed diabetes following COVID-19, and its clinical course. This study would recruit adults and children with new onset diabetes after SARS-CoV-2 infection and follow them over time, collecting information about their metabolic health and other lifestyle and clinical measurements.
A notice of intent to publish the funding opportunity is available to allow interested applicants sufficient time to prepare their grant applications. More information is available at grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-DK-22-018.html.
“Too often tragically, the pandemic has made the burden of diabetes so much greater for so many. With these new funding efforts to understand why and how diabetes can develop after COVID-19, we hope to lift and prevent some of these burdens, both for people with diabetes and those at risk,” said NIDDK Director Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers.
#ICYMI: Livestream recordings now available
In case you missed it, NIDDK Director Dr. Griffin Rodgers went live with colleagues on social media to discuss both the strategic plan and obesity research. Recordings are now available.
Getting to Know: Dr. Padma Maruvada
Dr. Padma Maruvada is NIDDK’s program director for nutrient metabolism and clinical obesity in the Division of Digestive Diseases and Nutrition. Her portfolio ranges from basic microbiome research to clinical dietary interventions for nutrition and obesity. She talked with Heather Martin to discuss her background, work at NIH, and passion for science.
What led you to pursue research?
It was a natural path for me; my dad was a soil chemist. I explored nature and how things work with him. In school, chemistry was a strong point, and so I focused on biochemistry in college. Then my research training was in molecular and cell biology and nutritional biochemistry. I’m most interested in the fundamental underpinnings of how things happen at the molecular level.
What brought you to NIH? What do you like about working here?
From the lab to administration, being close to science was always important to me and took me many places. I heard of NIH when I studied in India, but always thought it was so far beyond my reach. I was working in Houston in cancer biology and endocrinology when I saw an opportunity to work at NIH in NIDDK’s intramural research program. I immediately took that opportunity, later went to the National Cancer Institute, and eventually returned to NIDDK in the extramural research program. NIH is a very intellectually rich place. Being in an immersive scientific environment is expansive and fosters enormous growth. Talking to scientists daily, seeing research as it happens, and understanding scientific problems from the beginning to a research outcome is very rewarding.
What research in your portfolio are you most excited about right now?
I have a broad portfolio and they are all like my babies, I cannot choose one! I handle research projects covering the whole spectrum of nutrition and nutrient metabolism, including basic biology of obesity and eating, understanding the neural pathways that control eating behavior, the microbiome, and more.
We are also working to enhance the rigor of dietary intervention studies. The majority of these studies fail to establish firm associations between nutrient consumption and the health outcome because we cannot verify the quantity and type of nutrients that people consume. However, people produce metabolites which are biochemicals in response to what they eat. With “metabolomics” technology that can analyze multiple chemicals simultaneously, we can find a chemical signature or biochemical marker of nutrients or foods consumed.
Editors’ note: Learn more about NIDDK nutrition research efforts: Collaboration with USDA sprouts new dietary biomarker centers.
What advice do you give to people interested in a research career?
Passion should drive your path. Research can be frustrating and demands dedication. But remember the airplane philosophy of putting your mask on first. Having “me” time, and of course good nutrition, helps build more cognitive strength and overall wellness. Also find a good home for your science at NIH. Each institute or center has specific missions and disease areas so, identify one that your work aligns with most. Program directors (like me) are accessible and eager to help. I’ve seen early-stage investigators get their first R01 grant, then become professors, and it is rewarding for me to see this journey and help along the way. Our website lists program directors and research areas, so you can email someone with your interests, hypothesis, and start the conversation. We may be able to facilitate collaborations at other institutions and point you in the right direction here at NIH.
What are your interests outside of NIH?
I love cooking and being outdoors. I am often hiking and running and used to run marathons. During the COVID-19 pandemic I added yoga and meditation into my routine and have really enjoyed it. I also love learning languages and history – especially traveling to see places of historical significance.
Scientific conference fosters development for NIDDK Fellows
Overcoming ongoing pandemic challenges, the annual NIDDK Scientific Conference, organized by the NIDDK Fellows Advisory Board (FAB), was held in April to share research, professional development opportunities, and other resources available at NIH within the fellows’ community.
Nearly 100 fellows shared their research through poster, oral, and three-minute elevator talk presentations in an interactive virtual environment.
“Time and time again over the last couple years, the fellows and the scientists of NIDDK overcame with poise and hard work,” said FAB chair Dr. Rits Sarkar, a fellow in NIDDK’s Laboratory of Endocrinology and Receptor Biology. “By coming together for this NIDDK Scientific Conference despite the obstacles, this year’s conference again showed the sense of collaboration, diversity, and inclusion in the NIDDK community.”
NIDDK’s Drs. Kate Miroshnikova, Cassie Mitchell, Elissa Lei, and Priyanka Narayan served as session chairs and presented research from their labs on both the Bethesda and Phoenix campuses. Keynote speeches from Dr. Raychelle Burks of American University engaged the audience with intricate applications of analytical chemistry in forensic sciences, while Dr. Karmella Haynes of Emory University shared the role of epigenetic modifications in understanding breast cancer.
This year, FAB also invited a record number of speakers to answer questions about career opportunities and provide professional resources for fellows. Several scientists working in academia, industry, or entrepreneurial roles, along with experts from research cores and components across NIH provided career advice and consulting. NIDDK Director Dr. Griffin Rodgers and Scientific Director, Dr. Michael Krause also supported the NIDDK’s fellow community.
“You are a remarkable group doing groundbreaking work,” Rodgers told the fellows during his remarks. “You are bringing in an invaluable new perspective to the NIH’s mission and have continued to achieve great things despite many obstacles of the last two years. Thank you for your dedication and sacrifices.”2022 17th Annual NIDDK Scientific Conference Winners:
To learn more about NIDDK FAB, please visit the NIDDK Fellowship Office’s webpage.
NIDDK Fellow spotlight
Name: Saira A. Mehmood
Hometown: New Orleans, Louisiana
Current position: American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellow in NIDDK’s Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology, Metabolic Diseases
What inspired you to pursue a research career?
When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, my life and how I viewed the world changed in many ways. Evacuating from New Orleans and seeing who had the ability to leave and who didn’t, I recognized who benefited from immediate aid and which residents continued to suffer long after the hurricane passed. Anthropology gave me a unique lens to understand the world around me, and that’s when I decided to become a sociocultural anthropologist.
My previous research focused on mental health disparities in New Orleans and health equity in Tallahassee, Florida. At NIDDK, as an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, I am applying my expertise in anthropology, community organizing, and community-based participatory research to inform health disparities, health equity research, and workforce diversity efforts that are part of the NIDDK Strategic Plan.
What public health problem do you ultimately hope to solve with your research?
If we can address structural racism and other forms of oppression, we can go a long way toward advancing health equity and reducing health disparities for diabetes and other chronic diseases. Finding ways to identify and address barriers to healthy living will require federal agencies, organizations, researchers, patient advocates, and community members to work together. If my work as a researcher and in this fellowship benefits even one person, I’ll be thrilled!
At NIDDK, I’ve designed listening sessions for the health disparities and health equity research implementation plan working group of the NIDDK Advisory Council. In these, we hear from people living with diseases in NIDDK’s mission, those at risk, and caregivers about their perspectives. This type of engagement is not only the right thing to do, but also can enhance research efficiency, increase relevance, utility, and enable translation of results to real-world settings to ultimately improve health for all.