Mindy Graham’s love affair with research began as a freshman at the University of Alaska, when she walked into a laboratory at the CDC’s Arctic Investigations Program (AIP) to interview for a job as a lab assistant. “What I was learning in chemistry and biology became more than just test material as I watched scientists in the lab actively applying concepts,” she says. “I witnessed firsthand how field work and research can be translated into action.”
Now Graham envisions a life at the bench, improving the world beyond it, especially indigenous Alaskan populations such as those she saw while working with the CDC. “I was surprised to find that even in the United States, there are communities without running water and sanitation, making them vulnerable to disease,” she says. “My hope is to use my training as a biochemist to examine the health disparities affecting Alaskan natives.”
Because many human diseases are related to gene expression, Graham wants to focus on targeted gene therapy. As an undergraduate, she was awarded a grant from the Alaska Heart Institute to study the genetics behind outbreaks of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MSRA), which have risen sharply in Alaska in the last decade. MRSA usually infects the skin, but it can also cause other infections, including pneumonia, and it can be fatal. She researched whether the genetic expression of a virulence factor called Panton Valentine Leukocidin (PVL) affects the ability of MSRA bacteria to infect healthy people.
By learning how to modulate gene expression, biochemists like Graham at the CDC and elsewhere can find new therapeutic ways to combat MRSA and other diseases. “The Arctic Investigation Program’s dedication to improving the health of Alaskans has been a constant source of inspiration and it has been pivotal in my decision to pursue a career in public health,” she says. “I hope to make equally relevant scientific contributions in improving the lives of people.”
NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Postdoctoral Fellow (NCI F-32), Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center