An undergrad from the School of Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio will have the opportunity to pursue a year of her studies under the guidance of accomplished scientist and mentor, Dr. Sunil K. Ahuja. Her research work focuses on the genetic factors behind house dust mite allergies, and will no doubt gain considerable insight into her own work thanks to the Clinical Research Mentorship Grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF).
Elizabeth Levine is the sole DDCF mentorship grant awardee in the state of Texas. This invitation-only grant is given to grantees who have received DDCF’s International Clinical Research Award, Clinical Scientist Development Award, or Distinguished Clinical Scientist Award. Dr. Ahuja, a professor of medicine, biochemistry, microbiology and immunology at the School of Medicine, was awarded the DDCF Distinguished Clinical Scientist Award in 2008. At present, he is the director of the Veterans Affairs (VA) Center for Personalized Medicine and the VA Research Center for AIDS and HIV-1 Infection, in the South Texas Veterans Health Care System.
The DDCF grants open many doors for aspiring scientists and allows them to explore different areas of research, thus encouraging medical students to pursue careers in clinical research. Of particular interest to Levine is translational research, which aims to “translate” the fundamentals of science to practical applications that enhance health and well-being. While she has had no prior experience with translational science outside of medical school, she found the subject extremely interesting, and decided to pursue it further, thanks to the DDCF grant. She then designed her experiment with the help of Dr. Ahuja, which she will be carrying out during her 3rd and 4th years in medical school.
“We are studying nasal epithelial cells obtained from 40 people who participated in a clinical research study,” said Elizabeth Levine. “The study was conducted in an allergen exposure chamber, which provides a controlled environment where subjects were exposed to house dust mites.”
Working in Dr. Ahuja’s laboratory, Levine is able to employ a powerful gene-editing technology called CRISPR to extract certain DNA fragments she suspects are involved in allergic responses. After removing these fragments, she retests the cells for a change in response, by re-exposing them to dust mites.
Levine noted that another benefit from the grant she appreciates is the regular encounters with people from all academic and professional levels who come to the laboratory to learn. She regularly interacts with people as young as high school students, to university undergrads, to postdoctoral fellows and medical doctors.