Robin Holland, a student in the Veterinary Medical Scholars Program at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, has received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award.
The award—given to individuals pursuing dual-doctoral degrees, both a Ph.D. and a DVM, MD or other medical doctoral degree—was created to increase the pool of highly trained clinician-scientists in the biomedical research workforce.
Holland entered the joint-degree program specifically because she saw the advantages of balancing the narrow focus of research for a Ph.D. with the breadth of knowledge and perspective involved in attaining a veterinary degree, according to the college, which made the announcement in mid-April.
“I chose the rigor of the DVM-Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to achieve my goal of being trained as a veterinarian-scientist to ultimately lead an infectious disease research laboratory,” Holland said.
Holland is currently finishing the fourth year of study for her Ph.D. in pathobiology. She has already completed her first year of the veterinary curriculum. The remaining three years will be finished after she finishes her Ph.D.
Holland attributes her win to Professor Steven Blanke, Ph.D., in the Department of Microbiology.
“Dr. Blanke is simply outstanding in all avenues of mentorship, and I know I would not have received the NRSA without him,” Holland said. “He has taught me how to critically evaluate my research and continues to inspire and motivate me to be a better scientist.”
The award has many benefits, according to Holland.
“Of course, the funding itself is incredibly valuable, especially as it will apply during my remaining years in the veterinary program and provide me the financial support to participate in specialized off-campus rotations specifically related to my field of study,” she said. “But the prestige associated with an individual NIH grant, and especially the NRSA, is an achievement that I will remember throughout my academic career.
“This funding will also create opportunities for me to travel and attend scientific meetings. Those experiences—where I have presented my findings and met researchers from a wide range of institutions in the past—have been instrumental in improving my communication skills as a researcher and expanding my network in the field of infectious disease research.”
Holland’s current research, the college noted, seeks to elucidate the mechanism by which a toxin manages to invade the cell’s powerhouse, the mitochondria. The toxin, called VacA, is produced by Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that colonizes the human stomach and plays a role in the development of gastric ulcer disease and gastric cancer.
VacA does not reach the mitochondria via any of the intracellular pathways researchers have noted in use by other bacterial toxins or even in the intracellular trafficking of endogenous host cell proteins, according to the college. Holland’s work tests the hypothesis that the H. pylori toxin is transported from the cell surface to the mitochondria by rerouting physiological vesicular trafficking machinery.
If this work demonstrates a previously unknown mechanism by which toxins move from the surface of host cells to the mitochondria, the findings not only address a major gap in knowledge in the study of mitochondrial targeted pathogenic effectors, but may also lead to new therapies for blocking toxin activities that contribute to disease, according to the college.