NIH Award Broadens Impact for DVM-PhD Student

Apr 11, 2016 / Pathobiology / Research News

[Robin Holland and her dog on the UI quad]

Federal Award Advances Clinician-Scientist Careers

Robin Holland, a student in the Veterinary Medical Scholars Program at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, has been awarded a highly competitive and prestigious fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support her training for a career in research.

Holland received an NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) for individuals pursuing dual-doctoral degrees, both a PhD and an MD, DVM, or other medical doctoral degree. This award was created to increase the pool of highly trained clinician-scientists in the biomedical research workforce.

Not only are a small percentage of applicants granted the NRSA, but even fewer are awarded on the first submission, and Holland’s was.

Combining Veterinary Degree, Research Degree

Holland has completed her first year of the four-year veterinary curriculum, which she will finish after completion of her PhD. She is currently finishing the fourth year of study for her PhD in Pathobiology, working with Prof. Steven Blanke in the Department of Microbiology on the university’s Urbana campus.

I chose the rigor of the DVM-PhD 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.

Robin Holland, DVM-PhD student

“Dr. Blanke is simply outstanding in all avenues of mentorship, and I know I would not have received the NRSA without him,” said Holland. “He has taught me how to critically evaluate my research and continues to inspire and motivate me to be a better scientist.”

Holland entered the joint-degree program specifically because she saw the advantages of balancing the narrow focus of research for a PhD with the breadth of knowledge and perspective involved in attaining a veterinary degree.

NRSA Boosts Career

[Fluorescence microscopy of mitochondria spells out DISCOVER]

Holland has shared her passion for research in creative ways on the University of Illinois campus. In April 2015, the image above took first place in the “Image of Research” competition celebrating the diversity and breadth of graduate student research on the campus. The caption for her image read in part: “I have imaged thousands of cells, looking at mitochondrial structure, and sometimes, if I look closely, I can see the mitochondria spelling out what it is that I love to do, discover. Each letter of the word discover is a single mitochondrion imaged by fluorescence microscopy, with the cell they came from below each letter. Not only do I believe what I see inside these cells, but I love it.” In November of 2015, Holland took home the People’s Choice Award at the Graduate College’s first ever Research Live! Competition, in which graduate students were asked to deliver their research message in three minutes using only two slides.

“Receiving the NRSA is beneficial on a number of levels,” said 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. 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 seeks to elucidate the mechanism by which a toxin 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, manages to invade the cell’s powerhouse, the mitochondria.

The toxin Holland studies, called 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. 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.

Future as Clinician-Scientist

As part of the fellowship application, Holland was asked to outline an integrated research and clinical training plan and a dissertation research project that would help her develop into a productive, independent clinician-scientist.

“I ultimately see myself leading a research laboratory training future scientists,” said Holland. “However, before starting an academic faculty position, I’d like to gain a broader appreciation for infectious disease work in government and field work. One opportunity I intend to pursue is as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

In her application, Holland noted the important scientific contributions of several internationally prominent biomedical researchers who hold a DVM and PhD, including Drs. Jorge Galán, Michel Popoff, and Hugo Bellen. She also confessed her own “pure fascination of the molecular basis of host-pathogen interactions and infectious diseases.”

Explaining her career goal, she wrote: “I chose the rigor of the DVM-PhD 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 added, “The Veterinary Medical Scholars Program has given me every opportunity to become successful. I am incredibly grateful for the advice and support of my graduate committee and the Department of Pathobiology, the outstanding work and enthusiasm of Dr. Lois Hoyer and Nikki Hausmann in the college’s Office of Research and Advanced Studies, and the joy and motivation I receive daily from a truly phenomenal lab and research mentor. I could not have hoped for a better place for my scientific training.”