While speaking with Indiana University Northwest students Kori Kirby and Tiffany Caluag, it’s apparent that they have a lot in common. Originally from Northwest Indiana, both Kirby and Caluag are seniors who transferred to IU Northwest from Bloomington earlier in their studies, and both, currently completing their bachelor’s degrees in biology, aspire to a career in medical research after pursuing graduate school.
Together, Kirby and Caluag are also taking an important step toward realizing their career aspirations. Both students are gaining hands-on laboratory experience at IU School of Medicine-Northwest (IUSM-NW) while conducting obesity research.
The opportunity was made possible by a Department of Defense (DOD) Discovery Award for more than $300,000 to IUSM-NW professor Dipika Gupta to study “The role of bactericidal peptidoglycan recognition proteins in regulating gut microbiota and obesity.” A main requirement of the Discovery Award, which supports innovative, untested and high-risk research that will lay the groundwork for future avenues of scientific investigation, is that the research is relevant to the health care needs of military service members and/or veterans.
In more understandable terms, Gupta together with IUSM-NW professors Roman Dziarski and Des Kashyap, will research the role of genetics in causing obesity. Gupta links the importance of the research to the large percentage of veterans suffering from the disease, as well as the risk obesity poses for causing other serious health problems.
“Obesity in this country at this point is considered an epidemic — 35 percent of Americans are obese and, double the number, 70 percent, of veterans are obese,” Gupta said. “Obesity itself is a problem, but then it increases risk for many other diseases, including cardiovascular problems like heart attack, stroke and type 2 diabetes, as well as certain types of cancer.”
To find out what role genes play in determining why some people gain more weight than others, the study will look at two interrelated factors. First, past studies have shown that if genes involved in bacterial defense are not working properly they cause inflammation and disease in different parts of the body. Since obesity has been linked to inflammation, the study will try to identify which mutated genes cause changes in weight. The study will then look at how mutations in these genes will change the type of microorganisms present within the intestines and how those changes relate to weight gain.
According to Gupta, the results of this project will add to the body of research that may ultimately lead to a cure for obesity. And, at the forefront of this achievement, alongside their mentors – Gupta, Dziarski and Kashyap – will be Kirby and Caluag.
Caluag, who was asked by Gupta to join the research team from another part of the IUSM-NW lab, describes the offer to work on the project as something she “couldn’t really pass up,” and expresses an appreciation for the opportunity to develop essential laboratory skills.
“You don’t really go into this thinking ‘oh, I’m going to discover the next new drug,’ – you really need to go into it to learn the process,” Caluag said. “It’s very interesting working here because you have to learn to work very independently but also, at the same time, work as a team. You have to be aware of what everyone else is doing because everything has to be done in the correct order. It’s a very dynamic process working here. Things always change and so you always have to accommodate all of those unexpected things that happen in the lab.”
Kirby, who was actively searching within the biology department for a research project to work on, was encouraged by one of her professors to contact the medical school for opportunities. Having conducted research at IU Bloomington, she knew she enjoyed the work and wanted to continue.
“Eventually I want to go to grad school and do some kind of medical research – I’m interested in microbiology and immunology,” Kirby said. “So, I figured this is a great way to get some experience and a great opportunity, especially working at a medical school.”
Another advantage to working on the project for Kirby and Caluag is the potential for their contributions to be published. If their piece of the research contributes to the results of the study, they will be listed as co-authors, an important accomplishment to add to their resumes.
Gupta, while admitting that the potential for discovery is a main benefit of the DOD grant, says giving students the opportunity to gain experiential learning while providing them mentorship is one of the pleasures of gaining financial support for research.
“Definitely, the discovery aspect is big, but so is introducing students to research and the discovery and the thinking process,” Gupta said. “Giving students this opportunity, letting them see the pleasure and the importance of doing research is such a big part of what we do. Both of these girls eventually want to go to grad school and so this is going to be a great opportunity for them.”
Both Kirby and Caluag will continue to work on the obesity project at IUSM-NW until they graduate after the Fall 2015 semester.