How Federal Funding Enabled My Research

Caitlin Grzeskowiak

Growing up in a rural community in upstate New York, I was not exposed to academic research at a young age. I knew I wanted to learn about diseases and the development of new treatments, even if I didn’t quite know exactly what that looked like at the time. A scholarship supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) made it possible for me to attend Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York where I studied biology and chemistry. 

The Ronald E. McNair Scholarship, a STEM program that provides under-represented populations with access to research, provided funding for my studies at the University of Rochester where I worked in the Gorbunova laboratory studying the obscure naked mole rats species. At that time, my lab mates had discovered and isolated a protective protein that prevented these animals from developing tumors. I was intrigued by the hairless rodent and its ability to evade such a devastating disease. During group meetings, I listened to new findings and learned about the process of writing scientific papers. It was through this experience that I made the decision to apply to graduate programs.

As a graduate student in the Scott lab at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), my dissertation research identified new genetic drivers of cancer progression and metastasis using high-throughput sequencing technologies. Screening hundreds of genes, we discovered an interaction between a known cancer gene (attributed to approximately 30% of lung adenocarcinomas and 95% of pancreatic cancers), with a gene that helps the cancer spread to other parts of the body. The goal of these studies, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defense (DoD), is to identify therapeutic opportunities for personalized cancer treatments.

In the Molecular and Human Genetics Department, I was exposed to world-renowned genetic research. BCM investigators were among those working on the Human Genome Project in the early 2000’s. They continue to play a prominent role in genetic disease discovery. Dr. Huda Zoghbi, one of my personal heroes, correctly identified a gene that caused a rare genetic disease called Rett Syndrome. Her work has not only advanced our understanding of Rett Syndrome, but informed many other neurological diseases.

My research has allowed me to collaborate with scientists in other specialties to foster new and creative ways of approaching scientific problems and my thesis work has given me the opportunity to identify new discoveries that pave the way for future research. As we deepen our understanding of cancer and other deadly diseases, scientists remain optimistic that finding cures is not just possible, but imminent.

I have been privileged to receive support from NSF, NIH and DoD on my journey to becoming a scientist. These government-funded programs supported my undergraduate and graduate training. To ensure these programs are available to future scientists with the same dream, I decided to learn more about advocacy as a communications intern at Research!America, a nonprofit advocacy alliance dedicated to making research to improve health a higher national priority. When I see medical research characterized as wasteful or lacking innovation, I immediately think of the promise of CRISPR or of the thermostable bacteria discovered in a basic science lab that allows us to copy and study DNA. What if more individuals were aware of these and other life-saving research findings? According to a 2017 Research!America survey, a majority of Americans (81%) cannot name a living scientist but many agree (84%) that scientists must engage the public on their research. Clearly, there is more for us to do to raise awareness of the benefits of federally-funded research.

Caitlin Grzeskowiak is a Research!America Communications Intern.

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The capabilities are enormous, a little bit of research can pay off quite a bit in the long run.
Paul D’ Addario, retinitis pigmentosa patient