Dr. Nicole Riddle uses her new distinction to uncover the secret of cells
The UAB Nutrition Obesity Research Center (NORC) has selected Dr. Nicole Riddle as this year’s Named New Investigator.
Riddle is an assistant professor of biology and an associate scientist for the Comprehensive Cancer Center and NORC. Her research focuses on how cells regulate their DNA and why, if we have such long strands of DNA in each cell, we only use a small portion of it. What do they do with the rest? She believes answering that question will help further the fight against obesity.
According to Riddle, cells either pick out the pieces they want and ship it off to be expressed through genes, or box it up to gather dust in the attic. But how do they know what to ship and what to take upstairs, so to speak? Epigenetics, a field of biology, studies changes in phenotypes that are hereditary — but that aren’t caused by changes in DNA — and the molecular mechanisms involved. Chromatin structure is one of those mechanisms —or the boxes the DNA is shipped in. Some are accessible and some are not.
“I was just basically fascinated by this big puzzle that there were things besides our DNA that gets passed from parent to offspring and that really could influence organism level phenotypes,” she says. “And we didn’t understand at all how it worked. And it wasn’t in any of the textbooks. I’d never heard about it before. And to me that was just fascinating.”
Riddle’s goal is to understand how chromatin structure affects gene regulation, how different chromatin structures are created, and how the cell decides which DNA to pack away.
In her new position at NORC, she will be applying her research to better understand why, for example, some people may exercise and gain muscle mass while others struggle with little to no effect. Riddle hopes her research will help predict what types of exercise will work best for some and if others should find a different approach to weight loss.
As the Named New Investigator, Riddle will be given $25,000 to work on her pilot project — a short-term study that collects enough data to demonstrate a larger study is warranted. In addition, the distinction allows her relief from teaching and a $45,000 supplement in salary to assure she has the time to focus on her lab and research.
Riddle and her graduate students will use fruit fly subjects (Drosophila melanogaster) to manage factors that can affect obesity (including food and exercise), something that can’t always be controlled with human beings. Additionally, there will be no genetic differences between the fruit flies, and the scientists will have access to a large number of subjects.
“It’s really a great honor to get this award and basically to be recognized by my colleagues for my work,” says Riddle. “It’s just really nice to see that my colleagues on campus actually think the work that I do is valuable.”
Kayla McLaughlin is a 2015-2016 UAB Digital Media fellow and an English and Communications student with a concentration in creative writing.