UAB Magazine Online Features
Energetics Research Could Provide Clues
By Jeff Hansen
Is obesity an adaptive response to poverty? Playmobil people explain in under a minute in this latest edition of Science in 60 Seconds.
In the summer of 2011, UAB researcher David Allison, Ph.D., often hiked up the Blue Trail of Oak Mountain State Park to Peavine Falls.
It turns out that he was starting a journey down an unconventional path.
Accompanied by postdocs, graduate students, family, and his dog, Gigi, Allison used the hikes to launch wide-ranging scientific give-and-takes, dreaming up hypothetical experiments and asking “what-if” questions about the origins of obesity.
In turn, those questions have led to one of UAB’s most unusual grants—an $8-million, five-year Transformative Research Award from the National Institutes of Health, the first ever for the university. These grants, the NIH says, target “exceptionally innovative” research projects that “tend to be inherently risky.” Loosely speaking, the funding enables researchers to gamble on big-payoff ideas.
Perception Is Everything
The ambitious idea from Allison’s team proposes that an organism’s perception of its environment has the power to make the organism change how quickly it ages (even though it may not be aware it is doing so). Furthermore, perception of the environment could make an organism alter its efforts to seek food and store more of that food as energy—in the form of caches of nuts and berries for birds, for example, or body fat in humans and mice.
Body fat is a key term, because ultimately, this UAB-led research seeks to understand one of the great public health puzzles of the past 20 years—why America has seen an explosion in life-shortening obesity. In Alabama, one of the fattest states, a higher rate of obesity among poorer groups of people creates health disparities. Obesity also increases rates of some cancers.
These problems are a focus for the Office of Energetics in the UAB School of Public Health, which debuted in July 2011 and is headed by Allison, a psychologist who also serves as the school’s associate dean for science. Energetics research looks at why and how biological organisms acquire, store, and use metabolizable energy—which includes food and body fat.
Foreign Language Learning Opens Doors At Home and Abroad
By Meghan Davis
From Spanish to Chinese to Arabic, UAB students are using their language skills to further diplomacy across the globe and to help businesses around the corner.
“Society is changing rapidly and drastically,” says Lourdes Sánchez-López, Ph.D., associate professor of Spanish in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. “Students prepare furiously for a globalized job market that is open to anyone in the world. Often, the decisive factor for an employer is the multi-linguistic and multicultural qualifications of applicants.”
Many students are attracted to languages for reasons beyond their resumes, of course. “I first enrolled in Chinese class because I was interested in the character-based writing system,” says junior Devin Thorne. “Writing characters is like drawing for me.” Thorne is one of the six UAB students who have won the U.S. State Department’s prestigious Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) in the past three years.
Online Global Health Certificate Appeals to Professionals, Students
By Matt Windsor
From an apartment in central Asia, Birmingham ophthalmologist C. James McCollum, M.D., dialed home for assistance. “I was working in the area of childhood blindness,” says McCollum, a 1988 graduate of the UAB School of Medicine and current director of the emergency department at UAB’s Callahan Eye Hospital. But as he treated patients in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, McCollum realized something was missing.
“I have long been interested in working overseas,” he says. “I feel it is something God put on my heart at a young age. That desire shaped many of my educational choices, including the decision to study ophthalmology after medical school, but I had no background in public or global health.”
Looking for a “knowledge base, tools, and perspective that would help me better serve the people in those countries,” McCollum discovered the online certificate program in global health studies offered by the UAB School of Public Health. He enrolled in the 15-hour program while still working in Uzbekistan and completed his coursework after he returned to Birmingham.
The Challenge of Fighting Disease in Medical School
By Carla Jean Whitley
Students have a million different motivations for pursuing a medical degree—a desire to help people, an aptitude for science, or inspiration to follow in the footsteps of a family member or childhood physician, perhaps. But for three current UAB School of Medicine students, the reasons suddenly shifted in midstream when disease became a harsh reality instead of a case study.
Encounters with Empathy
Sarah Gammons began dropping weight, experiencing night sweats, and feeling fatigued during her first year of medical school—and she was certain it wasn’t from stress. “I had a great doctor at the UAB student health clinic who kept looking when every test came back normal,” she says. He sent her to an endocrinologist who diagnosed Gammon with medullary thyroid cancer.
“I started doing research on thyroid nodules in a textbook and a database we use in school,” Gammons recalls. “Medullary thyroid cancer only occurs in 4 percent of people with thyroid cancer; 50 percent of those are genetic, but mine’s sporadic. It was a one in a million chance that I would get this disease at my age.”
She had a radical neck dissection and total thyroidectomy, but “you’re never cured of this type of cancer because there’s no treatment,” she explains. “It’s a chronic disease; every six months, the doctors monitor two hormone levels which are perfect markers for the disease to see if it comes back.”
Despite the surgery and recovery, Gammons was able to stay on track toward her medical degree. The school allowed her to make up work during the summer, and classmates took time away from their break to tutor her. “At the end of the day, I had school to fall back on,” Gammons says. “Throwing myself into my work helped to take my mind off all the bad stuff.”