This summer, UAB graduate student Kathryn Oliver will share her cystic fibrosis research through public talks at the Homewood and Hoover libraries. Her presentations are part of the UAB Graduate School’s Discoveries in the Making program, where graduate students and postdoctoral fellows present UAB’s newest knowledge to a general audience. 

But Oliver, who is part of the Genetics, Genomics and Bioinformatics Graduate Theme, faces a problem — the complexity of her work. Her recent molecular biology publication is impenetrable to a lay reader. Its title is “Ribosomal stalk protein silencing partially corrects the ΔF508-CFTR functional expression defect.”oliver


To nonscientists, that translates as “Gobbledygook partially corrects gobbledygook.” Yet this research by Oliver and colleagues is important. Some of their groundbreaking findings may yield new ways to treat people with the genetic disease cystic fibrosis. (Read more about the research in this story from UAB News.)

Oliver recently shared her thoughts on how to explain her research to the general public.

Oliver starts with the fact that cells in cystic fibrosis patients have a defect that leads to, among many other things, destructive lung infections.

“Say the lung cell is a house, and the house has a door,” she begins. “A house door opens and closes to let people in and out. In the lung cell, the door opens and closes to let small molecules and water in and out, in order to keep the cells healthy.”

Two quarts of mucus

There are hairlike cilia on top of the lung cells that actively wave, Oliver explains. The waving of the cilia acts like a conveyor belt to move mucus out of the lung to be cleared in your throat, and the cilia hairs need to stay hydrated for smooth conveyor belt operation. Mucus traps bacteria and other harmful things, which is why its transport out of your lungs is so important, and the lungs produce about two quarts of mucus every day.

“But in cystic fibrosis, the door is shut or not even there,” Oliver said. “As a result, the mucus is very dehydrated and sticky because the cilia are not lubricated enough. This means the bacteria and other pathogens are not cleared, and the lungs get infected, causing terrible, long-term respiratory problems.”

Oliver then applies her door-in-a-house analogy to the most common mutation found in cystic fibrosis, the delta-F508 mutation (ΔF508).

Too fast and sloppy

“In ΔF508, the carpentry shop workers in the cell are too fast and sloppy, so the door being made is not put together correctly,” Oliver said. “The quality control guy comes by and says, ‘Wow, this is not a good door at all; get rid of it.’”

The cystic fibrosis treatment that Oliver and colleagues have discovered tells the “hasty carpenter” to slow down. This treatment is a genetic tool used to suppress the bad carpenter, and when the researchers add another FDA-approved drug that boosts the effects of the genetic tool, they get significantly better production and operation of the door in cystic fibrosis lung cells.

Oliver and colleagues tested the treatment and obtained these promising results in cells that came from the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis, specifically those carrying the ΔF508 mutation. If clinicians can learn how to apply the treatment to patients, the conveyor belt of mucus from the lungs could start to work properly, thus reducing infections and avoiding chronic lung damage.

Help from an analogy

Oliver’s description of a house with a door to explain her research is a teaching and learning tool known as an analogy. An analogy uses familiar information to explain the unfamiliar. In her description, Oliver shows how the familiar attributes of a door — it can open and shut, and this controls the entry or exit of people — correspond to the unfamiliar attributes of her research, an ion transport channel in the membrane of a lung cell.

Using her analogy, that title of “Gobbledygook partially corrects gobbledygook,” becomes simpler. Now it can say: “Slowing down a hasty, sloppy carpenter partially corrects the broken door in cystic fibrosis.”

Fighting cystic fibrosis, as a scientist and a mom

“I’m pretty passionate about trying to communicate to the public, in understandable terms, the importance of the research we conduct at UAB,” said Kathryn Oliver, a graduate student in the Genetics, Genomics and Bioinformatics Graduate Theme. “Whether they are car mechanics, bank tellers, chefs or attorneys, it’s important that everyone understand what we are doing and why.”Some of her communication involves outreach to the cystic fibrosis community, such as the recent Great Strides charity walk for the Alabama Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. “I interact with a lot of people — family, patients, friends — who see me as part of the UAB Cystic Fibrosis Research Center team and approach to ask what I do. These interactions facilitate lots of practice serving as a liaison between basic science researchers and the public, which is a role that I hope to someday perform professionally.”Why is she so invested in cystic fibrosis outreach? Oliver took a gap year before starting graduate work at UAB for the birth of her now 4-year-old daughter, Sophia, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a newborn. “There was no history of the disease in our family, so it came as quite a shock,” she said.“However, based on my scientific training prior to and after Sophia’s diagnosis, I know that we can beat cystic fibrosis. I want to enthusiastically communicate research findings to those most affected by the disease but, as a mother of a child with cystic fibrosis, also do it in a manner that is both compassionate and empathetic. Most importantly, I want to inspire everyone to never give up hope for a cure.”Oliver also serves in leadership roles at UAB that include sitting on the student advisory boards for the Graduate School and Student Health & Wellness Counseling Services Center, acting as director of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students 2017 Southeast Regional Conference, and as the 2014-2016 president of Graduate Biomedical Student Outreach (GBSO).“GBSO has a twofold mission,” Oliver said: “to ensure we are enhancing graduate student professional development and to contribute to the overall well-being and betterment of our colleagues.”This mission includes hosting the recent third Bi-Annual Graduate Student Research Symposium and holding student support forums on topics like student rights and conduct, financial planning resources, and free counseling support available from UAB.In addition, Oliver recently received an NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Predoctoral Fellowship to support her Ph.D. research. She will give her Discoveries in the Making presentation on this work, “Cystic Fibrosis: A New Approach to Correcting the Basic Defect,” at the Homewood Public Library on Thursday, June 9, and the Hoover Public Library on Monday, Aug. 1. Both events are 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.Oliver says several advisers helped her develop the talk. These include her mentor, Eric Sorscher, M.D., who recently moved from UAB to Emory University; John Hartman IV, M.D., associate professor of the UAB Department of Genetics; Steven Rowe, M.D., MSPH, a UAB professor of medicine and director of the Gregory Fleming James Cystic Fibrosis Research Center; Jeong Hong, Ph.D., associate professor of the UAB Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology; and Lori McMahon, Ph.D., a professor of cell, developmental and integrative biology, and dean of the UAB Graduate School.Rowe holds the Nancy R. and Eugene C. Gwaltney Family Endowed Chair in Medical Research at UAB, and McMahon holds the Jarman F. Lowder Endowed Professorship in Neuroscience at UAB. Sorscher serves appointments as a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and Hertz Professor in Cystic Fibrosis Research at Emory.

Discoveries in the Making

Discoveries IconsmDiscoveries in the Making was launched after Lori McMahon, Ph.D., became the new UAB Graduate School dean last year.The program, which features lay-friendly talks by Graduate School students at local libraries, “is an opportunity for our trainees — our talented, energetic, enthusiastic, serious graduate and postdoctoral trainees — to get out into the public and explain their research, and why it is important, not only to the trainees themselves and their mentors, but also to the public in general,” McMahon said. “The goal of Discoveries in the Making is to help the lay public understand the critical work going on at UAB and research universities, what drives us, what their tax dollars are paying for, and how the work our trainees do, and the faculty do, improves the lives of the public – whether it’s developing new computer technology and data analysis software to help the power company, new medicines to help a person with diabetes or a person with Parkinson’s disease, or whether it helps us learn better ways to care for the planet and the environment.”Discoveries in the Making also is a learning experience for the volunteer graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in three ways:
  • Speaking: The presenters face the challenge of explaining their research to a lay audience. Practice sessions with feedback help them get ready to give an effective talk.
  • Writing: Trainees volunteer to listen to the public talk and write a lay summary for the Graduate School blog. These blog posts are made public to the lay audience. Science writing is a possible career path for scientists.
  • Event planning: Organizing the talks at the local public libraries is yet another skill set that will be valuable for students and fellows to learn.
The Discoveries in the Making summer schedule includes talks on:
  • Cystic Fibrosis: A New Approach to Correcting the Basic Defect
  • Mechanisms of early-life stress-induced cardiovascular disease
  • Unlocking the Secret Roles of Chromatin Structure in Cognitive Function and Aging
  • The Role of Neuropeptide Y in Anxiety and PTSD
  • Overcoming Barriers to Exercise through Tele-exercise for People with Spinal Cord Injury
  • Breathing Life into Premature Infants
See event dates and times on the Graduate School's Discoveries in the Making page.“I feel that academicians, all of us at a university, are generating new knowledge every day,” McMahon said. “That is something we’re passionate about, and we need to share our passion, excitement and new knowledge with the public.”

McMahon holds the Jarman F. Lowder Endowed Professorship in Neuroscience at UAB.