Explore UAB

Kristen CoutinhoIn a new series, the UAB Comprehensive Diabetes Center (UCDC), a leader in the field of diabetes research, will highlight its dynamic faculty and trainees.

The UCDC has members from across several schools and departments at UAB. Diabetes research capabilities are made stronger by the diverse research focuses and innovations that members bring to the table. To better understand these research capabilities and discoveries, we will spotlight UCDC researchers throughout the year.

This month, we are spotlighting Kristen Coutinho, a fourth-year PhD student in Dr. Chad Hunter's lab.

Tell us a little bit about you and your role at the UCDC.

"I am Kristen Coutinho, a fourth-year PhD student in Dr. Chad Hunter’s lab. I grew up in Georgia, but my family is from Goa, India, which is the part that was influenced by the Portuguese, hence my Portuguese last name. My undergraduate degree is from Kennesaw State University (KSU) in Georgia. I was actually studying to become a genetic counselor and volunteered for Crisis Text Line and the special needs ministry at my church.

After I went to my first conference, the National Conference for Genetic Counselors, I saw the value and impact of research in medicine. I decided to change my focus to become a researcher. After graduation, I joined the UAB Graduate Biomedical Sciences umbrella program in the Genetic, Genomics, Bioinformatics theme. Now, in the Hunter lab I harness both wet and dry lab skills to elucidate the transcriptional regulation of pancreatic islet cells by transcription factors and interacting co-regulators."

What first got you interested in diabetes research?

"When I joined UAB, a professor in a prominent exercise medicine lab suggested I watch the UAB Center for Exercise Medicine research seminars. I became fascinated with all aspects of exercise as medicine. I learned about system-wide benefits of exercise in diabetes. I quickly realized that a detailed understanding of biological molecular mechanisms is required in order to understand how we can combat metabolic diseases, like diabetes and obesity. Because I was interested in diabetes, I decided to study the mechanisms underlying the development and function of one of its main contributors, the pancreatic beta-cell dysfunction."

Tell us a little bit about your own research.

"In the lab, I am elucidating the transcriptional impact of the epigenetic co-regulator, RNF20, through its interactions with Islet-1, a transcription factor required for islet development and beta cell function in rodents and humans. We use mouse models to comparatively knockout those factor genes in the beta cell. I have been sorting those cells with fluorescent tags to purify “knocked-out” beta cells for large scale “-omics” analyses where I can apply my newly acquired coding abilities.  To date, I have won two UAB sponsored coding hackathons and a travel award for a poster presentation in the UAB Precision in Medicine symposium."

What does supporting the UCDC and its mission mean to you?

"Supporting the UCDC means that I, as a minority and woman in STEM, get opportunities to participate in the rich collaborations and scientific discussions that are at the forefront of breakthroughs in diabetes research."

Tell us about what you enjoy outside of the lab.

"Outside of research, I enjoy spending quality time with my friends,  singing at karaoke, and exploring small mom and pop restaurants around B’ham."