Health Research Career Has Loads Of Prerequisites

June 21, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Cindy Miranti is a jovial person, but she’s pretty blunt about what it takes to wind up with a research post like hers at the Van Andel Institute.

Miranti, an Illinois native who earned her doctorate in biochemistry at Harvard Medical School, is a junior principal investigator at the VAI. And she says this of a hypothetical high school girl interested in a career in science:

“She needs to take all the science she can in high school — chemistry, physics, biology. If she can take it at the advanced or honors level, she should, all four years.”

High grades in these subjects, Miranti said, help the aspiring student get into the higher-tier colleges.

“The higher tier college you get into,” she added, “ the better the college-level classes you get to take.” And that in turn opens the doors to better fellowships and better graduate schools and better scientific opportunities.

Anyone sending her a resume, she added, also had better have a fair amount of laboratory experience listed therein.

“I’d advise anyone wanting to be a scientist to get as much lab time as possible, even if it means starting off somewhere as a volunteer.”

She said 75 percent of research occurs in the lab and the painstaking record-keeping that goes with it literally is as critical to the credibility of scientific research as good records are for a monster IRS audit.

And that’s not all.

“You want to take all the math you can get,” Miranti told the Business Journal, “ and, of course, you want to take all four years of English, because once you become a scientist you’re going to do a lot of writing.”

Writing?

“Oh, yeah,” Miranti grins.

She explains that while dedication, meticulous rigor in experimentation and analytical skills all are essential in science, one’s advances as a scientist essentially come through the written word.

For a scientist, product is new knowledge announced and described in exhaustive articles published in scientific journals. And one’s articles cannot appear in print until the journal’s editor has cleared them through reviews by three of the author’s scientific peers.

Moreover, Miranti says, a scientist can’t even undertake the research that undergirds journal articles unless he or she first obtains financing.

And to do that, she added, the scientist must sell his or her proposed research to the guardians of the treasuries of scientific institutes, foundations and governmental agencies.

A track record of published findings accompanies any scientist’s pitch for renewals or expansions of grants. But grants are based, too, on the precision and clarity of an account of what the research will set out to accomplish.

The sorts of benefactors to whom Miranti might write proposals would be the National Institute of Health, the National Cancer Foundation, the Michigan Life Sciences Corridor and so forth.

Miranti and her team of four assistants are studying melanoma, a skin tumor that is one of the deadliest forms of cancer.

What makes melanoma so dangerous is its propensity to spread so readily to other sites in the body.

“Melanoma is highly metastatic, and we don’t understand why,” she said.

“It seeds itself, and it finds the best soil in the brain, the lungs and the lymphatic system. And we don’t understand that either.”

But what earlier research has shown, she said, is that the surface of melanoma cells has exterior molecules, receptors called integrins, which play a important role in the process. Some mechanism causes these adhesion molecules to make their cells become migratory. 

“We’re trying to understand the biology behind integrins, basically.”

She explained that such research entails comparing the behavior of melanoma cells with that of normal melanocytes (the skin’s pigmenting cells). And those studies can occur only through manipulation and observations of tissue cultures.

Necessarily, this is a fairly low-speed process. It takes a week alone for a batch of useable cells to be cultured. The next step is to begin to manipulate the cells to find out what factors make them behave in what ways.

“We’re looking for something that turns off or turns on an integrin,” she explained. “Maybe it’s another molecule; maybe it’s something different.”

And when one makes a biological find, she said, then one begins to test for chemical responses. And vice versa.

Basically it’s a long, drawn-out search. “And when you find something that seems to work time after time, no matter how often you do it, then you’re on the start of something that could lead to a medicine.”

She said the research often raises more questions than it answers.

“But that’s science,” Miranti says. “You set out to answer one question and you generate three more.”

If that sounds daunting to the layman, consider that the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine was awarded earlier this month to an American and two Britons whose three decades of research with yeast and sea urchins formed the ground upon which Miranti’s research today is based.

Miranti explained: “They defined how cells cycle. They defined the set of three or four checkpoints that give the cell the go-ahead — should I replicate myself or should I not? 

“That is the basis of cancer –- cancerous cells lose that capacity to read that outside signal and keep reproducing no matter what.

“During cancers these checkpoints no longer exist — they’re lost.”

And that part of her team’s search, too.

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