The next generation

Lillian Gu
Published: August, 2008

Uyen Pham (seated) with her mentor, Daniela Drummond-Barbosa, Ph.D.
Photo by Anne Rayner
Uyen Pham spent part of her summer vacation in 2007 counting fruit fly eggs.

The high school senior participated in a research study at Vanderbilt University Medical Center to better understand the link between nutrition and fertility.

“I liked counting the eggs,” said Pham, who graduated in the spring of 2008 from Hillwood High School in Nashville. “It was very relaxing.”

Pham was a member of the inaugural class of seniors in the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, a research-centered learning experience offered to high school students in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools by the Vanderbilt Center of Science Outreach (www.scienceoutreach.org).

During the school year, students receive college-level instruction and participate in research at Vanderbilt one day a week, while keeping up with their regular high school classes.

“One of the primary goals of this center is to connect university scientists and K-12 education,” explained center director Virginia Shepherd, Ph.D., professor of Pathology. “The school is a unique model of how that can be accomplished.”

Pham moved to the United States with her family from Vietnam six years ago. “Like all immigrants, we were looking for a better life,” she said. “My parents were hoping that my sister and I would receive better education ... and we did.”

When she was in ninth grade, a dedicated biology teacher, Cathy Morgan, inspired Pham with her hands-on approach to learning. Pham was fascinated with DNA extraction and other techniques, and was immediately interested when she came across the School for Science and Math while surfing the Internet for summer internship opportunities.

“I like the fact that science is always changing and growing,” commented Pham. “It’s intriguing and fun!”

Pham requested the field of developmental biology when she applied, and was pleased to be placed in the lab of Daniela Drummond-Barbosa, Ph.D., assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology.

It is well known that poor diet negatively affects fertility. In the fruit fly, Drosophila, a protein-poor diet causes egg production to drop. The Drummond-Barbosa laboratory has shown that this ovarian response to diet involves the insulin signaling pathway.

Under the guidance of postdoctoral fellow Hwei-Jan Hsu, Ph.D., Pham studied a family of transcription factors called FOXO. These proteins regulate insulin’s effect on cell growth by turning genes on and off, but their effect on egg production is largely unknown.

During her seven-week-long research project, Pham counted eggs produced by normal flies when they were given protein-rich and protein-poor diets, and eggs produced by mutant flies, in which the genes for the transcription factors had been “knocked out.”

Normally, flies lay many eggs on a rich diet and only a few on a poor diet. If FOXO were required to repress egg production on a poor diet, Pham hypothesized, the mutants without FOXO should not respond to dietary changes.

However, she found that the mutants did, in fact, produce fewer eggs when given a poor diet, indicating that FOXO is not necessary for the response of the fruit fly ovary to diet.

For her research project, Pham was recognized last fall as one of seven Tennessee semifinalists in the prestigious Siemens (formerly Westinghouse) Competition in Math, Science and Technology.

“Uyen is participating in research which is often reserved for undergraduate and graduate students,” said Glenn McCombs, Ph.D., director of the School for Science and Math. “She exemplifies what we envisioned would be possible for students attending the school.”

Accepted into Vanderbilt’s class of 2012, Pham wants to major in biology, and is contemplating a career in developmental biology.

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