In high school, Judith Simcox pored over scientific literature to try to understand the link between her sister’s Down Syndrome and type 1 diabetes. It was the first time she asked a question that didn’t have an answer yet — and it led her down the path of answering unknown questions as a metabolism researcher and advocate for diversity in science.
Simcox, whose work specifically focuses on how organs communicate through lipid signaling to respond to the energy demands of cold exposure, has joined the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Biochemistry as its newest assistant professor.
“Madison is an incredible environment that cultivates creativity and innovation while having a firm appreciation for the historical discoveries in research,” she says. “Any field I ventured into, even during my undergraduate, seemed to have leaders from the department. It is surreal that I will be starting my lab in the same building as researchers who have left me star struck as a young student.”
She joins Biochemistry from a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Utah, where she also earned her Ph.D. in 2014. She spent her undergraduate years at Carroll College. At UW–Madison she will research metabolism and the impact of cold exposure on lipids in the body.
She explains that mammals must maintain a body temperature that is favorable to biochemical reactions and when experiencing extreme cold, this becomes more energy demanding. This requires coordination between several organs that store excess energy and those that can utilize this energy to generate heat. Her work looks to understand how these organs communicate using lipid signaling, with mice as a model.
The work on these basic pathways can aid researchers in understanding health issues such as obesity. For example, understanding how to increase the energy the body is burning could provide a way to combat obesity. Also, studying cold response lends itself to looking at the effects of hypothermia in mice. Information on these thermoregulatory pathways that she and her team find could be applied to livestock exposed to extreme temperatures.
“From a scientific level, I find it fascinating how rapidly organisms are able to integrate signals from their environment into changes in metabolic outcome,” says Simcox, who is also an affiliate in the Department of Nutritional Sciences. “Studying metabolism at this time is incredibly important because it allows us to understand how we will respond to continued shifts in our environment, develop early diagnostic markers of metabolic disease, and discover treatments for these metabolic diseases.”
In addition to metabolism research in the lab, Simcox — who hails from Montana and has mixed Filipino and Native American Apsáalooke (Crow) heritage — is passionate about members of minority groups being involved in science. She says throughout her career she has stood out because of her background and felt pressure to succeed in order to represent other minority researchers but she hopes to change this.
“We are in a dangerous position as researchers because our scientific community doesn’t reflect the community we serve,” she says. “This is a problem because it means we are missing out on the perspectives, questions, and talents of people from minority backgrounds. Diversity strengthens institutions by fostering creativity, and science can tap into this talent pool by building an infrastructure to empower mentorship of diverse populations, by reaching out to all communities to bring talent to research programs, and by providing equal opportunities.”
While at the University of Utah she earned multiple awards from their Office of Healthy Equity and Inclusion, the American Heart Association, and private donors whose families have been affected by diabetes.
“My hope is that with openness people will realize that all journeys in science are unique but share elements like failure, fortitude, and curiosity,” she says. “Part of what attracted me to Madison is that there is a great support system with the resources and desire to reach out to the rural community, indigenous communities, and other underserved minority populations around the state. I am very excited to begin my metabolism research, outreach, and teaching at UW–Madison Biochemistry.”
Story by Kaine Korzekwa. Photo by Robin Davies.