If you walk into the office of biochemistry professor Judith Simcox — who has recently been named in the first cohort of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Freeman Hrabowski Scholars Program — you’re likely to find that she’s not alone. This is because Simcox values her role as mentor and educator as much as she values the ground-breaking research coming out of her lab.
“I can’t explain how grateful I am for this award,” Simcox says of her HHMI funding, which is for $2 million over five years. “This award is not just about excellence in science, but also in mentorship. We must define excellence by both innovative research and investing in the scientific community. HHMI does a good job at that, and I feel really honored.”
The new HHMI Freeman Hrabowski Scholars Program supports 31 outstanding early career faculty who are committed to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in science. Simcox’s approach is twofold: she is working toward increasing diversity in the populations included in biomedical studies, and she is hiring researchers who will help to broaden the ways her lab approaches and asks research questions.
Simcox’s research seeks to fill in gaps in knowledge — holdovers from an era when biomedical research focused almost exclusively on men of Western-European descent — about the relationships between lipids and cardiovascular disease. She investigates which lipids are associated with cardiovascular disease in different populations and the enzymes that regulate these lipids. The research addresses the problem that current medical approaches for controlling cardiovascular disease (namely, using statins to help patients regulate cholesterol levels) are not equally effective across populations, due in part to the many and varied causes for disease. Without more global knowledge about which lipids are associated with cardiovascular disease, preventative care, diagnosis, and treatment are less effective.
What Simcox and others have found is that many of the biomarkers commonly associated with cardiovascular disease do not necessarily predict disease in more diverse populations.
Simcox’s investigation to expand our understanding of lipidomics — or the makeup of lipids — in diverse populations fits with HHMI’s commitment to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in science in novel and creative ways. Simcox and her lab are starting to identify previously under-explored lipids that may serve as biomarkers for cardiovascular disease. Through mass spectrometry, which can measure hundreds of thousands of lipids in the plasma of blood samples, the researchers can separate lipids based on biochemical characteristics. From there, Simcox’s group can identify similarities and differences in the lipids associated with cardiovascular disease among populations.
“It’s truly lipidomics on everyone!” says Simcox, whose lab has already begun to find distinct makeups of lipids among Native American communities in Wisconsin, including collaborations with the Menominee and Oneida Nations. After identifying different lipid species in the plasma, Simcox can investigate their characteristics — including their origin, their role in health and disease, how they’re transported, and how they are regulated — to learn more about how to approach controlling lipids associated with disease.
The science behind the research, however, is just one part of what is needed for this research to be successful.
“I want to radically shift the way we do research,” says Simcox. “And that’s not just in the discoveries that I’m hoping to lead; it’s how we do community-based research and how we include communities in that research.”
Researchers in the Simcox Lab will work with community members to build relationships, establish trust, and set protocols to ensure that people within these communities benefit from the research. When data for Simcox’s work is derived from blood samples collected from citizens of Native American Tribes, for example, the data are ultimately owned by the Tribes themselves, not the researchers.
Simcox is also hiring and mentoring researchers from within communities that have been historically overlooked or excluded in biomedical research. “When people who are members of the community are working on these projects,” says Simcox, “it leads to better questions.”
With funding from HHMI, Simcox is looking to support the next generation of investigators by adding three postdoctoral researchers to her team.
Simcox says of junior scientists, “If I could tell them one thing, it’s that their perspective is valuable to science and the way we approach things. It has to be matched with the discipline and rigor of the scientific method, but their unique perspective is important to overcome the challenges we are facing in the world.”
Written by Renata Solan. Photo: Paul Escalante/Biochemistry.