Instead of heading off to the beach or the mountains this summer, UNM scientist Jennifer Gillette took a trip to Washington, D.C., to be honored for her research accomplishments.
The Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, presented on July 25, recognized the accomplishments of researchers supported by grant funding from nine federal agencies. It is the highest honor bestowed on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent careers.
Gillette, an associate professor in the Department of Pathology, insists the award should be seen as acknowledging the important contributions of the graduate students and research fellows working in her lab and the continued support she has received from mentors throughout her career.
“Science is a team effort,” she says. “The award is much more a reflection of that, and the wonderful scientific environment I’ve been brought up in, which continues here at UNM.”
A Pennsylvania native, Gillette completed her PhD in cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado, then completed a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. She came to UNM in 2011.
Gillette’s research centers on the stem cells in the bone marrow that give rise to other blood cells – including the immune cells that help our bodies fight off infection. Stem cells are also harvested from healthy donors and transplanted into patients fighting leukemia and other blood disorders.
Stem cells are unique in that they can morph into many different types of blood cells, depending on what is needed, Gillette says.
“What we’re interested in is what triggers that,” she says. “They need to be quiet most of the time. You don’t want your stem cells turned on unless they’re needed.”
Gillette’s lab studies the molecules in the bone marrow that play a role in stem cell quiescence and activation, but also more broadly the cellular and physiological mechanisms involved.
She guesses that approach might have inspired her National Institutes of Health program officer to submit her name for the award. “It’s really that spectrum (of research),” she says. “It’s more of a systems approach to stem cell biology.”
A better understanding of how stem cells are regulated could yield greater success in isolating and transplanting them and improve the prospects for gene editing to treat conditions like sickle cell disease.
“You have to understand how to manipulate the stem cell population before you gene-edit them,” she explains. And, she says, the research could also help doctors to overcome leukemias that are resistant to conventional therapy.