Graduate Student Receives NIEHS Award
LEXINGTON, Ky. (Nov. 1, 2012) — University of Kentucky graduate student Nicki Baker has received the 15th Annual Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Superfund Research Program.
Baker, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Center for Nutritional Sciences at UK since the fall of 2009, is originally from Detroit. She earned her undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering from Michigan State University and after working for a corporate engineering firm for seven years, she decided to enter the graduate program at UK. In addition, she has taught nutrition classes at Bluegrass Community and Technical college, and mentored elementary school students in science competitions.
The research that Baker has conducted focuses on how environmental contaminants, namely polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), might cause the development of type 2 diabetes, and what nutritional strategies could be used as potential therapies for this. PCBs are industrial chemicals that were used widely in the U.S. until the 1970s. Studies in humans have shown a strong correlation between exposure to these chemicals and the development of Type 2 diabetes. In her research, Baker found that when she exposed mice to PCBs, they began showing symptoms similar to that of Type 2 diabetes, like glucose intolerance and insulin resistance.
In addition to studying the correlation between PCBs and Type 2 diabetes, Baker is also researching a therapy for the negative effects of PCBs. She has found that when she feeds the mice a diet enriched with the antioxidant resveratrol and then exposes them to PCB, they are protected from developing the symptoms associated with Type 2 diabetes. Resveratrol is found in red wine, grapes, peanuts and chocolate.
Baker says that she has had many influential people around her during the research process, including her committee members: Kevin Pearson, Hollie Swanson, and Shuxia Wang.
Another important mentor was Lisa Cassis of the Graduate Center for Nutritional Sciences.
"I won the award in large part due to her mentorship and great ideas. I just supplied the hard work and the enthusiasm for the research project," Baker said of Cassis.
As part of her award, Baker traveled to Raleigh, N.C., Oct. 21-24, to give a presentation about her research at the Superfund Research Program annual conference. She has also been invited to visit the NIEHS to present her work and meet with the directors of the institute. In addition, Baker will be able to travel to a national scientific meeting of her choosing with travel support from the NIEHS.
The Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award honors the memory of Karen E. Wetterhahn, a professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College. Wetterhahn died in June of 1997 of dimethylmercury poisoning after the accidental spill of a few drops of the chemical on to her latex-gloved hand. She was a leader in conducting research on how metals initiate cancer and other metal-induced human diseases at the molecular level. The annual award is given to an outstanding graduate student or post-doctoral researcher that best demonstrates the qualities of scientific excellence exhibited by Wetterhahn.
The NIEHS aims to discover how the environment affects people in order to educate them on how to live healthier lives. Their Superfund Research Program is a system of university grants designed to find solutions to the complex health and environmental issues associated with the nation's hazardous waste sites. Research by the SRP is a cooperative effort with the Environmental Protection Agency.
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