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Human Genome News Archive Edition

Human Genome News, September-December 1995; 7(3-4):11

Two NCHGR Awardees Share More Than Research Interests

Once a brother and sister have moved away from home and embarked on their own careers, their telephone conversations are usually sporadic and limited to an occasional birthday greeting, plans for Christmas, and maybe an update on the parents. However, long-distance chats between siblings Levi "Alec" and Isla Garraway sometimes take on a more serious tone as they discuss their shared dreams of careers in medicine and research. The pair are recipients of National Research Service Awards from the NIH National Center for Human Genome Research (NCHGR).

"Isla and I have always been close, and it is great to have her as a sister, friend, and scientific colleague," says Alec, who is currently an M.D.-Ph.D. candidate at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. "We have often spent hours on the phone discussing such diverse topics as apoptosis, protein purification, and neurosurgery, as well as more personal topics."

Isla Garraway, an M.D.-Ph.D. candidate at the Molecular Biology Institute of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), shares her brother's sentiments. "I feel very fortunate to have a brother involved in research as well. Alec and I have always been supportive of each other, and we help each other thrive along the rigorous academic paths we have chosen for ourselves."

Although their career paths have converged in the field of molecular biology and genetics, the road traveled has not been the same. In 1991, Isla went directly to medical school after completing her B.S. in biochemistry and molecular biology at Brown University. Alec's studies took a different course. After completing his B.A. in biochemical sciences at Harvard, he chose to pursue graduate study in science for 2 more years before starting medical school. It wasn't the first time Alec had taken a more circuitous route.

"For most of my youth I assumed I would study music," says Alec, who plays the violin, viola, and piano, "but during high school, my direction shifted." In contrast, Isla says she is one of the lucky people who has always known what she wanted to do in life be a doctor. "Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my dad, a professor of plant pathology at Ohio State University, taking my brother and me to his laboratory. We were fascinated by the test tubes full of bugs that he would collect for various experiments."

The two students readily attribute their decision to pursue medical careers to their parents, Michael and Marie Garraway of Worthington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. Both elder Garraways hold Ph.D.'s from the University of California, Berkeley his in plant pathology, hers in mathematics. "Our parents instilled in us the importance of education. They will always be my biggest inspiration," notes Isla.

Growing List of Credentials

In 1990, Alec attended a seminar by Stephen M. Beverley (Harvard Medical School) on the genetics of the Leishmania parasite. Inspired by the professor's rigorous standards of excellence, he later joined Beverley's laboratory, where he began exploring the genetic aspects of Leishmania pathogenesis to gain insights into human infectious diseases. Alec has since developed innovations that facilitate a more sophisticated approach toward future genetic studies of the parasite. Two reports he coauthored about Leishmania have appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Isla says her college junior year was a turning point in her life. Her work as a summer research associate in Christopher Walsh's laboratory at Harvard Medical School introduced her to molecular biology and sparked an interest in research as a career. Currently in her third year of research at UCLA, Isla works in the laboratory of Stephen Smale, investigating the role of the conserved transcriptional elements of lymphocyte-specific genes. In 1993, Smale and Garraway coauthored an article about the mechanism of initiator-mediated transcription, which appeared in Molecular Cellular Biology, and Isla has recently submitted a second article for publication. She says her research area is important because "it has much relevance to diseases such as leukemia and immunodeficiency."

In addition to their research and academic responsibilities, the Garraways try to stay well-rounded as members of the larger academic community. Alec is a member of Harvard's Black Health Organization and Brookline secretary of the Minority Biomedical Scientists of Harvard. He is also currently involved with the African-American Achievement Program, which introduces black middle-school students from disadvantaged backgrounds to topics in science and medicine. Isla is similarly involved. During her medical school days, she was active in the Student National Medical Association, an organization of African-American medical students. Currently she interviews prospective students for the Medical Scientist Training Program.

An Investment in the Future

Both Garraways agree that the NCHGR fellowships (his begun in 1992 and hers a year later) have relieved the financial burden of their education and allowed them to enrich their knowledge. The awards provide assistance for living expenses, tuition and fees, travel to scientific meetings, and laboratory and other training expenses. "I can't imagine how I could have accomplished this level of scientific and medical training without the support of NIH," says Alec. "The fellowship from NIH has been invaluable to my training," says Isla. "I hope one day to have my own laboratory that will help find solutions to medically relevant problems."

[Murray Browne, HGMIS]

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