September 4, 2013

Two Princeton Scientists Honored for Research By L’Oreal USA Fellowships for Women in Science

Two scientists doing post-doctoral research at Princeton University have been awarded grants by the L’Oreal USA Fellowships for Women in Science. Anisa Salim Ismail and Luisa Whittaker-Brooks were among five women chosen for this year’s grants of up to $60,000, which go to outstanding United-States-based candidates in the life and physical/material sciences, mathematics, engineering, and computer science.

For Ms. Ismail, who has been in the University’s molecular biology department for three years, the grant will go toward finding clues for curing inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn’s disease. Ms. Whittaker-Brooks, who works in chemical and biological engineering, will use the funds to help design solar-thermal generators in photovoltaics that are more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.

Bacteria are the focus of Ms. Ismail’s research, specifically how humans can maintain 100 trillion “friendly” bacteria in our intestines without becoming ill. “In fact, these bacteria are absolutely essential for our health,” she said in an email. “And a breakdown in this human-commensal partnership can lead to debilitating intestinal diseases such as IBD and Crohn’s disease. My research focuses on the possibility that we maintain beneficial relationships in the gut by talking to our bacteria through a process called inter-kingdom quorum sensing.”

The fellowship funds will allow Ms. Ismail to initiate a new project to study whether mammals “talk” to their bacterial partners through inter-kingdom quorum sensing. “We know that bacteria talk to each other through various chemical languages to coordinate group behaviors, but the idea that mammals can use a similar language to talk to their commensal bacteria is only just beginning to be addressed,” Ms. Ismail said.

Ms. Ismail earned undergraduate degrees in biology and Spanish at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, and began her PhD in immunology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. It was there that she began studying the immune system of the gut and intestinal diseases. Moving to Princeton University brought her to the lab of Dr. Bonnie Bassler, which is “without a doubt the best place to study the question,” she said.

Ms. Whittaker-Brooks was a Fulbright Scholar and pursued her PhD in chemistry at the University of Buffalo. While there, she came to understand the impact that nanotechnology has over the worldwide scientific community. She started a post-doctoral research position at Princeton as part of her academic training. Through her investigations, she hopes to learn how to realize “low-cost, light weight, mechanically flexible thin-film devices such as organic transistors and solar cells,” she said in an email. “The materials we intend to synthesize could be a boon for several applications ranging from power generation to micro-processor cooling which would potentially solve energy issues in the world.”

Both women have enjoyed living in Princeton. Ms. Ismail said she especially likes showing the town off to visiting family members. “One of my very favorite activities while they are here is to walk through campus and through town — from the statement that Nassau Hall makes when lit at night, to the unexpected grandeur of the humbly-named ‘chapel,’ or to the delicious ice cream at The Bent Spoon, it really has been an unbelievable experience living here,” she said.

Ms. Whittaker-Brooks views the University as the centerpiece of the town. “Most importantly, at Princeton University you will find most of the smartest people on the planet,” she said. “And guess what … they aren’t big-headed. Princeton University is a big family of people working together in the pursuit of significant contributions that will make our world a better place to live.”

The Princeton winners will join the three others honored this year by the L’Oreal USA Fellowships at an awards ceremony on October 24 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The program is a national extension of the global U’Loreal UNESCO For Women in Science program, which has supported a total of 1,729 women scientists from over 100 countries since 1998.