By Riana Balahadia
Hey everyone! I’m Riana, a rising junior in Kirkland House. I'm very excited to be blogging on Scientista. Here are some tidbits about me: I concentrate in Human Evolutionary Biology with a secondary in Global Health & Health Policy. And yes, I do ride the struggle bus of endeavoring Harvard pre-meds! During the semester I enjoy singing with my a cappella group, the Veritones and planning activities for Harvard Philippine Forum and Undergraduate Global Health Forum. This summer, I’m staying on campus as part of the SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) Program hosted by the Global Health Institute. I will be working with Dr. Janina R. Galler on the Barbados Nutrition Study at Judge Baker's Children Center, with my focus on linking nutrition and epigenetics to mental health. But before I go more into that, let me tell you about why I'm super excited for this job.
My true academic passions lie in nutrition and chronic diseases, particularly in developing countries.
risk of having chronic metabolic syndrome and low SES as an adult. I am passionate about these issues, having witnessed people living in a social construct where they are almost socially and biologically programmed to fail during my health internship in Belize last summer and in my frequent visits to the Philippines.
This summer will be drastically different from my last, and I'm excited for the balance and new perspective. The Barbados Nutrition Study is a 40-year longitudinal study conducted by Dr. Galler and her team. Since the 1970s, they've been following the same group of malnourished people from the time they were one year old to present day—and now they are studying their children as well! Dr. Galler has published a ton of papers examining the effects of extreme child malnutrition on school performance and adult health. She even has studies linking malnutrition with maternal depression, breast feeding attitudes, child abuse, and more. For the last 40 years, she's been prolific to say the least. But an interesting focus--which I've never really considered before--has been the link between child malnutrition and autism, ADHD, and other mental disorders. There's so little research on that association, and Dr. Galler was one of the first to write and give evidence for it. Whoa.
And that's where I come in. What are the mechanisms that cause mental disorders and metabolic syndrome in previously malnourished kids? Recently, we've turned to epigenetics. Epigenetics refer to the environmental changes that affect what genes are turned "on" or "off" without actually changing the DNA sequence. So maybe you shouldn't blame your genes, but perhaps your environment--or your mother's or even grandmother's environment. Research shows that women pregnant during a famine gave birth to children with higher obesity and disease rates, giving evidence of transgenerational inheritance. So far I've been doing intensive literature reviews, looking for genes shown to be down or up-regulated in the frontal cortex and linked to mental diseases and/or malnutrition. Previously, Dr. Galler's epigenetics team examined how stress and malnutrition affected the regulation of different genes in rat brains. I took the ones with the highest changes and, interestingly enough, found some associations to schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease, and other mental disorders (jackpot!). Soon I will divide my time at the office at JBCC with going to their actual epigenetics lab at UMass Medical School in Worcester. Hopefully this will be where some of the genes I've reported will be focused on when examining the newly harvested rat brains (yes, they do have to sacrifice the rats). The two-hour commute will be rough, but well worth the experience.
Well, that's my story in a nutshell. I look forward to
writing more soon. Hope you're surviving the heat wave!