Vanderbilt Prize lecture highlights diversity, mentoringMay. 18, 2023, 8:46 AM
by Bill Snyder
Since 2009, 14 female graduate students at Vanderbilt University Medical Center have been matched with some of the world’s most accomplished women in research, recipients of the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science.
The goal is mentorship — and inspiration.
“It gives you confidence that you can pursue this career,” said Catherine Shelton, the 2022 Vanderbilt Prize Student Scholar. “It’s really empowering.”
Shelton’s mentor is renowned developmental geneticist and cell biologist Ruth Lehmann, PhD, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Following her Vanderbilt Prize Discovery Lecture on May 11, Lehmann said that while her door is open to all, her mentorship may be particularly valuable for women.
Lehmann, who had few women role models when she began her career, said it is easy for women in professions long dominated by men to feel “you’re not good enough or you don’t belong.”
The mentoring provided through the Vanderbilt Prize aims to change that. And it seems to be working.
Of the Vanderbilt Prize Student Scholars who preceded Shelton, four are postdoctoral researchers in academia and industry, one is a senior scientist at a bioscience company, two are science communicators, and two others, who earned both PhD and medical degrees from Vanderbilt, are teaching at prominent academic medical centers in Boston and Seattle.
Lehmann has made several key discoveries about the biological origins of germ cells, which give rise to sperm and eggs. In her lecture, she described the latest findings about germ granules, mysterious condensates of molecules that carry maternal messenger RNA.
More than mere carriers, germ granules are the site of active translation of messenger RNA into protein. In this sense, Lehmann said, they shape the biology of germ cells.
Prior to Lehmann’s remarks, Shelton described her research, how in mice, concurrent exposure to a high fat diet and antibiotics, which disrupt the microbiota of the gut, increases fat accumulation.
Her findings have implications for understanding the epidemic of childhood obesity in this country — and finding ways to address it.
Like biology, mentorship provided through the Vanderbilt Prize is an interactive process. It acknowledges that diversity of thought and experience is necessary for the advancement of science. “You need that diversity,” Lehmann said. “If you don’t see it, people drop out.”