This may be the opportunity Giuliana Salazar-Noratto has been preparing for her entire life. The third-year Ph.D. student from the lab of Bob Guldberg, executive director of the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience, has won a National Science Foundation GROW (for Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide) award.
It’s a distinction that involves two of the things she loves most – research and travel.
“I tell people that I’m a gypsy. I’m OK with packing up and going,” says Salazar-Noratto, who will spend nine months in Ireland, beginning in August, researching in the lab of Frank Barry, one of the world’s leading stem cell and cartilage biologists, at the National University of Ireland in Galway.
She seems to have been born with a travel bug. A native of Peru, Salazar-Noratto moved to the U.S. when she was 12, graduated magna cum laude from Texas A&M, spent a summer working in Spain and intends to do her postdoctoral work in Europe. But it isn’t a keen sense of adventure that earned Salazar-Noratto the GROW award. It’s her ideas. It’s also a result of the partnership between the Georgia Institute of Technology and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
Salazar-Noratto was working on a collaborative project involving Georgia Tech biology professor Greg Gibson and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta orthopedic surgeon Cliff Willimon that focused on the childhood joint disorder, juvenile osteochondritis dissecans (JOCD).
“In order to understand the etiology of this increasingly common clinical problem that causes early onset osteoarthritis, Giuli became interested in creating patient specific induced pluripotent stem cells so we can more effectively study the disease in a petri dish and develop more effective treatment strategies,” says Guldberg.
So they reached out to Barry, the only person they knew of in the world to have created induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) for a subset of JOCD, familial osteochondritis dissecans (FOCD), and they applied to the GROW program. The NSF and the Science Foundation of Ireland will jointly fund Salazar-Noratto’s research experience.
“I plan to learn how to generate, characterize, and differentiate JOCD-specific iPSCs into cartilage and bone cells, and see where they fail,” says Salazar-Noratto, a former Petit Scholar mentor who is pursuing a joint Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Georgia Tech and Emory University.
The overall goal of her doctoral thesis is to explain the causes of JOCD in order to develop a bench-to-bedside program for better diagnosis and treatment of the musculoskeletal disorder. Barry’s lab uses cutting edge technology to generate and characterize iPSCs. His most recent work has focused on causes of FOCD by examining patient-derived iPSCs. FOCD is not the same as JOCD, but Salazar-Noratto says Barry’s groundwork is invaluable.
“This international collaboration is critical in achieving the overall goal of my thesis,” she writes in her GROW application, “as well as providing me with a professional edge in the field of tissue regeneration.”
Plus, she sees this opportunity as good preparation for an extended international experience when she’s a postdoc. But there is the inevitable yang to this yin.
“The toughest thing is, like any place I’ve been, I’ll get used to things, I’ll make friends and learn to love it there, really get to the know the area, and at the end of nine months it will be like home,” she says, thinking about the complexity of leaving home in order to come home. “It happens all the time.”
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