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Faculty and student researchers in the Nucleic Acid Structure and Recognition Lab at Mayo Clinic
Keenan Pearson (middle row, far right) and Louis (Jim) Maher III, Ph.D., (back row, left), with other members of the Nucleic Acid Structure and Recognition lab.

June 16, 2023

By Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science staff

In this article series, students who are near the end of their Ph.D. training at Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences talk about their research journeys, lessons learned, and hopes for the future.

Minerva Orellana: A student’s community-engaged research on fibroids

Hometown: South San Francisco, CaliforniaMinerva Orellana
Graduate track: Clinical and Translational Science
Research mentors: Felicity Enders, Ph.D., and Elizabeth Stewart, M.D., Mayo Clinic in Rochester

Tell us about the research you conducted as a graduate student. What did your studies find?

My project investigated uterine fibroids, and I took a translational approach, which means using multiple types of investigations from lab experiments to patient interviews. Uterine fibroids are non-cancerous tumors that form in the uterus and can cause debilitating symptoms. Hysterectomy — the surgical removal of the uterus — is the only treatment that provides complete symptom resolution, so there’s great need for new, innovative treatments. My lab research aimed to identify a mechanistic pathway that causes uterine fibroids. I looked at fibroid samples and myometrial tissue (from the outer layer of the uterus) from patients who had undergone surgery, and I studied the cells using immunofluorescence staining.

Along with a need for treatments, there’s great need to address health disparities associated with fibroids. Black women have a higher risk for uterine fibroids, but little qualitative research has been done in this area. As a Latina, I was interested in my own population as well, which also has not been studied extensively. I used a community-engaged research approach with a community-based partner, The Fibroid Foundation, to interview Black women and Latinas diagnosed with uterine fibroids to discuss their menstruation and uterine fibroid journey.

My studies found that women of color felt ethno-racial factors affected their fibroid care, discussions with doctors and treatment decisions. The study supported the importance of culturally sensitive care and bias reduction in the treatment of uterine fibroids. Even if another uterine fibroid treatment becomes available, it’s important to acknowledge the other barriers patients face in their uterine fibroid care and to recognize that further research in this area requires an overall translational approach.

What opportunities at Mayo did you take advantage of to further your development as a scientist and your engagement with the community?

Throughout my Ph.D. training, I had to opportunity to work on multiple projects, including interviewing adolescent participants on the Mayo Clinic Pediatric Board, a group that gives input about care for kids. I also interviewed immigrant women in Olmsted County, Minnesota, and helped facilitate several community studies, such as one involving patients undergoing fertility care. I also participated in a workshop exploring and identifying what’s known as “hidden curriculum” in academic settings. Those are the unspoken cues — such as how to network effectively at a scientific conference — that all scientists need to know to advance their careers.

What other experiences made an impression on you?

Engaging with my community and mentoring have always been important to me. As a first-generation college student, I feel it’s important to help other students so they don’t have to face the same challenges I did. I was involved in the Graduate School Association as a representative of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development and as a representative of the Clinical and Translational Science graduate track. Working with the GSA provided an opportunity to share my experiences and guide new students as they start the Ph.D. journey.

Keenan Pearson: Student optimizes a DNA-based tool to address disease

Hometown: Sauk Centre, MinnesotaKeenan Pearson
Graduate track: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Research mentor: Louis (Jim) Maher III, Ph.D., Mayo Clinic in Rochester

How did you choose your research project and what were the biomedical issues your work addressed?

I came to graduate school with broad scientific interests. When my mentor, Dr. Maher, described the technology known as "aptamers," I was immediately excited about learning an approach that addresses biomedical questions in many fields of study.

My research focused on identifying aptamers, small segments of nucleic acid — DNA or RNA — that can be selected for their ability to bind to molecules or cells in order to affect a biological process. These can be used as therapies for disease.

Like antibodies that are used as treatment, aptamers can bind tightly to a specific target, but aptamers have several advantages. While antibodies that exist in the body represent approximately 10 billion potential shapes, we can test more than 100 trillion aptamer shapes for the best fit. In order to amplify aptamers that bind, we design conditions to separate those that bind well from those that don’t. The best candidates can be further weeded and multiplied using the highly accessible technique of polymerase chain reaction, an option not available for antibody therapy.

I’ve applied this technology to many areas of biomedical research, collaborating on projects working toward therapies for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), glioblastoma, cholangiocarcinoma, osteogenesis imperfecta, and others. Our team has published several studies, with several more publications underway. In addition to pursuing therapies, I have used aptamer technology to develop tools relevant to areas such as structural biology and aging research. I’ve also worked on developing techniques that select aptamers capable of performing a function, such as the ability to reach subcellular compartments rather than solely binding to a target.

What special Mayo Clinic facilities and resources were essential to your research and your growth as a scientist?

Dr. Maher encouraged me to expand my expertise through coursework, collaboration, and the use of Mayo’s state-of-the-art core facilities, including the Genome Analysis Core, Proteomics Core, and Metabolomics Core. Each step opened up new opportunities. For instance, I was able to take a course on nuclear magnetic resonance, also known as NMR. That led me to work with the Metabolomics Core, learning to apply NMR to determine concentrations of specific metabolites within cells. While NMR began as a side interest of mine, my interactions with other scientists led to my participation in several research projects.

What’s next?

I’ll be continuing my training as a postdoctoral fellow at Mayo Clinic. I’d like to continue to apply aptamers to interesting scientific questions and branch into applying similar principles to proteins as well. I have interests in structural biology, metabolomics, and proteomics. My career goal as a scientist is to come up with creative solutions and new tools for problems or needs in research.