Naomi Rivera Robles ’17 recently received a Minority Undergraduate Internship Award from the American Diabetes Association (ADA). The $3,000 award supports Rivera Robles’ research under James Hougland, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry.
“I was delighted to recommend Naomi for support by the ADA Minority Undergraduate Internship Award. Her work is part of our research focusing on a potential new avenue for treating diabetes,” says Hougland.
The ADA award supports underrepresented minorities in biomedical research. Rivera Robles, a Latina from Puerto Rico, will use the associated funding to continue her research on the physical structure of a hormone called ghrelin, which has implications for the development of new diabetes treatment options.
Ghrelin influences hunger and how energy from food is used in the body. Too much ghrelin can cause problems for insulin regulation. High levels of the hormone make insulin less effective at stimulating glucose movement from the blood to many body tissues. Because of this behavior, limiting ghrelin signaling could help diabetic patients more effectively regulate their blood sugar levels by making insulin more effective.
“I was extremely interested in possible treatments for diseases that could result from the Hougland lab’s work, including diabetes treatments” Rivera Robles says. “In addition, this research serves as valuable preparation for my future in medically related research fields.”
Within the ghrelin pathway, Rivera Robles is investigating the structure and behavior of a ghrelin precursor called proghrelin. This “prehormone” requires numerous physical modifications to be converted to a functional, insulin-influencing end product.
“In order for us to understand this pathway we need to identify the part of proghrelin that modifying proteins recognize,” she explains.
Rivera Robles’ current project is an offshoot of mentor Elizabeth Cleverdon’s dissertation research. Using fluorescently labeled versions of the major players, Cleverdon and Rivera Robles are investigating how protein sequence and structure influence transformation from proghrelin to ghrelin.
“Naomi impressed me with her enthusiasm for science when she sought to join my group, and she has further demonstrated this enthusiasm and her dedication as her research has progressed,” Hougland says. “The support provided by this award is helping Naomi gain valuable experience that will enhance her ongoing training and professional development as a scientific researcher.”
Rivera Robles will present the results as part of her capstone project in May, a requirement for the Renée Crown University Honors Program. After graduating with majors in biochemistry and neuroscience, as well as a minor in psychology, she intends to take a gap year and apply for medical school.
“Being in the lab is has made my undergraduate career more valuable and given me tools to understand another side of science,” Rivera Robles says.