The University Record, February 1, 1999

Teen researches diabetes at MDRTC lab

By Rebecca A. Doyle

Richardson became interested in diabetes when she suddenly lost 20 pounds in just a few days and didn't understand why. Now, in her second year of research at the U-M in Jessica Schwartz's lab in the Michigan Diabetes Research Training Center, she understands more about her disease and why she must do the things doctors have told her to do. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

Most of us would be thrilled to lose about 20 pounds.

But for Michelle Richardson, it was a frightening experience she didn't understand, and one that propelled her into a research project at the University that is searching for the cause and control of diabetes.

Last year, at age 14, she began work on a project in the Michigan Diabetes Research Training Center (MDRTC) under diabetes researcher Jessica Schwartz, professor of physiology. That project--on the effect insulin has on fat cells--was designed to replicate results of an earlier experiment and teach Michelle laboratory procedures. It became her poster presentation and entry in the Olympics of the Mind, the NAACP's Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO).

She also gained a better understanding of her own diabetes. Richardson has diabetes type I (juvenile diabetes), requiring that she inject herself with insulin. "The project helped me to understand why I need to take the shots and why I have to rotate the areas I inject," she says. She explains that if shots are given in the same area, fat cells will build up there.

ACT-SO is a showcase competition for minority students that founder and veteran journalist Vernon Jarrett hoped would counterbalance the emphasis on African American athletes and showcase minority scientific, musical and artistic talent.

"You have to be sure to get all the cells off the plate, like this," explained Richardson, as she squirted a pinkish liquid around a small glass dish. "I think one of the things that happened last year was that maybe I didn't get all the cells off, so our count on this cell line wasn't what we expected."

Carefully gloved and goggled, she works with cell lines inside a fume hood that pulls air through from the laboratory. She comes in at about 4 p.m. each weekday and works for a few hours on a new experiment to see whether the presence of the gene CBP Alpha slows cell growth rate. She's hoping she won't have to come in on weekends this year.

"Last year, we got started late because the cell counts were wrong," Richardson says. This time, Heather Lilley, a graduate student research assistant in the lab, watched carefully to make sure the procedure was exactly right.

At the U-M, Michelle spent much time last year and has continued this year working in the lab with Christina Hodge, a doctoral candidate.

"Michelle needs to do cell counts, explore and do some reading. We have not done this experiment before, so we don't know what the outcome will be," Hodge says. "I'm trying to get her to do a more advanced project. Last year's experiment was good just to ease her into research, but it was a simple experiment. This year, we have a project for her that is research, not just doing a science project. She takes a more active role in asking questions and in getting the experiment to work."

Hodge has worked with younger students on several occasions and enjoys the experience.

"I enjoy it. We have a responsibility to mentor people who are interested in science," Hodge says. She feels that minorities and women in science have a particular obligation to younger women who need role models and mentors because there are so few available. It is important for minority students to act as mentors, especially in the sciences, she notes, to show young people how research is done and to set an example in their own lives for others to follow.

There are several minority women involved in mentoring other young women in the sciences, and Hodge notes the importance of that group in showing the possibilities for success in science.

Richardson may be one to follow in those footsteps. Although she is still a high school sophomore in Canton, she already has decided she will study at the U-M, and hopes to become a forensic pathologist.

Talent and perseverance don't stop with Michelle in the Richardson family. She has an older sister at home and a brother in his first year at the U-M. Scott is studying aerospace engineering and also entered the ACT-SO competition last year, winning the silver medal in computer science for his program that turned computer data into music. Sister Stacey, now 17, entered the ACT-SO competition in music last year, performing Paderewski's Minuet.

But for Michelle, science is the area where she will concentrate her studies, and with a head start from the U-M, Jessica Schwartz's laboratory and staff, and her own determination, she has a chance as a Black woman to succeed in an area that has been historically white and male.