California State University, Long Beach

Breaking Down Research Barriers

Biochemistry Professor Dr. Vasanthy Narayanaswami grew up in India and wanted to have a global impact; she also wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. She had twin passions of being involved in biomedical science, while breaking down gender and ethnicity barriers in science. Her birth country’s rigid caste system and social inequity, however, made it virtually impossible for her to advance as a medical doctor, a situation that ultimately led her to immigrate to the United States.

Narayanaswami, who obtained her Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, was able to advance her academic goals and pursue her dream of a career in biomedical research in the U.S. Her research has been focused on studying high density lipoprotein (HDL), also known as the “good cholesterol”. Her team investigates a protein called apolipoprotein E (apoE), which is involved in cholesterol transport and lowering blood cholesterol levels.

Student Jenny Ramirez works with her mentor Jason Schwans
Student Jenny Ramirez works with her mentor Jason Schwans in the Vas Lab as part of the MARC U* STAR program.

This has tremendous implications in cholesterol metabolism not only in the blood, but also in the brain. So apoE’s story is actually a tale of two diseases: heart disease – the No. 1 killer in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world — and Alzheimer’s disease.

Narayanaswami, a professor of Biochemistry, also has been acting on her other passion of making biomedical research opportunities more equitable to a broader range of underrepresented students in the field.

“It’s not a level playing field when it comes to gender or racial or ethnic diversity in biomedical research,” Narayanaswami said. “During the last decade or so, I decided to focus a lot of my energy on seeing what I can do to reduce this inequity.”

She did this by reaching out to students from various underrepresented groups and offering  them experiences in new and exciting research areas with the help of a $2.4 million grant.

This illustrates an apoE3-containing high density of lipoprotein, also known as the good cholesterol
This illustrates an apoE3-containing high density of lipoprotein, also known as the good cholesterol.
ApoE3 illustration
Shown here is an apoE3 containing-nanodisc for drug transport.

She oversees a grant called “Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research (U*STAR),” which is a National Institutes of Health training program. This program supports under-represented students working to obtain a Ph.D. in science, with the goal of creating a diverse and inclusive biomedical and behavioral research workforce. Cal State Long Beach has had this five-year program renewed several times over the last 30 years, which has helped to create a substantial research training program on campus.

Since 2000, the program has trained about 90 students. There has been a steady increase in the number of students entering Ph.D. programs with an 85 percent success rate of students entering doctorate programs at top universities over the last 10 years.

The program is set up to train 10 undergraduate junior- and senior-level students for a period of two years. The trainees are placed in research-intensive labs under the mentorship of a faculty member and provided stipends and funds to carry out original hypothesis-driven research.

The students trained in this program benefit from the one-on-one training and mentoring they receive from faculty. One such example is undergraduate student Jennifer Ramirez, aided by mentor Associate Professor Dr. Jason Schwans, an Organic Chemist and Enzymologist. Ramirez has been working toward creating compounds that inhibit an enzyme called butyrylcholinesterase, which is linked to individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Student in lab
The MARC U*STAR program gives students, such as Jenny Ramirez, a path to earning a Ph.D. in the biomedical science field

“MARC allowed me to gain hands-on research experience,” Ramirez said. “As a group, we were able to work together to improve our research and get more confident about pursuing grad school.”

Narayanaswami works closely with the American Heart Association. In 2017, she was appointed as its Fellow in recognition of her sustained record of research excellence, volunteer service and commitment towards its mission. Besides her excellent publication record in the investigation of apoE, Narayanaswami and her student trainees have received multiple research and training fellowships and awards from the AHA.

“We need people from diverse backgrounds to be  leaders,  so  the next generation of students coming in can see themselves in those leaders,” Narayanaswami said.

“This is a fulfilling and rewarding experience,” she added, one that has allowed her to fulfill her twin passions of studying biomedical science, while breaking down barriers in science itself. Narayanaswami said she is pleased and humbled to be making an impact in peoples’ lives at the local and global level, one student at a time through research and training.