Making sense of the mighty mitochondria
SBU graduate student combines research, communication to create a new field of medicine, someday
Aaliyah Grandy envisions a new branch of medicine, focused on the diseases that result from malfunctioning mitochondria - muscular and metabolic diseases that affect thousands of people around the world.
The problem is that medicine in particular and science in general don’t understand how these diseases work, or - at a more fundamental level - how healthy, normal mitochondria work.
Grandy is part of a team that is trying to figure out how mitochondria, a component of every single cell in most living multicellular organisms, work.
“I’m a major risk-taker, so I wanted to study something that’s a major risk. There is so much going on in this mitochondrial system and no one is doing anything with it,” said Grandy, a doctoral student at Stony Brook University School of Medicine’s pharmacology program. “All the metabolic diseases that keep coming up - eventually, we will understand them. And in the same way that we have other specialized doctors, like podiatrists or optometrists, we’re going to have mitochondrists.
“That’s why I’m in the pharmacology program. I could do this work in biochemistry, but I want to be the scientist who works with the doctors to figure out and fix these diseases.”
Most people who took biology in school have heard about mitochondria. Those with good memories may remember them as being described as the powerhouse of the cell, or that they look vaguely like hot dogs.
Only those who have taken advanced biology or chemistry know that human mitochondria are far more mysterious and important than such descriptions suggest. They have their own, entirely separate and distinct, DNA and genome. That means that every person has two sets of DNA; one set of 46 chromosomes from their parents, and another that exists in their mitochondria. Mitochondria also somehow create particles from their DNA and combine it with proteins imported from the rest of the cell to create another cellular component, called the ribosome. Ribosomes build the machinery that make the energy that is vital to life.
“For anyone to know how to fix these metabolic and other diseases, we have to understand how this works,” Grandy said.
Grandy didn’t discover her passion or talent for science until she was in college; in fact, she had never considered the possibility of a degree, much less a career, in science. Growing up in rural New York as a transgender child, Grandy said her teachers didn’t nurture her intellect the way they did her classmates. But school was almost the least of her worries: she spent years of her childhood and adolescence without talking or going outside. Therapy - and a determination to prove herself - led her to Wells College in the Finger Lakes of New York.
“The country bumpkin that I am, I needed to explore and prove that I could do the science,” Grandy said.
But for Grandy, another challenge is learning to talk about her work. On top of her commitment to her degree, her teaching responsibilities, and her research into a relatively unknown cellular process, she immediately enrolled in classes at the University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.
The center helps scientists, healthcare workers, and other researchers learn to share their work, and their passion for that work, clearly and vividly with all audiences. The Alda Center this year partnered with the University’s Medical Science Training program to pilot a program focused on professional development and communication, called Alda Communication and Professional Skills program. Grandy is one of about a dozen students in the program.
“I wanted to start learning to communicate early and I wanted to start well,” she said. “I’m learning I need to make sure I get the concept across first. The most important piece is the analogy and the stories.
“The mitochondria is this major piece of what makes us able to be multicellular organisms and we know so little about it. Mitochondria are really important; they’re not just hot dogs in your cells. They’re why you can eat a hot dog.”