Afaf Saliba, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Cell Biology, Genetics, and Molecular Medicine discipline of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences (IBMS) program has been selected as a Translational Science Training TL1 scholar for 21-22.
The Translational Science Training (TST) TL1 Program at UT Health San Antonio is supported by a NIH / National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), a federally funded career development training program for improving the scope of predoctoral trainees and postdoctoral fellows research experience. The TL1 ‘Training Linked’ Program is linked to the Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) administered by the Institute for Integration of Medicine and Science (IIMS) at UT Health San Antonio. The competitive award includes stipend support for TL1 scholars in addition to training and mentorship in translational science.
Saliba will be joined with the following scholars: Valentina Garbarino, Kristi Dietert (Guerrero), Clare Murray, Raphael Reyes and Noah Sanchez.
Saliba is working in the lab of Dr. Kumar Sharma at the Center for Renal Precision Medicine. Her dissertation project aims to decipher molecular and metabolic pathways in diabetic kidney disease.
“The drive to metabolic disorders and kidney disease is deeply personal. I have witnessed a very special friend suffer along the years from diabetes associated with kidney complications,” she said. “Like my friend, many people are living this pain. It is the great goal of reducing suffering that motivates me to spend my days and nights at the lab.”
According to the University Health System, 14 percent of Bexar County residents have diabetes (around 280,000 diabetes patients). At least, 35 percent of these patients, aged 20 years or older, develop chronic kidney disease. Diabetic kidney disease (DKD) is a serious complication of type 1 and type 2 diabetes mellitus.
Saliba explained that one of its hardest clinical challenges is diagnosis because DKD is caught at the advanced stages where clinical solutions are very limited.
The Sharma lab used computational network associating metabolic analysis data from two large cohorts of DKD patients.
“The team uncovered, Mouse double minute 2 homolog (Mdm2), as the most significant protein in terms of protein-protein interactions with enzymes related to metabolites altered in DKD patients. Why are MDM2 levels being downregulated in DKD patients? How this could be associated with altered metabolomic profiles in DKD? These are some of the questions that we are trying to solve. In this project, we are developing/using mice models for DKD for the purpose of identifying biomarkers and appropriate therapeutics,” she said. “I am lucky to be learning from the world-renowned nephrologist, Dr. Kumar Sharma, who made the use of finest technologies in multi-omics available at the Center for Renal Precision Medicine.”
Saliba explained that the TL1 training will help her in her goal to become an independent translational scientist in metabolic disorders.
“I want my bench work to be relevant to the clinic. I want to be part of reducing pain in patients and strive on positive and constructive challenges,” she said. “The translational science training TL1, in all its aspects, will help shape me into the scientist I want to be. I am very lucky I can learn from the best!”
“Receiving the TL1 award placed greater responsibility and motivation for me to keep moving forward. I am currently working on my dissertation project and planning for my manuscript.,” she added. “This year I will focus on becoming a stronger kidney disease scientist fighter and on serving my fellows being the CGM representative on the IBMS Student Council.”
Saliba always knew that she wanted a career in science and describes herself as a curious child.
“I grew up in a small village called Bteghrine located in Lebanon. Some people there used garlic to preserve food in fridges when electric currents get disconnected for long hours. I always wondered why? When I got a chance during my undergraduate studies at Notre Dame University, to design a small experiment, I opted to test the effect of garlic gas on the growth of methicillin-resistant bacteria. I found positive results and received huge appreciation from my professors. The sublime feeling, following this experience, made me addicted to science and more assertive in seeking a career as a scientist. Afterward, I pursued a Master of Science degree in Biology at the American University of Beirut and applied to the United States to broaden my research opportunities as a scientist.”
She then trained for a year at the Baylor College of Medicine before moving to San Antonio to start a family.
“I worked for another year as visiting scientist at UT Health San Antonio and got to experience the highly competitive Ph.D. programs closely and objectively and meet role model leaders at IBMS. I loved how inclusion and specifically women empowerment is a pillar culture of IBMS and UT Health San Antonio in general. I knew this is where I belong. In fact, I was so sure about my choice that when it was time to start applying for Ph.D. programs, I only applied to one school and one program: IBMS at UT Health San Antonio.”
She explains that what she likes most about UT Health San Antonio is the support system that she has cultivated over her time here.
“The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program and the nephrology division at the Department of Medicine are my support system. I am growing as a scientist surrounded and influenced by giants in leadership and renowned faculty members, physicians and scientists. They believe in us, and they are working so hard to pave the way to our success. I am so grateful to be part of this collective success.”
Outside of school, she enjoys spending time with her family.
“When I am not doing research, you will find me with my beloved husband and kids. We enjoy precious moments. I am blessed to have a wonderful and supporting family. They are the source of my beautiful perseverance, energy and glow.”