Young Scientists and Why Some People Become Obese

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Many young scientists are having a difficult time getting their careers going, and the reason is often funding - a lack of it. The National Institutes of Health agrees this is a problem, so it established the New Innovator Award. It gives exceptional young scientists a boost. This year's recipients were announced today, and as part of his series Joe's Big Idea, NPR's Joe Palca introduces us to one of the winners.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Monica Dus says the way she got into science is fairly typical, but in some ways it's a bit different.

MONICA DUS: I was one of those kids that loved bugs. And I would just go around with my grandpa, and he would catch bugs for me because I'm a little squeamish. And then I just put them in, like, little jars and plastic bags.

And then once I got my microscope, I would take off their legs. But I also really loved Barbies and dolls, and so I would do the same. I would take off the Barbie hair and look on the microscope at that.

PALCA: Monica Dus grew up in Italy and moved to the United States for college and grad school. She was initially interested in fruit fly genetics, but one day there was an incident with her two Bichon Frise dogs. It seems Cupcake and Sprinkles got into a large bag of dog treats, something Dus noticed immediately when she got home.

DUS: And I couldn't believe that these two tiny, 15-pounds animal had huge bellies for three days and that they couldn't stop themself from eating.

PALCA: So she turned her research to using fruit flies to help understand what controls eating. Recently I visited her lab at the University of Michigan. The first thing she did was introduce me to her lab members.

ANOMID VASIDI: My name is Anomid Vasidi.

OLGA GRUSHKO: I'm Olga Grushko (ph).

JENNA CLEM: I'm Jenna Clem.

CALEB VOGT: I'm Caleb Vogt.

CHRISTINA MAY: I'm Christina May.

PALCA: The lab reflects Dus's commitments to helping foreign students and women get a start in research. Dus focusing on how the brain controls what we eat. She's using a variety of scientific disciplines to do that. For example, in one lab, Christina May is working with Dus to study individual cells in a fruit fly's brain.

MAY: I stimulated my fly mouth with sugar, and I recorded from this part of the brain.

PALCA: Across the hall, Jenna Clem takes a very different approach. She's working with Dus to study the genes in the brain that control eating.

CLEM: This is an incredibly complex system, and there is no one factor in other words.

PALCA: So it's not going to have a simply genetic explanation.

CLEM: Right. That's correct. That's correct.

PALCA: The lab has a working hypothesis. Dus believes a diet high in sugar actually changes the brain, so it no longer does a good job of knowing how many calories its owner is taking in. She thinks that might help explain why some people become obese.

DUS: Perhaps it has nothing to do with will and a lot of do with biochemistry.

PALCA: Just like scientists in the last century showed there was a link between smoking and lung cancer, Dus thinks she can find a link between an early exposure to a diet high in sugar and obesity.

DUS: So that we can stop talking about really shaming people about the willpower and focusing on the biochemistry and the public health.

PALCA: If she can do that, she says...

DUS: I will be a very happy person (laughter).

PALCA: She now has five years of funding from the National Institutes of Health to try. Joe Palca, NPR News.

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