ORIP Supports the Scientific Career of a Promising Young Investigator Studying Parasitic Infections in Zebrafish
Mr. Corbin Schuster’s interest in biomedical research began with a 10-week internship at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland. According to Mr. Schuster, after that experience, “My interest in biomedical research, particularly in the study of microorganisms and infectious diseases, just grew.” As a member of the Yakama Nation, Mr. Schuster is interested in the study of human diseases that have a higher incidence among Native peoples, such as toxoplasmosis (a parasitic infection), as well as diseases of fish like salmon, which are central to the food, culture, and religion of the Yakama people.
When Mr. Schuster returned to his undergraduate studies at Heritage University in Washington state, he worked on a zebrafish spinal cord regeneration project before applying to a Ph.D. program in Microbiology at Oregon State University (OSU). According to his mentor, Dr. Michael Kent, Professor of Microbiology and Biomedical Sciences at OSU, “Corbin was considered to be a good fit because OSU has a Fisheries and Wildlife program, and the University recruits Native Americans, among other populations, as part of its commitment to promote diversity.” According to Dr. Kent, Mr. Schuster has qualities that are important in a biomedical researcher: “He has the right demeanor for research. He works hard; he doesn’t get flustered when things don’t work. He’s been really good in the lab.” As of 2020, Mr. Schuster is in his second year as a Ph.D. graduate student in Microbiology at OSU. He is supported primarily by the Office of Research Infrastructure Programs (ORIP) through a Research Supplement to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research (National Institutes of Health [NIH] Funding Opportunity Announcement PA-20-222) awarded to Dr. Kent’s R24 parent grant. Dr. Kent’s R24 grant funds research to elucidate the effects of the three most common infections in zebrafish and develop methods to prevent or control those diseases.
ORIP’s support of diversity supplements has been promoted actively by program staff for the last several years to help diversify the research workforce. As a result of these efforts, between fiscal years 2016 and 2020, ORIP has supported 17 individuals with disabilities or from underrepresented minority populations (Hispanic/Latino, African American, Pacific Islander, and Native American) to help advance their scientific careers as students, postdoctoral researchers, and investigators. ORIP’s support of Mr. Schuster—a motivated young scientist—allows him to advance his career by developing scientific knowledge and research expertise while involving more Native Americans in biomedical research.
Because Dr. Kent is a co-investigator for the Zebrafish International Resource Center (ZIRC) at the University of Oregon, Mr. Schuster is able to conduct research at that facility in collaboration with Dr. Kent and Dr. Katrina Murray, the ZIRC veterinarian (Figure 1). Mr. Schuster’s interest in the zebrafish model was sparked after learning about the aquatic model’s use in studies of spinal cord regeneration. “I really saw the discoveries that we could possibly have with zebrafish. When I started looking at the genetics [of the model], it was even more mind blowing,” he explained. Mr. Schuster currently is developing a sensitive and specific nonlethal water test to detect a common parasite in zebrafish, Pseudoloma neurophilia. He also is using histology and molecular biology methods (polymerase chain reaction) to characterize disease transmission dynamics in fish. Dr. Schuster’s research is important to the rigor and reproducibility of studies using zebrafish models because P. neurophilia occurs in about 50 percent of zebrafish research laboratories. Dr. Kent’s laboratory previously showed that subclinical infections of P. neurophilia in laboratory zebrafish may have implications for research outcomes as a confounding factor, especially in neurobehavioral research.
In addition to his research experience at ZIRC, Mr. Schuster has the opportunity to work with the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (OVDL) at OSU, which collaborates with ZIRC to provide diagnostic services to the zebrafish research community. Dr. Justin Sanders, Head of Molecular Diagnostics at OVDL, leads molecular diagnostics and serves as a mentor to Mr. Schuster, providing guidance regarding molecular aspects of his research. As part of the award requirements, Drs. Kent and Sanders make themselves available for valuable weekly discussions with Mr. Schuster.
Mr. Schuster’s diversity supplement not only supports his postgraduate education and participation in the groundbreaking work conducted at OSU and ZIRC but also allows Mr. Schuster to mentor undergraduate students in the laboratory, a role that Dr. Kent has encouraged. Dr. Kent’s philosophy is to give students the time and opportunity to be successful, and this mentoring is one such opportunity. Mr. Schuster explained, “Dr. Kent keeps me motivated and gets me out of my comfort zone, whether it’s taking on leadership roles; talking about my project and results, even when they’re not what I expected; or influencing me to get involved in diversity activities on campus, including sharing concerns about decision-making as they relate to diversity.”
The diversity supplement also has enabled Mr. Schuster to participate in conferences, presenting an award-winning poster at an American Indian Science and Engineering Society conference and delivering an oral presentation at a Zebrafish Husbandry Association conference. “I was happy to give an oral presentation and engage with the audience,” said Mr. Schuster. To continue advancing his career, Mr. Shuster is preparing to submit his first peer-reviewed manuscript on his research with Drs. Kent and Sanders in 2021.
Mr. Schuster’s immediate plan is to complete his degree program. His longer term plans include obtaining postdoctoral experience in running and maintaining a laboratory and continuing biomedical research in microbiology and infectious disease, perhaps in diagnostics. Mr. Schuster also is interested in using his scientific knowledge to support other Native American students, as well as his tribal community. He currently is involved in outreach to students in his area, including those in tribal communities, to encourage their involvement in science careers. In addition, he is interested in supporting the creation of a tribal Institutional Review Board process to oversee new health science research within the Yakama community.
Dr. Kent and Mr. Schuster highlighted the importance of ORIP-supported diversity supplements in helping students from underrepresented groups achieve their dream of a career in science by assisting with educational costs and supporting biomedical research experiences. According to Mr. Schuster, “[It provided] a unique experience in that I don’t feel that I have to separate my culture from my career. I’m really interested in working with the tribal community, and the program and the NIH both support that aspect of my research desires.”