Looking for answers to stem the obesity epidemic


Dalya Mahasin Lateef, PhD (Krysten Carrera, NIH)
December 24, 2013

Obesity is a rapidly growing public health crisis that affects more than one-third of all U.S. adults, and can lead to serious health consequences, including heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Dalya Lateef, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), spends her days and sometimes her evenings in the laboratory working with colleagues to better understand the causes of obesity in hopes of finding clues that will result in new and effective treatment strategies and medications.

To accomplish this goal, Lateef is experimenting with mice to examine influences of metabolism, blood pressure, temperature regulation, body weight and genetic factors to gain insights into how these issues might contribute to obesity in humans.

“We are making some headway and getting answers to basic questions that we didn’t know before. We now need to build on this information,” Lateef said.

Marc Reitman, the chief of the Diabetes, Endocrinology and Obesity Branch at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, said Lateef is “a very self-directed individual” who is leading a significant research project in the laboratory.

Who is Dalya Lateef?

POSITION: Postdoctoral Research Fellow, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), National Institutes of Health (NIH)

RESIDENCE: Rockville, Md.

AGE: 27

EDUCATION: Tuskegee University, B.S. in Biology and Ph.D. in Integrative Biosciences

AWARDS: 2012 Nancy Nossal Fellowship and the 2013 NIH Fellows Award for Research Excellence

HOBBIES: Cooking, painting and science

“She has an inner drive and is motivated to succeed” said Reitman. “She is also very collaborative.”

Lateef has long had an interest in science, and was motivated to pursue biomedical research in part by watching her grandmother suffer from obesity, type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

“Watching her quality of life decline and seeing those same conditions affect many other people I knew drove me to want to find answers,” she said.

While studying for her Ph.D. at Tuskegee University in 2009, Lateef interned at the NIH for eight weeks and was determined to return for her postdoctoral training after being exposed to scientific experts from around the world and witnessing a high level of creativity all around her.

“It was refreshing to discuss science with so many others who shared my passion for biomedical research,” said Lateef.

Lateef said there are many challenges in her job, including the need for patience and dealing with the letdowns that come from research avenues that do not pan out.

“There are not many sources of immediate gratification in research, especially since failing experiments are common,” said Lateef. “But when something finally works, I’m encouraged that I’m doing something important and addressing unanswered questions about biology that could ultimately benefit a lot of people.”

Being an African-American and woman in a field that has a paucity of both also has presented its own set of challenges.

“As a female and African-American investigator, I have also found that some people are going to have their own biases and preconceived notions that manifest in different ways and there’s not a lot you can do about that,” said Lateef.

“One obstacle female investigators everywhere face is isolation. There aren’t enough female investigators in biomedical research,” she said. “Because of this, there are fewer women to look to as role models. It’s hard to strive toward something if you don’t see many people like you doing the same thing.”

Lateef said she has adopted the attitude, “Just do it anyway,” and has kept her end goals in mind.

In addition, she said she has relied on mentors both in graduate school and at NIH.

“I’ve also been fortunate to have good mentors and a great outside support system. In my early days at the NIH, I may a conscious choice to seek out a few women scientists for mentors. Those things make all the difference,” said Lateef.

Lateef said she is fascinated by how the body works and dedicated to using science to study diseases and to solve big problems that affect our quality of life.

“There’s so much that’s known about life, but there’s even more that is unknown and the prospect of future discoveries excites me,” she said.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org to nominate a federal employee for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal and http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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