Music Keeps ‘Artsy Scientist’ Grounded

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By Kim Eaton 

Hippocrates once said, “Let food be thy medicine …”.

These five words have been the foundation of one doctoral student’s research endeavors.

“Hippocrates didn’t just mean to eat, drink and be merry. He literally meant to let food be your medicine,” said 26-year-old Kendra Royston, a fifth-year PhD student and graduate research assistant in biology. “Researchers are finding that what you eat and what is readily available in nature not only tastes good, but it also helps combat certain diseases. God says that what we need is in the land, so if we have a big laundry list of foods that are available to eat and we know they are beneficial, why aren’t we eating them?”

For the past five years, the Huntsville native has studied how nutrition can impact disease development, particularly with breast cancer. The research has been fascinating and, as a result, led her down a path she didn’t see coming.

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The Beginning

Royston fell in love with music at a very young age. She started with piano lessons in elementary school, but soon gained an interest in wind instruments. Her initial desire was to play the saxophone, but her band director noticed her arms were long and suggested the trombone.

The first time she picked up a trombone, she fell in love. She joined the band and played throughout her high school and college years, even earning a full scholarship to Stillman College. Her passion for music also carried over to art and writing.

Most would not have imagined the self-proclaimed band geek “who is a little bit quirky” would have chosen a life of science, but Royston’s interests went beyond the arts.

Her fascination with medicine and science goes back as far as she can remember. Her mom bought her “this huge Gray’s Anatomy” book when she was 8 years old and she would spend hours reading and looking at the images. There was no doubt in her mind she would pursue some kind of science career. What? She didn’t know — until she was introduced to Upward Bound Math-Science.

Upward Bound is a U.S. Department of Education program designed to strengthen the math and science skills of participating students by connecting them to university faculty members who do research in those areas.

Royston’s first research experience was studying entomology in an agriculture lab at Alabama A&M University. The research looked at how certain insects could serve as bioindicators of nutrients in soil.

“I hate bugs, so I quickly discovered that entomology was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she said.

But that first lab experience opened her eyes to the many opportunities available in research, so she continued to search for “where she belonged.” It took her a few more years, but she finally found it.

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The Path to UAB

While an undergraduate at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Royston spent her summers at UAB through a summer enrichment program with the UAB Minority Health & Health Disparities Research Center. Although she had been exposed to research at a young age, she had decided to become an obstetrician/gynecologist and there was no swaying her decision.

“I just wanted to practice medicine,” Royston said. “But those summers at UAB opened my eyes and showed me I could still pursue a career in women’s health without strictly going the medical school route.”

During her third year in the summer enrichment program Royston was introduced to research that looked at dietary compounds and the impact those compounds can have on breast cancer, specifically in triple negative breast cancer, which primarily impacts African American women who are diagnosed at a younger age.

Triple negative breast cancers are not receptive to hormone therapies because the three hormone receptors – progesterone receptor, estrogen receptor and HER2/neu – are not active. Therapies currently on the market target these hormones thereby inhibiting the cancer from growing and proliferating, but because the hormones are not active in women with triple negative breast cancer, the treatments often do not work.

The research efforts Royston was involved in that summer focused on trying to reactivate the hormone receptors using the dietary compound, sulforaphane, which is found in cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and asparagus.

But it was more than just the research that drew Royston in; it was the way the research was explained that struck a chord with the young undergraduate.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for helping people, especially women,” she said. “Women are very strong. They are required to do a lot, especially when it comes to mothers and raising children. They are the backbone of every community. It’s important to ensure that women are healthy so they continue to be that backbone for their families.”

“More than 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year and 40,000 are dying every year. Something needs to be done, and this research is trying to do something to help these women,” Royston added. “That was the turning point. I realized I could really make a difference by not just catching it when it’s too late, but I could be at the forefront, discovering cutting edge research and developing top-notch treatments that stop it before it becomes a problem. Once it progresses past a certain point, as a medical doctor you can only say ‘I’m sorry’ and that’s not anything I ever want to tell anybody.”

Once the decision was made to pursue a graduate degree, Royston had to figure out where and how. She wanted UAB, but had been waitlisted by one program and still hadn’t heard from the biology department so she decided to return to Huntsville and work on her master’s at Alabama A&M.

Her belongings were packed and she had an apartment already lined up in Huntsville when she got a call from the Graduate Program Director of UAB’s biology department asking if she was still interested in the graduate program.

“It was a holiday, classes started in August and I was already packed and ready to move to Huntsville,” she said. “I really thought it was a joke, so I told him, ‘Sure, as long as it’s paid for.’ He immediately emails me information on the National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation program. So, I changed my plans.”

The Continued Research

While Royston’s undergraduate research looked at making current treatments more effective, her research as a graduate student has taken a slightly different approach. She read about a “miracle” nutrient called withaferin A that had initially gained popularity in the Western world as a steroid. It had been used frequently in wound healing and inhibition of inflammation, but she couldn’t find any research on the compound in relation to cancer and epigenetics.

She began looking at withaferin A in combination with sulforaphane and got some interesting data. The combination of the compounds worked more efficiently at breast cancer cell death. Her first paper described how the compounds inhibited cell growth and how they played a role in the epigenetic process. Royston is now looking at genes that are responsible for cell cycle regulation. She is also studying a tumor suppressor gene that is involved with cell cycle progression and trying to figure out why it is typically underexpressed in cancer.

DSC 0619“The first paper was hypothesis-generating, but now I’m delving into why the cell death is occurring,” she said. “This can lead to a better understanding and comprehension of the mechanisms behind how what we eat can have either a beneficial or negative effect on the incidence of breast cancer.”

A more recent addition to her research experience has been as a Susan G. Komen Graduate Trainee in Disparities Research through the School of Nursing. The grant’s focus is on survivorship and education, particularly for young breast cancer survivors. The team offers a support group, hosts community events, performs surveys and teaches cognitive intervention methods.

“The skills I’m building through this grant are invaluable,” Royston said. “When you’re researching a disease it’s very important to understand what the problem is, and to do that, you need to talk to people. Now, I can go back to the drawing board and develop a methodology to address what I’m hearing. Being in the community makes you realize that these are people, not just test subjects or samples. It puts more urgency behind your research when you realize that your research can potentially save someone’s life in the long run.”

The future

Life as a doctoral student is not easy and it keeps Royston on her toes, but music and art still play a huge role in her life. She continues to perform on stage and attend Battle of the Bands competitions when she has time, and the walls of her office are covered with her drawings and various art work. She said her “artsy” self plays well with the more serious researcher and provides a much-needed outlet for stress relief.

“You don’t tend to think of a scientist as artsy, and I’m left-handed, too,” she said. “But I like to think that I come at the problem from a different perspective. I often joke that my abstract mind allows me to come up with different solutions to problems.”

Her current challenge: Figuring out her future.

With an anticipated spring or summer graduation date, Royston is currently searching for a postdoctoral position that will enable her to continue expanding her skillset in public health and community-based research. She hopes to focus on translational research, which is a combination of basic science and actual application.

While breast cancer has been the center of her research to date, Royston has thought about branching out into other types of cancer or even looking at drug development. Regardless of the direction her research takes, she knows she wants to close the gap with health disparities.

“I want to be extremely instrumental with diversifying the face of research,” she said. “I’m very passionate about finding a way to put people in a position where they can impact their community by doing groundbreaking research in areas often forgotten. All research is important because people are impacted one way or another. I want to help eliminate these health disparities, whether it be behind-the-scenes or knee-deep at the bench doing the research or just stepping back and telling others to do it. I just want to make a difference.”