Luther's Young Alumni Award winner for 2011 came to Luther from English Valleys High School in rural southeast Iowa. Her amazing career in research began the summer after her first year in the Valders laboratory of her Luther mentor, professor of biology, Marian Kaehler.
While a student at Luther, Elizabeth found research opportunities at the University of Arizona in Tucson, at the Baylor College of Medicine, and at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. In addition, Elizabeth was a valued researcher when at Luther and had 24/7 access to her lab. Kaehler says, “In Betsy’s sophomore year, it became clear that I would learn as much from her as she would learn from me. The skills and expertise she brought back to Luther were amazing, and we have integrated much of what we learned from Betsy into the courses we teach today.”
Elizabeth joined Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as a researcher after graduation, and became the first person ever to analyze global gene expression in single cells of the retina, giving science a deeper understanding of the interplay between molecules that generate sight. Her Ph.D. thesis work at the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine had Elizabeth examining what many believed to be junk DNA in the human genome. Elizabeth demonstrated that these DNA sequences were not junk, but functional and pathologically relevant to human inherited genetic disease.
Elizabeth’s most recent work with the Human Microbiome Project, an NIH effort to characterize the microbial communities living in and on the human body, has drawn a lot of attention. Scientists have known for decades that the human skin is populated with bacteria… some of it “good” bacteria that helps keep potentially pathogenic bacteria in check. But how many different kinds of bacteria live on our skin? Prior to 2009, scientists culturing on a Petri dish could identify as many as 10.
It turns out that our skin is a much more diverse ecosystem than previously thought. By harnessing the power of genomics through sequencing of bacterial DNA, Elizabeth was able to characterize microbial communities of the skin in a less-biased, more accurate way than ever before. From head to toe, and armpit to fingertip, Elizabeth found that our skin harbors more than 1,000 different species of bacteria.
By defining the healthy skin microflora, Elizabeth has set the stage for understanding how disturbances in these microbial communities can cause disease. Elizabeth’s current research program focuses on defining the role of microbes in impaired wound healing. Chronic wounds, primarily affecting the elderly and those with diabetes, are an escalating health care nightmare.
Treating chronic wounds costs billions per year, in health care and quality of life costs, and these costs can be attributed to the lack of effective treatments. Elizabeth’s research is a crucial step towards overcoming these shortcomings. Elizabeth hopes that her work will result in improved biomarkers and effective evidence-based treatment regimens that will potentially replace the liberal use of antibiotics, while lowering costs and improving patient quality of life.
Elizabeth’s work is a quantum leap in our understanding of human health and healing. Her research has been published in top-tier professional journals and she has been an invited speaker at national and international conferences. Her research has been featured in the journals Science, Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, in the New York Times and by NPR and CBS News, to name a few. She has been honored with numerous awards, including the 2008 National Institute’s of Health Award of Merit: “For leadership and pioneering efforts in establishing the skin component of the NIH Roadmap Microbiome Initiative.” In 2010 she received The NIH Fellows Award for Research Excellence, the National Human Genome Research Institute Fellowship Award, and the Women Scientist Advisors of NIH Scholar Award (where she was one of two recipients from 512 applicants).
Elizabeth is currently interviewing for faculty positions at a number of major research universities. Wherever she chooses to go, she will bring with her yet another major award: the NIH Pathway to Independence Award, which provides more than $1-million in funding to initiate research in her new lab. This prestigious award recognizes her significant achievements and her unsurpassed potential as a biomedical researcher.