Elizabeth Grice '01 named 2011 Young Alumni Award winner

June 1, 2011

Elizabeth Grice '01, postdoctoral fellow at the National Human Genome Research Institute, has been named the recipient of the Luther College Young Alumni Award for 2011.

The Young Alumni Award recognizes Luther alumni who have graduated in the past 10 years and who have rendered notable service to their profession and society in their vocation or avocation.

Award recipients have demonstrated significant professional achievement, leadership abilities and distinctive service to Luther or society. Their record of commitment, leadership, character and ethic exemplify the college mission.

The award was presented to Grice at the college’s commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 22. Her citation was read by Gregg Luther, a 1990 graduate of Luther and president of the college's Alumni Council.

A native of South English, Iowa, and a 2001 graduate of Luther, Grice is the daughter of Ronald Grice and Linda Grice of South English. She holds the bachelor of arts degree in biology from Luther and the doctoral degree in human genetics and molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University of Medicine. She now resides in Pasadena, Md., and is married to Michael Cornelius.

Grice has received numerous fellowships, honors and awards for her work. She has had more than a dozen articles published in scholarly journals and has presented at nearly 20 seminars and conferences over the past nine years. She holds a patent with two colleagues for "Methods for Identifying Functional Non-coding Sequences."

While at Johns Hopkins University her research focused on identifying and functionally validating non-coding conserved DNA sequences in proximity to RET, a gene implicated in Hirschsprung disease, a complex genetic disease.

Grice is particularly interested in host-microbe interactions at the cutaneous surface; she is currently focused on developing her own National Institutes of Health-funded independent research program to investigate host-microbiota interactions in impaired wound healing. Her previous work focused on characterizing the microbes living on healthy skin using genomic approaches.

Through her research and studies, Grice hopes that her results will eventually reveal more to medical scientists and practitioners about the dividing line between healthy and diseased skin.

Grice's career as a medical science researcher dates back to the summer following her first year as a college student when she conducted her early research under the guidance of her Luther mentor Marian Kaehler, professor of biology. During her sophomore and junior years, she did research at the University of Arizona in Tucson for two January terms and a summer session.

She spent the summer after her junior year at the Baylor College of Medicine, followed by a full semester as an undergraduate researcher for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., in the fall of her senior year.  A valued researcher at Luther, she was granted 24/7 access to the college's laboratory facilities.

Professor Kaehler noted that the skills and expertise Grice brought back to Luther from her research experiences have been integrated into the courses the college teaches today.

Grice joined Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as a researcher in 2001 and became the first person to analyze global gene expression in single cells of the retina, giving science a deeper understanding of the interplay between molecules that generate sight.

In her doctoral thesis work at the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, she examined what many believed to be "junk" DNA in the human genome and demonstrated that these DNA sequences were in fact functional and pathologically relevant to human inherited genetic disease.

Grice's most recent work is with the Human Microbiome Project, an NIH effort to characterize the microbial communities living in and on the human body. 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. Prior to 2009, scientists culturing on a Petri dish could identify as many as 10 strains.

Grice's research has revealed that human skin is a much more diverse ecosystem than previously thought. By harnessing the power of genomics through sequencing of bacterial DNA, she was able to characterize microbial communities of the skin in a less-biased, more accurate way and discovered human skin harbors more than 1,000 different species of bacteria.

By defining the healthy skin microflora, Grice has set the stage for understanding how disturbances in these microbial communities can cause disease. Her 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.

Grice’s research is a crucial step towards overcoming these shortcomings. She hopes 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.

Grice’s work is helping the medical community make a quantum leap in 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, and in the New York Times and by NPR and CBS News.

Grice has been honored with numerous awards, including the 2008 National Institute 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.

Grice is currently interviewing for faculty positions at a number of major research universities. Wherever she chooses to go, she will bring with her 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 potential as a biomedical researcher.