Meet Sarah (Sadie) Meller, PhD, a student in the MD/PhD program! Supported by an F31 fellowship and Student Research Award (from the Society for Pediatric Research), her thesis work was recently published in eNeuro. Let’s dive into the journey of this physician-scientist, artist and climate activist!
Microglia—immune cells in the brain—maintain homeostatic conditions needed for normal neurodevelopment. When the brain is injured during development, microglia can worsen the injury’s impact by driving an “overexuberant” inflammatory response, Meller explained. Especially for early life injuries—such as infection, neonatal encephalopathy and perinatal stroke—there is interest in modifying microglia’s activity to improve these inflammatory responses. The caveat is that microglia are vital to mediating developmental events in the brain.
Meller’s new paper examines the importance of microglia in the rostral migratory stream in the olfactory system during early postnatal development. By expanding knowledge of how microglia promote normal neurodevelopment, Meller hopes to be able to modify their activities for therapeutic effects, while preserving important homeostatic functions.
“I hope that this research will provide insights into how infection or trauma during development may disrupt microglia’s normal activities and ultimately help improve therapeutic strategies following early life brain injury,” Meller said.
This physician-scientist originally planned to pursue scientific illustration. To prepare for this career, she took classes in both art and science as an undergraduate at Carleton College.
“I remember making a series of prints to illustrate the process of cellular replication and being in awe of how these tiny processes are constantly coordinating to organize life,” Meller said. “When I took my first neuroscience class, I was intrigued to learn that the core of who we are is delineated by physical circuits and communicating cells. I wanted to learn as much as I could about how the brain works and be able to convey the beauty of these processes to others, and so I decided to pursue a PhD.”
Though her path changed, Meller took advantage of Yale’s vibrant community outside of research. She pursued figure drawing at the Yale School of Art, animated with the Med Animators Society, and took a writing workshop with famed science writer Carl Zimmer. Meller defended her thesis last spring and will finish medical school in 2024.
Exposure to students at Yale’s other graduate schools—including Yale School of the Environment, Yale Law School and Yale School of Public Health—took her career path in unexpected directions.
As a student associate for the Yale Climate Change and Health initiative, she developed campus-wide events to raise awareness. She also co-founded a student chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which is an affiliate of Medical Students for a Sustainable Future, and helped develop a Planetary Healthcare Journal Club. Overall, the highlight of her experience at Yale was her classmates.
“Their embrace of intellectual curiosity and fun was the foundation of both an exciting learning environment and incredible community,” Meller said.
Meller described her graduate school experience as “wonderful,” citing “the generosity and collaborative spirit” shown by her thesis committee. She also thanked her scientific mentor, Charles Greer, PhD, for providing her the space, time and support to develop her own hypotheses.
“My project was risky, but he let me pursue it regardless, and with a high degree of independence and faith in my abilities,” Meller said. “His continuous support and mentorship enabled me to develop both the resilience and confidence to tackle future research endeavors."
During graduate school, Meller attended a pediatric neurology clinic with Laura Ment, MD, every week. Ment served as a model for how to compassionately care for patients while bringing scientific findings to the clinic. Interacting with Ment’s patients inspired Meller’s research interests in how perinatal infection and environmental exposures disrupt neurodevelopment.
Going forward, Meller hopes to investigate how microglia combat invading pathogens in the olfactory system without mounting an inflammatory response that is “grossly destructive” to the surrounding tissue.
Her career goal is to care for pediatric patients while researching their conditions at an academic medical center. Meller also hopes to study children’s vulnerability to the health effects of climate change and advocate for policies that improve climate resilience.