For Dr. Elizabeth Luoma, science is no small matter — even while pursuing a passion for understanding the human experience on a cellular level.
As a high school student in Shelton, Conn., her biology teacher, David Presutto, decorated his class with a rendering of a three-dimensional DNA molecule and an evocative aphorism: “It’s All a Result of Random Genetic Variation.”
“Mr. Presutto was always pointing out how much we can learn about ourselves from our DNA, how a collection of such tiny molecules can have a tremendous impact on our lives,” Luoma said. “That message always stuck with me.”
After earning her Ph.D. in cell biology from Yale in 2015, Dr. Luoma worked as a researcher, an educator, and a program manager. She is now applying her skills to help advance the health of women as WHRY’s Assistant Director, drawn to the center’s mission of inclusion — in both the practice of science and its component parts.
“Science needs diverse voices gathering around a table,” she said. “It leads to more creative and effective solutions.”
Since starting her newly created job in April, Luoma has been applying her scientific and management experience to bolster the center’s research efforts and forge new scientific collaborations. She works closely with WHRY Director Carolyn M. Mazure, Ph.D., and Mona Gregg, Manager of Special Projects, to create and implement the center’s strategic plans and educational outreach initiatives.
“We are excited and fortunate to have Dr. Luoma join the team,” Mazure said. “The country has reached an inflection point in which researchers are increasingly acting on the need to study the health of women and sex-and-gender differences. Dr. Luoma is the right person at the right time to help our center effect change that advances medical research and practice so that, finally, everyone can benefit equally.”
As an undergraduate, Luoma entered College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., as a declared biology major. Her advisor, Robert Bellin, ignited her curiosity about the microscopic network of proteins that make up the internal structure of cells. As a research technician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and then as a graduate student at Yale, Luoma spent hours peering into microscopes, studying how cells stick to surfaces and migrate through the body.
“I know the term ‘cell adhesion’ might not sound very exciting at first,” Luoma said. “But imagine how crucial it is for a cell to ‘decide’ to stay in one place, or not. Think of a single cell residing in the skin. Perhaps that’s where it originated, that’s where it developed, and that’s where it will remain. Unless, at some point, it doesn’t. Maybe it breaks its adhesions and goes somewhere else, which carries important implications for health and disease.”
This subject, which formed the topic of Luoma’s doctoral thesis, influences our understanding of beneficial processes, such as the migration of cells in the body’s immune responses. The science of cell adhesion can also enhance our understanding of damaging cell movements, such as in the metastasis of cancer.
Teaching the Science of Teaching Science
Dr. Luoma comes to WHRY most recently from the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, where she served as STEM Education Program Director. She managed a national team of faculty leaders to provide training in the latest and most effective methods of evidence-based teaching to graduate students, post-doctoral associates, and faculty.
Good teachers, Luoma said, put in the time, know their students, pay attention to their students’ interests, and help to motivate them. Above all, she said, good teachers make sure students feel valued and included.
“As an educator, it is important to me that students, including junior faculty and especially women, feel they belong in science,” Luoma said. “Particularly those who come from diverse backgrounds and who might not look like a stereotypical scientific hero in a history book.”
This principle guides Luoma outside of work, where she has served as a mentor for Women in Science at Yale and the Global STEM Alliance’s 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures Program. In addition, she has volunteered with the New Haven Family Science Nights Program and the New Haven Science Fair Program. She is also a fellow and undergraduate advisor in Silliman College at Yale and an instructor for Yale’s Pathways to Science Course for local high school students.
Luoma is now applying her scientific knowledge, management skills, and insight toward achieving the broad goals of WHRY: changing medical research and practice to better reflect the crucial interplay of sex, gender, and health so that everyone benefits.
These goals — delivered through scientific progress, training, and communication — stress fairness, inclusion, and smart science that leads to better lives.
“I am immensely excited to join Women’s Health Research at Yale,” Luoma said. “We are making vital changes to the ways in which medical research and care is conducted, and I am eager to contribute.”