Taking Science Personal with Dr. Felicia Goldsmith

Felicia was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in high school.  This self-proclaimed “artsy” type dug into research about what causes diabetes and how to manage it.  She learned to manage her condition, but still had questions and concerns. She realized that doing research as a career was a way to answer her own questions and help others with the same condition.

Twelve years after her diagnosis, Dr. Felicia Goldsmith meets me outside of Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, LA.  She is postdoctoral researcher, or a junior scientist, studying how botanicals (plants) can be used to combat metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome itself is a group of health factors, such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar and abnormal cholesterol levels that can contribute to the development of medical conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.  Type 1 diabetes, or insulin-dependent diabetes, occurs when the pancreas no longer produces enough insulin to facilitate the sugar-dependent process of cellular energy production.

She gives me a tour around the lab.  There are multiple types of microscopes, shielded laboratory work stations called fume hoods, and all the gadgets and gizmos one might expect in a top notch research lab.  Here Felicia studies how diabetes effects prenatal development.  Many women with Type 1 and Type 2 struggle with pregnancy, and the high blood sugar levels characteristic of these diseases can contribute to specific birth defects of the neural tube that eventually becomes your brain and spinal cord.   Conditions of neural tube defects include Spina Bifida and Anencephaly.  Felicia and Dr. Salbaum, the senior researcher, are hoping to determine how plants can be used to help prevent such defects.  They are also interested in how and why these defects develop in children of Type 1 diabetic mothers.

These are concerns that Felicia shares with other Type 1 diabetic women.  In hopes to resolve these concerns, Felicia has pursued questions about diabetes throughout her academic career.  Prior to her work in Dr. Salbaum’s lab, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis comparing the effects of dietary “fibers” from milk and cereal grains. Her Masters and PhD focused on starch, insulin resistance, and pre- and probiotics, healthy bacteria that assist with digestion in your gut. As she continues her work at Pennington, Felicia is seeking out future grants, developing publications and networking with other scientists, labs, and institutions.  If all goes well she will be able to establish her own laboratory – hopefully somewhere in the state of Louisiana – where she will continue to conduct research surrounding diabetes.

A microscope, one of the tools of the trade. From Flicker.

A microscope, one of the tools of the trade. From Flicker.

Conducting original research isn’t an easy task.  Funding is hard to come by and hours are long.  Most researchers at Pennington and universities such as LSU must secure their own research money, and often their salaries and those of their laboratory staff, through grants and contracts.  Felicia says she could work for a private industry, the pay and hours would be better, but she would be limited in her research.  Asking her own research questions, the ones that pertain to her own health and others that struggle with Type 1 diabetes, is her priority.  Despite budget cuts, 1:00am lab work, and years of schooling, the opportunity to ask her own questions, design her own research, and make insights that improve people’s lives is well worth the effort.

But there is more to Felicia than the hours behind microscopes, lists of must-read research papers and her intense pursuit of research.  She is also a college science tutor, and an occasional blogger on science, nutrition and awesome recipes.  I’m sure there are amazing things on the horizon for this dedicated and intrepid researcher, but for now she hustles back to the lab, where she takes her science personal.


Editorial Note: Edited by Paige Jarreau


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