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An Inspired, Budding Researcher

A young scientist’s journey to the lab

Anaya Hill


naya Hill got the science bug when she was growing up in Baltimore. She caught it from her grandfather, who was a chemist before becoming a defense attorney. Hill fondly remembers them together drawing a diatomic molecule. In high school, she conducted her first research project —  on flatworms — and by the time she enrolled at the University of Miami, she had already decided to major in biology. Now in her junior year, Hill is convinced she’s on the right track to becoming a research scientist.

How have you been able to build on your passion for science as an undergraduate?

In the first semester of my freshman year, I took a chemistry class. By the end, the professor, Dr. Christian Agatemor, invited me to join his research team. Over the summer, I applied for, and received, a grant from the National Institutes of Health. I started working in Dr. Agatemor’s lab during the fall semester and am still a member of his research team.

What types of projects have you worked on?

The Agatemor Lab develops chemistry-based tools to study and regulate biological systems, and my projects have included cancer research. Last summer I worked on a pancreatic cancer project, and in the fall, I presented my findings at an NIH symposium in Bethesda, Maryland. It was very special for me to step into that space, representing myself, my family, my school and my lab. The experience gave me a great sense of accomplishment and confidence. I can see myself getting a Ph.D. and becoming a research scientist.

Tell us more about the research you presented at the NIH symposium.

I studied L-lactate, which serves as a multifunctional signaling molecule. Lactylation plays a vital role in cancer, inflammation and regeneration. Despite the advances in understanding the lactylome, several key questions remain unanswered. For example, it is unclear how and to what degree protein lactylation contributes to cell transformation. The purpose of my study, using pancreatic cancer cell lines and clinical samples as models of transformed cells, is to unravel the role of lactylation in cell transformation.

This research is significant because it will provide further information on the role of lactylation in cancerous cells and help scientists derive solutions to pancreatic cancer, including therapy, tumor development and lactylation levels. This topic is very novel and is still being pursued in research. The study could confirm new theories on the role of L-lactate and cells and distinguish what happens to lactate during cell transformation. If the findings from the study are significant, the research can be applied to other types of cancer.

Your grandfather seems to have done a good job of inspiring you at such a young age.

He did, but unfortunately he passed away from cancer when I was a junior in high school. I focused during that time on being with him and talking about life. He always listened to me. I wish I could have told him about my first college chemistry class. He planted the seed and would be so proud. And now I’m doing research on the disease that took his life, which makes perfect sense.