Research

SF BUILD student researcher wins presentation award at ABRCMS

Steven Lomeli credits his success to martial-arts discipline and mentor support

In November, SF State student and SF BUILD Scholar Steven Lomeli traveled to Anaheim, California for the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) — and came back an award winner, having been recognized for his presentation in the division of immunology.

“It felt so gratifying,” Lomeli said of the award, which was sponsored by the American Association for Immunology and the Society for Leukocyte Biology. “To be recognized by one of the top organizations in your field is very humbling.”

Lomeli’s poster presentation was the result of his research in the lab of Jeoung-Sook Shin, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of California, San Francisco. Lomeli’s work uses mice as a model to explore the connection between a specific gene and multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease. 

When he started working in the lab in 2018, it was Lomeli’s first research experience outside of the classroom. It wasn’t an easy adjustment. 

“When it came to actually making mistakes, I just felt really intimidated,” Lomeli said. “There were many times where I felt extremely discouraged.” After that rocky start, he redoubled his efforts to get up to speed, working more than his mandated hours. Eventually, he was given his own project performing the research for which he won the presentation award.  

Lomeli says he owes his success to the support of his mentors, including those he met through the SF BUILD program like SF State Adjunct Assistant Professor Cathy Samayoa and UCSF Professor of Medicine Peter Chin-Hong. Also crucial was the discipline he learned as a martial artist. In addition to his studies and research, Lomeli is the president of SF State’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Striking Club. 

“Without the resiliency that I acquired through martial arts and relying on my support system, I don’t know if I would have stayed in my lab,” he said.

But he did stay — and he has an award to show for it, along with an array of lab skills and the confidence to face new challenges. Next, Lomeli aims to pursue a Ph.D. in immunology, and is especially focused on studying epidemics like HIV and cardiovascular disease that disproportionately affect people of color. He has his sights set high, having applied to some of the top universities for immunology in the country. 

“My support system has gotten me here and hopefully will continue to propel me forward,” he said.

This story was originally published on the SF BUILD website.

Study on Latina breast cancer survivors shows importance of inclusive science

An all-Latina research team is challenging the science myth that Latino populations are ‘hard to reach’

Sometimes the hardest part of science isn’t designing a brilliant experiment or analyzing data. It’s making sure the science is inclusive. A new paper by a team of researchers at San Francisco State University, the University of California, San Francisco and other partner organizations details their extensive work recruiting a group of participants — Latina breast cancer survivors — who are often not included in biomedical research.

Since they tend to be diagnosed later than other patients, Latinas who have breast cancer receive more aggressive treatments. They also have higher mortality rates than their white counterparts. And due in part to the stress of discrimination and language barriers, they often deal with other conditions at the same time, says Cathy Samayoa, an adjunct assistant professor in San Francisco State’s Health Equity Research Lab and the study’s lead author. “Latinas have higher rates of anxiety and depression,” she explained. “And they face a lot of barriers with navigating a complex medical system.”

The team’s ultimate aim (to be explored in future studies) is to investigate the effectiveness of stress management techniques designed to aid Latina breast cancer survivors in rural California. Samayoa plans to do that by looking for signs of stress and premature aging in participants’ hormones and DNA. That first required finding Latina breast cancer survivors, communicating with them effectively and persuading them to provide samples of saliva and hair for testing. 

A typical strategy for recruiting study participants might be to post flyers advertising the research. But there are downsides to that approach, Samayoa points out. “The burden is on participants who want to be part of a study,” she explained. On top of that, many such notices are only posted in English. “It takes so many resources to also include a Spanish interpreter or translate all your materials in Spanish,” Samayoa said.

But she and her colleagues didn’t let that stop them. The research team, composed entirely of Latinas, created easy-to-understand materials describing the research in English and Spanish. They even produced videos in Spanish explaining the experiment (starring Samayoa’s mother, herself a Latina and similar in age to many of the study’s participants). Additionally, they partnered with community-based organizations and paired study participants with trained health workers who guided them through the research process.

All that work paid off: 98% of the women recruited opted to provide saliva samples for the study — an unusually high rate even for populations that aren’t considered “hard to reach” by scientists. The team published their results on March 4 in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

The researchers encountered some unexpected barriers, however. For instance, just over half of participants provided hair samples, far fewer than the team had anticipated. The reason may lie in a common side effect of chemotherapy. “We think it has to do with them losing their hair during treatment and the significance that hair has after that,” Samayoa explained. Understanding sensitivities like these, she says, can help researchers design their studies to work with participants who represent the diversity of the larger population.

Once the team analyzed the results of their work, they returned to the community to present their findings and field questions from study participants. They also learned about why women chose to participate in the research. It wasn’t a financial reward offered for taking part, but a more altruistic motive. “They want to participate in research that may not directly help them but will help the generations after them,” Samayoa said.

In addition to reporting on their successful recruiting, the team detailed in their study the methods they used and the many considerations they navigated in designing the experiment and related communications. The researchers hope their work serves as a roadmap for other teams committed to broadening representation in their own research. 

“Our goal is not just to say we did it,” Samayoa explained. “Our goal is to say, ‘Anyone can do it.’”

SF State Professor of Biology Leticia Márquez-Magaña co-authored the recruitment study. Other co-authors include Jasmine Santoyo-Olsson, Anita L. Stewart and Anna María Nápoles at the University of California, San Francisco; Cristian Escalera at the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities; Carmen Ortiz at the Círculo de Vida Cancer Support and Resource Center; Silvia Araceli Cervantes and Alma Torres-Nguyen at the Cancer Resource Center of the Desert; and Lorenia Parada-Ampudia at WomenCARE/Entre Nosotras. More studies based on the data the team collected are expected in the near future.

Alumna’s research shines light on excessive lead levels in city neighborhoods

SF State alumna Chinomnso Okorie is using community-engaged research to fight health disparities in her hometown

The 2019 film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” opens with a young Black girl happily skipping up to a man in a hazmat suit picking up garbage in the Bayview neighborhood. The image is more than just striking, says biomedical scientist Chinomnso Okorie (B.S., ’17; M.A., ’19), who was born in San Francisco and raised in Bayview. For her, it’s deeply meaningful.

Okorie is first author of a new paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that investigates the relationship between environmental exposure to lead and preterm birth. Just like the movie scene, her paper highlights the very real social and health disparities experienced by Black communities in San Francisco.

“I think that movie really encompasses the purpose of this paper,” Okorie explained, noting that the film was released as she was graduating from San Francisco State University.

Before the government began to regulate lead content in the late 1980s, many cities like San Francisco used lead in gas, paint and water pipes. Some of these pipes are still present today, with federal Superfund sites devoted to cleaning contaminated areas often located near low-income areas like Bayview-Hunters Point. Low-income and minority communities also experience more preterm births, with African American/Black mothers nearly three times more likely to have premature infants compared with white mothers.

These trends didn’t sit right with Okorie, an SF BUILD scholar in Professor of Biology Leticia Márquez-Magaña’s lab at the time. But Okorie knew that to effectively study these problems, she’d have to account for — and challenge — health disparities and inequities.

“Because of the past, what we’ve done as scientists [to people of color] cannot be undone. It’s written in history. We made a mistake and we have to gain people’s trust again,” Okorie said.

Keeping that troubling history in mind, Okorie was thoughtful and collaborative with her study design, emphasizing open communication with community members and noninvasive approaches for sample collection. This led her to some surprising partners: hair salons and barbershops. These are safe spaces for many communities, she explained. Hair was a good conduit because it’s a less invasive source and stores metals like lead. However, hair is deeply personal and meaningful for many people, so transparency was important.

“We were trying to create a safe space where we talked about what was going on in our community,” she said. “The dialogue, the back and forth before we even got to collecting the samples, [is critical]. Because ultimately, we were doing the science for them.”

Seventy-two randomly selected hair salons and barbershops across 19 racially diverse San Francisco zip codes donated 109 hair samples to Okorie’s study. She found lead in every sample, with the highest exposure found in southeast San Francisco, a region that includes Bayview. These same areas have large African American/Black populations and high preterm birth rates.

The findings were not necessarily surprising to Okorie or to others in the community.

“I heard a lot of stories, a lot of people that knew somebody who experienced preterm birth, or who was a premie, and you start to see them pile up,” she explained.

These findings highlight the need for more translational research with community engagement to begin to tackle health disparities. Developing and using less- or noninvasive approaches for sample collection is important because it could help improve community participation. Though Okorie focused on lead exposure, there are other stressors that can compromise health, such as lack of food and water and housing insecurity.

Okorie is now several years out of school, working as a data scientist at the University of San Francisco, but the work she started at San Francisco State is still not done. She has larger goals of understanding how lead affects the placenta during pregnancy and examining genetic-level changes. Outside of the lab, Okorie is involved in several community projects. One of her favorites is the pregnancy popup in Bayview that provides women with services related to pregnancy and family. Another is serving the Bayview community through Umoja Health, providing free COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

Her research, her career trajectory, her Bayview community, even the chance timing of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” — they are all connected, Okorie says. After graduating, she has also reflected a lot about how to take care of herself as a Black woman.

“It’s funny because I’m here stressing about how other people in my community are stressed and at risk for chronic diseases and again, it’s just another added stressor,” she says. “We need to unlearn this learned behavior.”

Read more at SF State News.