New FHS researchers: Meet Dr. Kimberly Dunham-Snary
Dr. Dunham-Snary is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences
How would you summarize your research?
When my research laboratory opens, I will be investigating our mitochondrial genes. More specifically, how this genetic sequence influences the structure of our mitochondria and in turn what happens to cell signalling in the context of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Our mitochondrial genes, coded by a small genome in the mitochondria of all of our cells, are separate from the nuclear genome and, interestingly, vary based on your ancestry, or where, geographically, your family originates (in an evolutionary context). The end goal will be to put together a sort of mitochondrialmetabol(om)ic fingerprint of cardiometabolic diseases.
What problem do you want to solve through your research?
The biggest problem related to my research is that despite the fact that there are education efforts, and that we all know we're supposed to be eating better and exercising, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases are not going away. While incidence continues to rise in part because the global population is aging, there are certain subpopulations of people who are more affected. Even when taking into account factors like access to education, access to health care, and socioeconomic status, certain people with identical risk factors still get sicker than others and some people get sick when others don't. This often tends to fall on those ancestral lines, and what I want to know is why certain subpopulations of people have enhanced susceptibility to cardiovascular/cardiometabolic diseases.
Why is your research important to you?
It is important to me because I have spent time in a number of different places in North America and witnessed firsthand, particularly in Northern Ontario and in the state of Alabama, the health-care disparity to which Indigenous Canadians and African Americans are disproportionately subjected, respectively. When you look at things like access to care, access to education, clinical trials, and drug trials, most often the populations that are targeted are white middle- and upper-middle class. The fact that we often don't have population-specific answers for the populations who are most at risk shows that we are not targeting precision medicine as well as we could. We are all aging globally as a population, so the sooner we can get these answers the better off we will be as far as the fight against cardiovascular/metabolic diseases is concerned.
What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?
More than anything, I hope to leave the cardiovascular and metabolic disease landscape better than how I found it. To me, that means enhanced health-care efforts for these pathologies and, optimistically, aiming to make a little bit more progress with precision medicine. Precision medicine is personalized medicine, and the goal for me is to help shift health care away from this “one size fits all” model and towards a more individualized approach that takes into account the different ways in which diseases can affect people.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was a little kid, I knew that I wanted to solve puzzles and that I wanted to help people, which sounds very vague, but in my head, I was this doctor detective. This was years and years before “House, MD” or “CSI” were on television and as I got older (and got a forensic science degree for good measure), I finally discovered that answering research questions is actually doing both the puzzle-solving and the people-helping. Not everybody gets to fall into the random thing they wanted to be; everyone says they want to be a doctor or an astronaut or something else that actually exists. Nobody would ever describe an academic researcher as a doctor-detective, but I think we should start!