Profile of a PhD Candidate

She was 19, a sophomore at New York University and looking for meaningful summer work when she answered an ad for a position at a camp for kids with type 1 diabetes (T1D). “I became fascinated by both the clinical and basic science aspects of T1D,” said Danielle Baum, 28, now a 2ndyear PhD candidate in a laboratory at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center that focuses on ways to use patient-specific stem cells to replace battered beta cells—with the hope of making a lasting contribution to the field of T1D.

Danielle is mentored by stem cell biologist, Dieter Egli, PhD, the Maimonides Assistant Professor of Cellular Biology at Columbia University. In the fall of 2011, in the scientific journal, Nature, Dr. Egli and his team at the New York Stem Cell Foundation and the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, announced that they had discovered a new way to create embryonic stem cells using patient-specific DNA. It was and continues to be, a giant step forward in stem cell technology. TIME Magazine called it “the #1 medical breakthrough” of the year.

Scientists have long thought that patient-specific stem cells hold the answers to the cure for a long list of conditions including heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and T1D, which is the crux of Dr. Egli’s research. Today, using the skin cells of people with T1D (research subjects are all enthusiastic patients at the Berrie Center) Dr. Egli and his team are on track to creating viable, patient-specific, insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells and delivering them back to the patient for the treatment of T1D.

Said Danielle Baum, who joined Dr. Egli’s lab last year and is one of his four PhD students, “His experiments are always interesting because he thinks outside the box. He comes up with novel concepts that others haven’t thought of before, which is one of the best parts of working in his lab. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Danielle’s research interests include stem cell differentiation, genetic reprogramming, and the exploration of autoimmune mechanisms underlying T1D. In Dr. Egli’s lab, she works on a host of different projects including the problem of teratoma formations when transplanting stem cell-derived beta cells. “Right now,” she said, “when we turn patient-specific stem cells into beta cells and transplant them into mice, we’re not only transplanting beta cells, we’re transplanting other types of cells as well. We’re trying to figure out how to get a pure population of beta cells so we don’t have teratoma formation after transplantation.” Another project Danielle works on in Dr. Egli’s lab, as she explains, “is trying to figure out what specifically on the beta cell makes it identifiable by the immune system, which, in turn, perpetuates an ongoing autoimmune attack.”

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Danielle attended performing arts middle and high schools but gravitated more naturally to math and science. She competed in various nation-wide high school competitions including the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. At NYU she studied nutritional biochemistry and chemistry—and after college, she did clinical research with lymphoma patients at Sloan Kettering and T1D research in a translational immunology lab at Harvard.

Ultimately, she says, she would like to work in translational medicine, “although I’m not exactly sure what that will look like.” One thing about her future is for sure, she said. It will be in the field of T1D.