Catherine Applegate
Tissue Microenvironment (TiMe) Program

To many Americans, tomatoes may not be much more than a household fruit. But to Catherine Applegate, they can play a vital role for a person’s health. According to many studies, tomatoes, especially processed tomato products like tomato paste or sauces, play a part in preventing prostate cancer, and she’s passionate about understanding what makes this happen.

“It’s one thing to know that if you eat a normal amount of tomatoes or tomato products, that’s associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer,” said Applegate. “But, past that, I’m very interested in knowing what is it about the tomatoes, on a molecular level, that might make those things beneficial in a prostate or tumor.”

Nutrition has always fascinated Applegate. She’s a third-year graduate student and a registered dietitian nutritionist, with an undergraduate degree in clinical nutrition, a master’s in human nutrition, and is now working toward her PhD in nutritional sciences. In January, she won the Department of Nutritional Sciences Frank W. Kari Memorial Award, an annual honor for nutritional science graduate students intended to support scientific conferences. As part of the NIH-supported Tissue Microenvironment (TiMe) Training Program, she explores the effects of tomatoes on tissue microenvironments. Think of a tissue microenvironment as the place where our body’s cells live and work. If the microenvironment is healthy, the body’s organs function correctly. Understanding these microenvironments, therefore, is vital to making advancements in health treatments.

Health issues like cancer are complicated and require bringing together multiple perspectives to explore them. This interdisciplinary nature of TiMe, which brings fields like biochemistry, computer science, and engineering together, intrigued Applegate. Collaborations like this, said Applegate, are essential for novel scientific discoveries.

“The TiMe Program opens up a door to other disciplines that I can apply to my own research, that otherwise would be limited to my biochemistry focus.”

TiMe also offers students the chance to connect with each other, other PIs, and physicians to explore possible practical applications for their research. Plus, the TiMe Program has allowed Applegate to do what she loves most—studying the effects of diet on disease.

“I was drawn to my PI’s lab (John W. Erdman Jr.) because of the strong research of a specific food component in a specific disease that I could look at and hopefully apply to other foods and diseases,” said Applegate. “I’m really passionate about food as medicine.”

During the Spring 2019 semester, Applegate and the other students in the cohort are ramping up their research efforts, finding ways to collaborate with their varying research interests, and planning a student-led symposium.

This year, the third-annual TiMe Day Symposium and Poster Session will be on April 26th and will include a keynote speaker, lectures from Illinois researchers, and a graduate student poster session capped off by an awards ceremony. The symposium serves as an excellent opportunity to explore the tissue microenvironment and the collaborative research efforts of TiMe students.

“It’s a great opportunity for us all to get to know each other’s research interests a little more,” said Applegate, one of the symposium’s organizers, “and understand how all of our different fields of research converge and contribute to understanding the complexities of the tissue microenvironment.”

– Written by Hannah Mansfield