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Graduate Student Profile: James Fraser

For James Fraser, a Ph.D. student in the intercollege molecular, cellular, and integrative biosciences program, studying red blood cell generation is a cause that he can personally understand. That is because he has hemophilia, a bleeding disorder where blood does not clot normally, and understanding blood and the underlying complex roles physiology plays in the blood is important to him.

Growing up, Fraser spent a large part of his childhood in a hospital. Fraser remembered “going into the clinic once or twice a week to get treatment; being in a clinic with kids that had leukemia or were very sick and dying; it gave me a sense of empathy that enables me to understand the life of a patient. When you read about diseases in a text book, the diseases are really abstract concepts.”

Fraser’s first-hand experience with hemophilia helped him to realize that his research can really impact others’ lives. And he has a better understanding of just how much he himself has benefited from others’ research into the disorder. One benefit of that research is that he can treat himself at home, instead of having to go to the hospital for treatment.

Fraser’s interest is centered on researching stress erythropoiesis, a physiological response when bone marrow needs to produce new red blood cells in a short amount of time, e.g. after undergoing a bone marrow transplant, suffering trauma which causes blood loss, or by an acute infection, like malaria that targets red blood cells. His hope is that gaining a better understanding of stress erythropoiesis could one day be helpful in treating anemia, and its accompanying inflammation, and assisting patients recovering from bone marrow transplants, who are temporarily unable to produce new red blood cells after the bone marrow is destroyed in preparation to receive the transplant.

Fraser conducts his research in the lab of Robert Paulson, professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences. “Jim is an interesting graduate student. He came here with more work experience [than a typical graduate student] and previously worked in the Biotech field, which gave him a better feel for clinical applications,” Paulson said. 

Before enrolling in the Graduate School, Fraser worked as a technician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, assisting with bone marrow transplants. Additionally, he worked at Bluebird Bio, a biotech company.

Fraser is also collaborating with Andrew Read, Evan Pugh Professor of biology and entomology and Eberly Professor of biotechnology, to determine if there is a potential connection between stress erythropoiesis and diseases, such as malaria. “Jim is mature beyond his years. It is hard not to get swept along by his enthusiasm about a new model or theory. He proposes how things might work, tries enough in advance, and sets himself up for big falls – which is normally risk most graduate students would not take. It is not often you get a graduate student that reads the literature, thinks hard, and then proposes a whole new way to think,” said Read.

In addition to his research with Paulson and Read, Fraser was also awarded an NIH Traineeship in the T32 training program run by Donna Korzick, chair, intercollege program in integrative and biomedical physiology, and professor of physiology and kinesiology at Penn State.

According to Fraser, many clinicians acknowledge that stress erythropoiesis is a phenomenon, but that it doesn’t have a real significant role in the body – something Fraser disagrees with and strives to prove untrue. “It is exciting to dive into the uncharted arena and find that this puzzle piece doesn’t go at the border of the puzzle but is central to many things. Researching is like kicking over the leaves and seeing what is there, and you have no idea what to expect,” said Fraser.

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