Sierra’s Michigan Answer: Researching Bold Breakthroughs for Diabetes

Imagine two patients. Both the same age and height. The same gender and race. Both have a similar medical history. Two people, almost identical in every way. So, why does one of them, seemingly at random, develop diabetes?

Sierra

This is the question Sierra Nance and numerous other researchers inside Michigan Medicine work tirelessly to answer.

With a lifelong interest in science, Sierra is passionate about being in a lab and serving humanity through research. It’s no wonder she chose to study chemistry at Winston Salem State University before choosing the University of Michigan to pursue her ultimate passion – getting a Ph.D. in Molecular and Integrative Physiology.

“Molecular and integrative physiology allows me to study the reactions that occur within the body, gaining a better understanding of the underlying mechanism of human disease,” says Sierra. “I really hope to use my knowledge and love of research to break barriers in how and why people get diabetes.”

I really hope to use my knowledge and love of research to break barriers in how and why people get diabetes.

As a fifth year Ph.D. student, Sierra conducts cutting-edge experiments with fellow students as well as veteran Michigan Medicine physicians and researchers. Collectively, they take one step closer each day to understanding and ending diabetes for the roughly 34 million Americans who currently have it. 

“To be part of a team that conducts leading experiments is an enormously gratifying feeling,” Sierra says. “Every day we ask why one person gets diabetes and why another one doesn’t. And to know that even the smallest discovery could answer that question is what keeps me coming back.” 

As part of her research role, Sierra evaluates human tissue samples, specifically those of obese patients since being overweight is one of the leading causes of diabetes. This means she gets to work alongside bariatric experts at Michigan Medicine to collaborate on new medical possibilities.  

“The work we do such as characterizing human fat tissue can help us create new therapies, technologies and medicines. So, I think maybe the most exciting part of my studies is the translational research. That is, being able to see how our studies can lead to medicine at a patient’s bedside,” says Sierra. 

The most exciting part of my studies is the translational research. That is, being able to see how our studies can lead to medicine at a patient’s bedside.

Beyond her personal career ambitions, Sierra has a big heart for fostering the careers of other students.

“Outside of being a scientist, I serve as president of a minority student organization – Graduate Society of Black Engineers & Scientists. Our goal is to recruit, retain and advocate for students of color at the university and participate in outreach,” Sierra says. “I also really enjoy being a mentor to fellow minorities whether that means answering questions, helping them with applications or directing them towards helpful resources.”

Perhaps the greatest area where Sierra likes to help others is in the realm of STEM education. That is, helping to advance science, technology, engineering and mathematics for young people.

Says Sierra, “I love mentoring and advancing STEM education, which is why I co-founded HBCU-DAP, a non-profit organization that aims to increase diversity in STEM by providing resources, mentorship, and support for HBCU students on their journey to the Doctorate. To teach people about opportunities and give them exposure to bigger ideas in that field is a lot of fun. And knowing that I’m making a career in STEM and showing others that they can pursue a Ph.D. too is enough inspiration for a lifetime.”