Virgin Islander's work featured in science journal

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ST. THOMAS - Elenoe Smith, known to her friends and family as Crew, faints at the sight of blood.

That is somewhat ironic, considering her research just landed on the cover of Blood, a journal focused on blood-related scientific research.

"I actually faint when I see blood. So, every time I went to get my blood drawn I would pass out," Smith said.

She could not watch medical dramas on television and knew that despite her love of science, she would never be a medical doctor.

"It's funny now, because all I do is work with blood," she laughed.

Smith was born on St. Thomas and graduated from Antilles School. She left the territory to attend Princeton, where she majored in molecular biology. She then got a full-ride scholarship to Yale, where she earned her doctorate in cell biology in May.

It was her doctoral research that was just published in the Feb. 14 issue of Blood.

The research project worked with megakaryocyte blood cells. As she explains it: mega means large, karyo means DNA, and cyte means cell.

"It's a cell that has a lot of DNA in it," she said.

Megakaryocyte cells make platelets, which are necessary to clot blood.

Her project looked at the relationship between those cells and leukemia - cancer of the blood.

If proteins in the cell are not working properly, it can lead to cancer. Smith was looking at a specific gene in the cell called MKL1.

"My project looked at it in megakaryocytes and how it leads to leukemia, particularly in pediatrics," Smith said.

Smith currently is on a National Institutes of Health post-doctoral research fellowship at Boston's Children's Hospital Division of Hematology and Oncology.

"Now I'm working on sickle cell disease," she said.

Sickle cell research has always been her goal, Smith said.

"There weren't any labs at Yale that worked on sickle cell, so I joined a lab that worked on blood," she said.

Even though she was not working on sickle cell, Smith's mentor introduced her to scientists who were, getting her in prime place to go into sickle cell research after graduation. Smith's experience in the lab prepared her for her new research as well, she said.

"I'm doing a project about sickle cell disease because it's something that affects a lot of people in the Virgin Islands, and African Americans," Smith said. "That's actually what got me interested in science."

In seventh-grade, Smith first learned about genetics, and found it fascinating, she said.

She also is a carrier of sickle cell and has had family members and friends in the territory with the disease.

"It doesn't get as much attention as other diseases," she said. "The advances that they've made in treating cancer have come a lot further than the research in sickle cell."

Sickle cell is a genetic disease that usually presents in children about 1 year old. It is incurable, and unless a bone marrow transplant is received, most people die because the disease compromises their immune system and they contract other illnesses they cannot fight off.

Smith said that 30 years ago, most people with the disease were dead by age 20. With advances in treatments, sickle cell patients are now living until their 40s, she said.

When Smith first started college, she wanted to be a high school chemistry teacher, she said. She said she always liked chemistry because it is about solving problems.

She switched her focus at Princeton, when a research project had her working in a lab and she was hooked.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email

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