Dr. Candice Z. Ulmer holds BS degrees in Chemistry and Biochemistry from the College of Charleston. She obtained her Ph.D. in Chemistry at the University of Florida in 2016 under the direction of Dr. Richard Yost after only a 4-year tenure. Her multi-omics doctoral research focused on two main applications, T cell immune dysregulation in Type 1 Diabetes and biomarker discovery in melanoma skin cancer. After receiving her doctorate, Dr. Ulmer immediate pursued a NRC post-doctoral research fellowship at NIST under the direction of Dr. John Bowden, where her work focused on the standardization of lipid measurements in the first international lipidomics interlaboratory exercise. Dr. Candice Z. Ulmer is currently a Clinical Chemist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA. As Project Lead and Acting Chief of the Clinical Reference Laboratory for Cancer, Kidney, and Bone Disease Biomarkers in the Clinical Chemistry Branch, Dr. Ulmer is involved with the planning and execution of programs to ensure the accurate measurement of chronic disease biomarkers (e.g., steroid and protein hormones) and the assessment of clinical analytical methods in patient care, both internationally and domestically. Dr. Ulmer was nominated by the American Association of Clinical Chemistry (AACC) to serve on the newly-formed International Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine (IFCC) Committee on Bone Metabolism. She is a co-chair of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS) clinical chemistry interest group and publication committee. With over 30 publications and a pending patent as an early-career chemist, she serves as the ASMS clinical chemistry interest group co-chair and assumes appointed/elected memberships in six committees for other scientific organizations that include the International Metabolomics Society, the Metabolomics Quality Assurance and Quality Control Consortium, Metabolomics of North America, and the American Chemical Society.
1. When and why did you start using metabolomics in your investigations?
As a graduate student at the University of Florida under the direction of Dr. Richard Yost (2013 – 2016), I actively participated in metabolomics projects for the NIH-funded Southeast Center for Integrated Metabolomics (SECIM). In this role, I designed sample preparation protocols for multi-omics applications involving various matrices (e.g., suspension mammalian cells, plasma, and tissue). I thoroughly enjoyed applying UHPLC-HRMS techniques to profile the metabolome/lipidome of human cells and tissues to better understand the disease etiology of Type 1 Diabetes and melanoma skin cancer. I gained quite a bit of experience with various modes of ionization (e.g., MALDI, ESI, APCI, DESI, FlowProbe, and DART) while investigating my metabolomics projects, which was an amazing opportunity as a graduate student. I was also able to become well-versed with novel stable isotope labeling methodologies such as Isotopic Ratio Outlier Analysis (IROA) to aid in the identification of metabolites as compound identification is still considered a bottleneck in metabolomics studies.
2. What have you been working on recently?
After my NRC post-doctoral fellowship, I began working as a research chemist at the CDC in a clinical chemistry laboratory. My role in this position involves the planning and execution of programs for the harmonization and accurate reporting of chronic disease biomarkers. We study these markers to enhance the diagnosis and treatment of select endocrine diseases and advance CDC Standardization Programs – aimed at improving the accuracy and precision of clinical measurements in patient care. Currently, I am developing routine and reference measurement procedures for chronic disease biomarkers such as parathyroid hormone and its breakdown products. I’m also collaborating on projects such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which is a program of studies designed to assess the health of the US population, to provide measurements for various steroid and reproductive hormones.
3. You are currently working on identifying chronic disease biomarkers. What is the main challenge in discovering biomarkers?
Challenges that I experience in discovering biomarkers generally stem from the lack of reference materials/methods, which are needed to accurately identify and measure these analytes of interest in various biological matrices.
4. Do you think the discovery of chronic disease biomarkers can be applied successfully in drug discovery and development?
As the appreciation for mass spectrometry continues to grow in the clinical space and as the technique continues to get incorporated in routine clinical testing, I do believe that chronic disease biomarkers will be successfully applied in drug discovery and development as surrogate endpoints for various clinical studies. A key element of this will be the transition from single analyte biomarker assays to quantitative panels able to measure multiple biomarkers and thus assess numerous disease states simultaneously. This will require these biomarkers to be reliable, validated, and qualified in the associated biological process/clinical endpoint.
5. As a clinical chemist, what advice would you give to someone developing MS-based methods for lipidomics/metabolomics in biomarker discovery?
My best advice would be to adhere to best practice guidelines outlined by stakeholder organizations (e.g., the International Lipidomics Society (ILS), the Metabolomics Society (MetSoc), the Metabolomics Quality Assurance & Quality Control Consortium (mQACC), LIPID MAPS, etc.) in the design of metabolomics/lipidomics biomarker discovery workflows. These organizations are actively working to develop harmonized principles for each component of the biomarker discovery workflow including bioanalysis (e.g., sample collection, sample preparation, data acquisition), data processing, compound identification, and biological interpretation. Implementation of these best practices will reduce the probability of sample bias, false positives, inaccurate data interpretation.
6. You have achieved huge success in the initiation of the Coalition of Black Mass Spectrometrists. Could you briefly share the history behind this idea and the achievements and key aims of the organisation?
Drs. Christina Jones, Michelle Reid, and I felt that it was necessary in 2019 to fulfill an initiative proposed by Dr. Rena Robinson, of creating a safe space for Blacks to engage and network amongst each other at conferences such as ASMS, because blacks face a unique set of challenges. Given the current climate of police brutality and racial injustice and the difficulty we ourselves witnessed/experienced in navigating through this in 2020, we decided to launch our first official event during ASMS and coined our organization Black People Meet @ ASMS. We established initiatives, such as Black People Meet @ ASMS, to call awareness to the need for initiatives and policies to ensure cultural diversity and the representation of Blacks in STEM. Honestly, our platform turned out to be larger than any of us could have imagined. We’ve touched the minds and ears of thousands of Blacks and allies with our voices, which has forced us to redesign our platform to touch a larger audience as the Coalition of Black Mass Spectrometrists (CBM). Since our reorganization, our redefined purpose is to create a platform for black mass spectrometrists to engage in discussion, cultivate a sense of community, and support each other. We’ve held socials for our members, established a social media presence, published an editorial piece in the Analytical Scientist, and presented on systemic racism for various scientific organizations (e.g., FeMS virtual happy hour, MUSC's Annual Inclusion to Innovation Summit, and the 68th ASMS Conference: ASMS 2020 Reboot). We now have a permanent page under the ASMS Member Center with highlighted resources on ways to be effective supporters/allies/advocates and to eradicate systemic racism.