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Environmental Factor, August 2012

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Former NIEHS trainees return for ONES symposium

By Jeffrey Stumpf

Michelle Block, Ph.D.

Regarding the ONES award, Block said, “I am truly humbled and honored to have received the award and continue to be both elated and grateful of the associated opportunities.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Jingbo Pi, M.D., Ph.D.

Pi is interested in understanding the influence of environmental stressors, such as arsenic, and health-related stresses, such as type 2 diabetes, on responses to oxidative stress in the cell. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

For several participants in the Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) Awardees Symposium July 10-11 (see related story), gathering at NIEHS also meant a visit to their postdoctoral alma mater.

Of the 27 ONES awardees presenting their research at the two-day symposium, all of whom are now lead researchers at other institutions, five were trained and mentored in the intramural research program at NIEHS (see text box).

Deputy Scientific Director William Schrader, Ph.D., who manages postdoctoral training at NIEHS, said he is proud of the successful track record of former NIEHS trainees in obtaining funding. “This success shows how Division of Intramural Research trainees have moved on in their careers to focus upon important topics in environmental science,” Schrader stated. “These trainees have the background and insights needed to outline exciting aims and novel scientific approaches.”

NIEHS training credited with success

The road from being a postdoctoral researcher to obtaining funding as a lead researcher is certainly an arduous one, and the former trainees credit NIEHS with paving the way to their future careers. Michelle Block, Ph.D., who gave the opening talk of the symposium, praised NIEHS for the experience of training with leading experts using extensive resources. “My time at NIEHS was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that determined who I am as a scientist,” Block recalled. “Postdocs are provided with a rare chance to push themselves and their abilities past what they ever believed they were capable of.”

Yu-Ying He, Ph.D., emphasized that the outstanding mentors at NIEHS, especially the late Colin Chignell, Ph.D., modeled how to mentor and research. “I had the opportunity to collaborate with outstanding environmental health scientists,” she added.

Scott McCulloch, Ph.D., echoed Yu-Ying He’s sentiments about the mentorship from a network of scientists with varying expertise. “There was someone with experience in answering nearly any question I may have had,” McCulloch said. “The ability to branch out from my comfort zone of knowledge and learn about fields and techniques way beyond my training was amazing.”

Career advancement programs are emphasized by the NIEHS training program and, as Block mentioned, grant writing courses primed her success in securing a Pathway to Independence and ONES award, along with her expertise in grant writing.

“In short, this is one of the many reasons that NIEHS always ranks so high in postdoc satisfaction surveys,” Block said.

Trainees transition to leaders

The harsh reality of competition for funding causes many sleepless nights for any young scientist. The ONES program provided the opportunity to ease concerns of professors who are trying to make their lab competitive with more experienced researchers. In addition to providing funding for equipment and personnel, Block explained, the first big grant is incredibly important in launching a research program. “The ONES grant is a career-changing lifeline for new investigators.”

Besides boosting the careers of talented scientists, the success of the ONES program depends on the results of the research. McCulloch, who presented the final talk of the symposium, believes that his basic research in polymerases that bypass DNA damage will have broad implications in environmental health. “We hope to better understand the role that pesticides, radiation, heavy metals, and other environmental exposures play in aging and carcinogenesis,” McCulloch predicted.

Joel Meyer, Ph.D., and Yu-Ying He are both interested on the effects of ultraviolet light-induced damage, and He believes that this field of study will reveal new molecular bases for the development of preventive and therapeutic agents to reduce the skin cancer burden.

(Jeffrey Stumpf, Ph.D., is a research fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group.)

Yu-Ying He

Yu-Ying He concluded her talk with simple advice on the best chance to avoid skin cancer — “Eat healthy, exercise, and don’t get too much sun.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Deputy Scientific Director William Schrader, Ph.D.

Schrader said, “I am encouraged by the positive role being played by our trainees, as they move on into academic, private sector, and governmental science roles, where their past training at NIEHS can shine.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Joel Meyer, Ph.D.

Meyer studies the fate of DNA damage that is not repaired in the mitochondrial genome and the effects of damaged mitochondrial DNA on human health. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Scott McCulloch, Ph.D.

McCulloch is grateful for receiving a ONES award and for the generous and much-needed support. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Former trainees with ONES awards

  • Block, of Virginia Commonwealth University, trained in the Neuropharmacology Group headed by Jau-Shyong Hong, Ph.D.
  • Jingbo Pi, M.D., Ph.D., of The Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences, worked as a special volunteer with NTP Laboratory head Michael Waalkes, Ph.D.
  • Meyer, of Duke University, trained as a postdoctoral fellow in the DNA Repair and Mitochondrial Damage Group headed by Ben Van Houten, Ph.D., until 2008, and then as a special volunteer in the Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group headed by William Copeland, Ph.D.
  • Yu-Ying He, of the University of Chicago, was a postdoctoral fellow in the Photosensitization Reactions Group headed by the Chignell and a special volunteer in the Free Radical Metabolism Group headed by Ron Mason, Ph.D.
  • McCulloch, of North Carolina State University, trained in the DNA Replication Fidelity Group headed by Thomas Kunkel, Ph.D.

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