Four NIEHS postdoctoral fellows received the first NIEHS Division of Intramural Research (DIR) Innovative Research Awards (DIRA). The awards include $50,000 renewable for 1 year, and an invitation to participate in a research symposium. NIEHS Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D., announced the winners Jan. 31.
- Bart Phillips, Ph.D., an Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) fellow in the Epigenetics and Stem Cell Biology Laboratory (ESCBL).
- Shannon Farris, Ph.D., IRTA fellow in the Neurobiology Laboratory.
- Motoki Takaku, Ph.D., ESCBL visiting fellow.
- Fei Zhao, Ph.D., visiting fellow in the Reproductive and Developmental Biology Laboratory.
"We were pleased that there were so many high-quality applications," said Zeldin. "Selecting the top four was a difficult task. They not only had to be innovative and have scientific merit, but they also had to pass muster in a highly competitive environment." These four trainees have also collected awards from a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Pathway to Independence award, Fellows Awards for Research Excellence, to awards for poster presentations and talks.
The award selection committee received 21 applications, according to Mitch Eddy, Ph.D., a retired lead researcher who chaired the group. The winners were chosen from among seven finalists.
"We’re pleased to offer these awards, and even more excited about the research these promising scientists will carry out," said NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
"There are so many good scientists here with great ideas for addressing important biological questions," said Phillips. "It is humbling to have my work selected." He will study how molecules within stem cells responsible for maintaining male fertility are regulated and drive cellular function for his project, "Identification of Translational Regulatory Networks in Spermatogonial Stem Cells."
"I am thrilled that Bart will have the opportunity to take on a new challenge," said Phillips’ mentor, Traci Hall, Ph.D., head of the Macromolecular Structure Group. "I am thankful that Bart is a part of our group and for the many ways he contributes across NIEHS."
Neurological resistance to injury
"I was not at all surprised," said Serena Dudek, Ph.D., deputy chief of the Neurobiology Laboratory, upon learning Farris, who is a postdoc in her lab, was one of the winners. "She has demonstrated time and again that she has an eye for innovative methods," Dudek continued.
Farris will focus on identifying the molecular mechanisms that allow certain regions of the brain to resist cell death after injury, in a project titled "Mechanisms Underlying Hippocampal CA2 Resistance to Injury."
"I am very grateful to receive one of the DIR Innovative Research Awards," Farris said. "I feel fortunate to be at an institution with leadership that provides opportunities for trainee career development."
Transcription factor binding
Takaku said he has already benefitted from the program. "I learned a lot through the application process, and I’m excited to start my own project," he said. "It is a great honor to receive this award, and this experience will be very helpful for my future career." Through his proposal, "Nucleosome Targeting Mechanism by Pioneer Transcription Factors," he will explore how transcription factors, which are specialized cell proteins, find their binding sites when DNA is converted to RNA.
Paul Wade, Ph.D., acting deputy scientific director of NIEHS, described Takaku as the kind of trainee every mentor dreams of. "I am delighted to see him have the opportunity to gain a degree of independence and take on a high risk, high reward project," Wade said. "I can't wait to see what he learns."
Zhao proposed project is "Unexpected Contribution of Male Tract Mesenchymal Cells to the Female Reproductive Tract." He will explore the functional significance of residual male reproductive cells found in female reproductive organs.
"I really appreciate that NIEHS has the DIRA program for trainees," said Zhao. "This opportunity will give me experience I could not have gotten anywhere else." His mentor, Humphrey Yao, Ph.D., head of the Reproductive Developmental Biology Group, expressed pride in Fei’s work. "It is wonderful that DIR provides such opportunities for trainees to showcase their talent," Yao said.
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison)