Two outstanding NIEHS postdoctoral fellows who display strong research potential have won highly competitive grant awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Symielle Gaston, Ph.D., is one of five recipients of the 2019 William G. Coleman Jr., Ph.D., Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Innovation Award. This program, run by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, provides one year of support for potentially high-impact projects by NIH researchers.
The other award-winning fellow is Natalie Saini, Ph.D., who received an NIH Career Transition Award, also known as a K99. This grant provides one to two years of mentored support to highly motivated postdoctoral research scientists, preparing them to launch independent research careers.
Both Gaston and Saini credit NIEHS for preparing them for success. In addition to top-notch mentoring and abundant training opportunities, they took advantage of valuable resources such as grant writing workshops and other professional development activities.
“The K99 and Coleman awards are indicative of the outstanding quality of research being conducted by Drs. Saini and Gaston, as well as the productive scientific partnerships they have developed with their mentors,” said Paul Doetsch, Ph.D., deputy scientific director of NIEHS and head of the Mutagenesis and DNA Repair Regulation Group.
Dealing with disparities
Gaston works in the lab of Chandra Jackson, Ph.D., who leads the NIEHS Social and Environmental Determinants of Health Equity Group. “I have received exceptional training from my mentor, Dr. Jackson, here at NIEHS,” Gaston said. “She has provided me with a pathway towards success and helped sharpen my research focus as I move towards independence.”
The goal of Gaston’s research is to identify and characterize environmental factors contributing to disparities in sleep health and cardiometabolic dysfunction. Compared with whites and individuals with a high socioeconomic status (SES), racial and ethnic minorities and individuals with a low SES are more likely to live in suboptimal sleep environments. This, in turn, may harm their cardiometabolic health.
“Knowing which environmental factors affect sleep and cardiometabolic health disparities can lead to the development of effective population-level interventions to reduce persistent health disparities,” Jackson said.
Navigating the mutational landscape
Saini is a visiting fellow in the NIEHS Mechanisms of Genome Dynamics Group, led by Dmitry Gordenin, Ph.D. “Natalie is ready to start a successful lab combining state-of-the-art molecular biology, genetics, genomics, and bioinformatics expertise,” Gordenin said. “A lab with such a synergistic interdisciplinary expertise has a very high chance of exciting discoveries that will place it in a leadership position.”
For her own part, Saini acknowledges that numerous bioinformatics training courses and the Integrative Bioinformatics Support Group have made it possible for her to get a foothold in this field.
Armed with this training and the NIEHS Environmental Polymorphisms Registry, she plans to assess how environmental and genetic factors influence the type and extent of mutations in human tissues that are either healthy or cancerous (see sidebar).
“I believe studies like these are essential to define normal and disease mutation levels,” Saini said. “Such classifications can be useful to develop strategies for cancer prevention.”
(Janelle Weaver, Ph.D., is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)