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(L to R): Phil Shiu, Nichole Collins, Carolina Salguero, and Jonathan Russell

The National Science Foundation has offered four MCB graduate students its Graduate Research Fellowship, and three others received honorable mentions. The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) awardees are Nichole Collins (G2, Murray Lab), Jonathan Russell (G1), Carolina Salguero (G1), Philip Shiu (G2, Hunter Lab). Russell is declining his NSF award and accepting two fellowships from the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowships Program and the Hertz Foundation Graduate Fellowship Program. The five graduate students who received GRFP honorable mentions are Kathleen Fleming (G1), Kristian Herrera (G1), Olga Minkina (G2, Mango Lab), Joe Piechura (G1) and Nick Weir (G2, Denic Lab).

About the Research

Nichole Collins is interested in how regulatory behaviors, which allow organisms to match their activities to environmental conditions, arise in evolution. Studying how organisms adapt to selection from environmental pressures is crucial to understanding and combating emerging diseases, resistance to antibiotics and antiviral therapies, and cancer resistance to chemotherapy. Collins proposes to evolve a new connection between a stimulus, such as a change in an environmental variable, and a response in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. She will determine the genetic changes that give rise to the new connection and how the evolved mechanism depends on the parameters of the selection. She is committed to science education and hopes her work will help advance public understanding of evolution.

Jonathan Russell is interested in the evolution of protein function in microbes. He will be working with a technology in the David Liu lab called Phage-assisted continuous evolution (PACE), which was developed by 2011 Hertz Fellow and MCB graduate student Kevin Esvelt, to design and engineer novel protein functions. Russell intends to evolve photosensitive genetic switches to allow for very fast information transfer into and out of cells, allowing gene networks and whole cells to be used as biocatalysts in processes that require strict spatial and temporal control. This would effectively make optogenetics possible for any genetic circuit. He also plans to expand the genetic code, using continuous directed evolution to evolve novel tRNA synthetases that could incorporate many unnatural amino acids into proteins. Ultimately he would use this expanded genetic code to evolve polymers with unique and novel capabilities, such as synthetic proteins with novel electromagnetic, fluorescent properties, or the ability to do new kinds of biocatalytic tranformations. He sees his work as a powerful combination of the elegance of evolution and the practical significance of chemical transformations.

Carolina Salguero works at the interface of structural biology and virology. She will be engaging in structural and functional studies to achieve a mechanistic understanding of how retroviruses, like HIV-1, use regulatory motifs to control the frequency of frameshifting events. During translation, frameshifting occurs when RNA regulatory motifs direct the ribosome to shift one nucleotide backwards, and thus continuing translation in a new reading frame. Her long-term goal is to use Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) to solve the structure of the active RNA motif that regulates the frequency of frameshifting in HIV-1. She believes this work will push the boundaries of NMR and help advance the field of RNA structural biology. She plans to continue mentoring undergraduate students who have been involved in this research project.

Phil Shiu contends that the therapeutic potential of RNA interference (RNAi), which can selectively and robustly knockdown genes in vivo, is hindered by the current inability to effectively deliver these silencing cues to target tissues in the body. He proposes to use the roundworm, C. elegans, to characterize how silencing cues are naturally exported from tissue to tissue. Prior to his research, no genes had been assigned the role of such export. He has identified candidate genes and their targets and will be investigating their properties, interactions, and movements. Shiu hopes that his research provides direction for future research aimed at therapies and that other researchers may package these signals for therapy. Shiu also discusses the potential of RNAi therapies at the Science in the News (SITN) program that educates the public about science.

About the Awards

The National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) provides a three-year annual stipend of $30,000 with a $10,500 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees, opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct her own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose. Jonathan Russell will be on the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowships Program for his first three years ($31,000 annual stipend plus a $10,500 cost of education allowance) and the Hertz Foundation Graduate Fellowship Program for the next two years ($36,000 annual stipend plus a 10,500 cost of education allowance).

Here are the links for further information:

National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP): https://www.fastlane.nsf.gov/grfp/AwardeeList.do?method=loadAwardeeList

National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowships Program: http://www.nsfgrfp.org/about_the_program

Hertz Foundation Graduate Fellowship Program: http://www.hertzfoundation.org/dx/fellowships/award.aspx