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NHGRI Intramural, Extramural Researchers win NIH Independence Awards

This article has been updated to clarify funding sources for the investigators who won the awards.

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Seven researchers from or funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute have won the National Institutes of Health Pathway to Independence Awards, which supports young postdoctoral investigators' studies and their transition to becoming independent researchers.

The award winners will use the funds to engage in genomics research in a wide range of studies, such as understanding more about the microbes that colonize the human body, characterizing and targeting leukemia stem cells, and the role of microRNAs in type 2 diabetes.

This round of awards includes four intramural scientists at NHGRI and three researchers who are funded by the institute. The awards support scientists through two phases — a two-year supervised mentoring component and a three-year phase in which the researchers begin the transition toward independence.

The first phase, the Scholar Development Phase, provides up to $90,000 per year for researches who work under mentors and spend a minimum of 75 percent of their time on their research and career development.

For the independent Faculty Transition Phase, NHGRI will provide up to $250,000 per year for three extramural research award winners including Barbara Engelhardt of the University of Chicago's Department of Human Genetics and Statistics, Jinchuan Xing of the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Utah, and Michael Hoffman of the University of Washington.

NHGRI investigators including Elizabeth Grice, Kathleen Hyde, Praveen Sethupathy, and Michael Stitzel, will receive funding through other NIH institutes.

Grice has spent five years working with Senior Investigator Julie Segre at NHGRI's Genetics and Molecular Biology Branch studying the human skin microbiome and how it is involved in wound healing. She will soon leave NHGRI to continue her studies in a tenure-track post in the Department of Dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Having mentors and role models has been a key part of my success," she said. "I pictured myself in the same roles as my mentors. These experiences make me realize that my future role as a mentor is very important, especially in encouraging young women to seek careers in science," Grice said in a statement.

Hyde has been working at NHGRI's Division of Intramural Research under its Deputy Director, Paul Liu, studying a family of genes involved in leukemia. Her future research will focus on characterizing leukemia stem cells and finding ways to target them with new drugs.

Sethupathy has worked in the lab of former NHGRI Director and now NIH Director Francis Collins, studying computational strategies for investigating the role of gene regulation in complex diseases, such as type 2 diabetes.

Sethupathy, who has recently taken a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also has been pursuing research into the roles of microRNAs in gene expression.

"I am interested in assessing the role of microRNAs in the etiology of type 2 diabetes and related metabolic disorders, and whether they can be pursued as novel therapeutic targets," he explained. He also said that winning the Pathway to Independence grant "can be quite helpful as a validation to employers and collaborators of one's scientific ideas and as a marker of one's future ability to write successful grant proposals."

Stitzel, who spent a five-year postdoctoral research fellowship in the NHGRI Molecular Genetics Section with Collins, studies how genetic variation in non-coding, regulatory regions of the human genome contribute to diversity and to genetic susceptibility to diseases. He plans to pursue a tenure track position either in the NIH Intramural Program or at academic centers or medical institutes.

The extramural researcher projects funded under these awards include Engelhardt's research into statistical models to investigate long-distance QTL transcription regulation; Xing's studies of high-throughput mobile element genotyping using next-generation sequencing; and Hoffman's efforts to discover patterns for comparative epigenomics.