(Published in LINKS: Minority Research & Training - Spring 2011 )
NIA intramural research fellows represent the best and brightest students from across the United States and worldwide. The NIH Fellows Award for Research Excellence (FARE) is an annual competition that provides recognition for outstanding scientific research among these and other Institutes’ intramural fellows. The winners each receive a travel stipend to attend a scientific meeting where they present their abstract, either as a poster or a seminar. In addition, they present their work at one of the FARE poster sessions at NIH and judge the next year’s FARE competition.
2010 NIA FARE Winners
Suhasini Avvaru, Ph.D., Laboratory of Molecular Gerontology
After the U.S. equivalent of 10th grade, students in India must select whether they want to go into science or commerce. Their education, career, and future are based on that decision.
“Fortunately, my choice was not too difficult. I had a teacher who could make the most impractical science experiment interesting and showed us how the concepts behind the experiment could be useful in real life. I loved it. I knew that was the best path for me,” recalls Canugovi. Canugovi continued her studies in India, earning a Master’s degree in marine biotechnology. While in school, she met a student who had recently returned from a university in the U.S.
“I was intrigued by the opportunity to study abroad. In my program in India, we had state-of-the-art technology at our fingertips, but few people knew how to use it to its full potential. It was somewhat limiting. I thought studying in America might give me a boost,” explains Canugovi.
The only problem was that both Canugovi and her husband (then fiancé), also a scientist, needed to find a program of interest in the U.S. or neither could go. Fortunately, Canugovi got into a Master’s program at the University of Texas in San Antonio, and her husband was accepted at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. After a semester apart, Canugovi was accepted into a Biochemistry doctoral program at Wayne State. Her research was focused on the effect of transcription on AID mutagenesis, a protein that is essential for antibody development. Her thesis work described how genes can be modified to make the “evolutionary leap” necessary to counter infection.
After finishing their studies, Canugovi and her husband found themselves in a familiar predicament. They each needed to find a postdoc opportunity that met their interests and career goals and were in proximate locations. Baltimore, Maryland, lived up to its nickname—the charm city. Canugovi’s husband found a position at Johns Hopkins University, and she got a placement at NIA.
“I was really drawn to NIA’s Laboratory of Molecular Gerontology. I didn’t have a background in gerontology, but I saw a natural connection between my study of DNA damage repair with aging. Both are a consequence of oxidative damage. I could continue basic research on DNA repair and apply it to aging and aging-related syndromes,” says Canugovi.
Under the mentorship of NIA researcher Vilhelm Bohr, M.D., Ph.D., Canugovi studies DNA repair in mitochondria. She is specifically looking at a protein called mitochondrial transcription factor A (TFAM). She received a 2010 FARE for this work. During the FARE day poster session, Canugovi presented findings that indicate TFAM helps in modulating a mechanism to fix DNA damage called base excision repair (BER). TFAM protects the DNA from damage as well as unnecessary repairs by binding normal and damaged DNA, inhibiting BER.
Canugovi credits some of her success to good mentorship. “I’ve been lucky to be mentored by people like Dr. Deborah Croteau and Lab Chief Dr. Vilhelm Bohr. I’m learning new techniques as well as how to manage a lab. Dr. Bohr gives postdocs the freedom to come up with their own research ideas and asks thought-provoking questions to help us decide if those projects are reasonable. Also, because it’s a pretty big lab, I have the chance to get a lot of helpful input from colleagues who have expertise in different areas. I always knew collaboration was the key to success, but here I’ve learned firsthand that it not only saves time but also helps you to think outside the box.”
It’s been about two-and-a-half years since Canugovi came to NIA. It’s time to once again think about the next step in her career. Meanwhile, she’s been practicing grant writing for NIH funding to continue her work.
“I’ve learned that being a scientist requires 110% effort and drive. I’m hoping that my passion pays off and in about 3 to 5 years from now I’m an independent researcher here or in India.”
When not at the bench, Canugovi enjoys watching movies and traveling around DC and beyond. “My favorite place is the Mayflower festival in Holland—Michigan, that is. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, acres and acres of tulip flowers.”
“I wanted to come to America for a postdoctoral fellowship. It is very hard for scientists in Italy. The Federal government supports much more research here. You can get more done and publish more papers. Also, here scientists are able to interact with leaders in the field and develop collaborations, whereas in Italy you have very limited access to senior scientists,” says Caracciolo.
Caracciolo started looking online for positions in the United States. As part of his search, he contacted several investigators at NIH, including Italian researcher Francesca Bosetti, Pharm.D., Ph.D., at the NIA. Bosetti and her laboratory in the Brain Physiology and Metabolism Section seemed to be a perfect match for Caracciolo. For one, they both did research related to his work on the glutamate receptor, a system that has been found to have a role in multiple neurological and psychiatric disease models, including schizophrenia and depression. And, two, working with an Italian investigator would help Caracciolo with the initial language barrier. The University of Brescia invited Bosetti to come to Italy to talk about her research. As Caracciolo hoped, Bosetti and he were a good match.
“During her visit, we initiated a research collaboration which began at the University of Brescia and finished at NIA in Maryland,” he recalls.
Caracciolo came to NIA in November 2009. Building on his graduate work, Caracciolo continued to study the glutamate receptor. His FARE research focused on the glutamate receptor in a strain of genetically altered mice that lack the COX-2 gene. Cyclooxygenase, or COX, has been implicated in neurological function and neurodegenerative disease and now, based in part on Caracciolo’s studies, is thought to have a role in glutamate receptor activity. He believes this research could have important future clinical implications for diseases with an inflammatory component, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Completing his work at NIA over the coming months allows Caracciolo to open a new door in his career. He is now interested in studying stroke and stroke recovery as a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA. This research has a personal meaning to him, “My father had a stroke, and this fellowship will be an opportunity to learn more about something that has touched my family’s life.”
While he looks forward to this new research opportunity, he will miss working with Bosetti. “She is a great teacher. She taught me new experimental techniques and would give me papers to study. She wants people in her laboratory to grow as researchers and have freedom to develop their own studies. She is always available to answer questions, and during meetings she can be counted on to ask critical questions that help direct our work.”
Caracciolo hopes that his new fellowship position at UCLA may lead into something more permanent at a university, “I’d love to teach and do research.”
He says that when he’s not running around in the lab, he enjoys running outside. And in his limited free time, he unwinds by socializing with friends, cooking, traveling, and learning about different people’s traditions.
Koster’s research career began in her native Netherlands. “My first research project was a master thesis focusing on the relationship between nutrition and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). I conducted the research while earning a Master of Science in Nutrition and Health at Wageningen University and a Master of Science in Epidemiology through the Netherlands Epidemiological Society. I really enjoyed epidemiological research and knew I needed a Ph.D. if I wanted to continue down that path,” says Koster.
The Ph.D. application process is particularly challenging in the Netherlands. Students apply to a 4-year research position rather than an academic program. Her Ph.D. project looked at the influences of socioeconomic status on health in old age and identified possible explanations for these differences. As part of her background research, Koster spent 6 months at Wake Forest University’s Sticht Center on Aging working with NIA’s Health ABC data. That’s when she first got in touch with Tamara Harris, M.D., M.S., from NIA’s Laboratory of Epidemiology, Demography, and Biometry. Harris later became Koster’s mentor.
“I had the chance to work with top researchers in the field and became even more interested in the epidemiology of aging. I also had a chance to attend the Gerontological Society of America conference where I learned about the breadth of the work in the field of aging. All these factors helped me realize my research calling,” explains Koster.
It has been 5 years since Koster received her Ph.D. in Health Sciences from the Maastricht University, Department of Health Care Studies, section of Medical Sociology, and came to NIA for a postdoc fellowship in Harris’s lab. During her time at NIA, Koster has published 25 papers and mentored many students. In 2010, she received a FARE for her work using the Health ABC data to identify what separates people who are obese and healthy (good cholesterol levels, healthy blood pressure, normal glucose levels, etc.) from those who are obese and unhealthy. She found that even though the healthy and unhealthy groups have approximately the same body mass index (BMI), the healthy group has lower visceral (belly) fat and more thigh fat compared to the unhealthy group. According to Koster, the work could have clinical relevance, “My findings provide evidence to suggest that doctors should also look at where fat is located, not just the BMI.”
Even though Koster’s fellowship is coming to an end and she already has plans to start her academic career in the Netherlands, her work with NIA will continue. She is currently setting up a sub-study of NIA’s Age, Gene/Environment Susceptibility (AGES)-Reykjavik Study in Iceland using an accelerometer to objectively measure intensity of physical activity. Most current measures of physical activity are subjective, based on questionnaires that ask participants, for example, how active they were last week. In Koster’s protocol, researchers will examine 80-year olds to determine how specific activity levels and daily activity pattern relate to their health.
“I’ve been lucky with Dr. Harris as my supervisor. She gave me freedom to find my own research direction and let me lead the set up of an ancillary study within the AGES-Reykjavik Study. I’m leaving my fellowship not just knowing how to use data, but with experience setting up protocols and establishing working relationships with collaborators.”
When not working in the office, Koster enjoys working out. She goes to the gym several times a week and loves bicycling/ She jokes, “I’m from the Netherlands, we’re born on a bike.”
Read more about NIA’s fellowship program, and learn more about other NIA fellows in the spring 2010 issue of Links, www.nia.nih.gov/about/features/links-minority-research-training-spring-2010.