Two UF students win prestigious HHMI awards
GAINESVILLE, Fla.Â — Natali Di Russo works in computational biology in the University of Floridaâ€™s department of chemistry and Quantum Theory Project. Francisca Leal is investigating how evolution of the genome affects embryonic development.
Their research differs, but the two doctoral students have one thing in common: Both have been awarded a coveted Howard Hughes Medical InstituteÂ International Student Research Fellowship for 2013-14.
The prestigious $43,000-a-year grants cover the third, fourth and fifth year of doctoral research for international students in biology, chemistry, physics, math, computer science, engineering, plant biology and interdisciplinary research.
The HHMI program is in its third year and was designed for outstanding international students, who are often excluded from other top fellowship opportunities, such as those offered by the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health. To qualify, a student must be invited and must be studying at one of 61 HHMI institutions.
Di Russo,Â from Argentina, is conducting research on environmentally friendly ways to break the chemical bond of the oxygen molecule in the laboratory of Adrian Roitberg, the Col. Allen and Margaret G. Crow Term professor in the department of chemistry. Breaking the oxygen bond requires high energy, and current processes use expensive metals. Di Russo is researching the use of enzymes to weaken the bond, making it possible to break the oxygen bond without using metals. Such a breakthrough would allow for the development of new industrial and pharmaceutical applications, Roitberg said.
Leal,Â from Colombia, is investigating the evolution of limblessness in snakes, a problem investigated in the 1990s by her mentor, professor Martin Cohn, who was named a HHMI Early Career Scientist in 2009. Advances in genomics created an opportunity to revisit this question, and Leal discovered that a gene required for limb formation actually flickers on briefly but then goes silent. Although Cohn missed that development years ago, he said, â€śIt is really quite gratifying to have my earlier work corrected by my own student.â€ť
Another Cohn student, Oscar Tarazona, was named a HHMI International Student Fellow in 2011, the programâ€™s first year, and, coincidentally, is married to Leal. Tarazona, also from Colombia, studies the relationship between genomic control of embryonic development and evolution, with a focus on the genetic recipe for cartilage in evolution. He is pioneering the use of invertebrates as models to study cartilage development and disease.
Cohn said the odds of having two graduate students who are husband and wife receive the same award would seem slim, but their work ethic makes it unsurprising.
â€śEach is as smart and accomplished as the other,â€ť said Cohn, who is the only HHMI scientist in Florida. â€śWhen your work is subject to peer review at the dinner table every night, itâ€™s going to make you a better scientist.â€ť
Leal said the award â€śbuilds up my confidence as a young scientist and allows me to think about riskier but more rewarding scientific questions.”
HHMI awarded 42 fellowships this year, and now supports 140 students from 35 countries who have shown promise as scientific investigators.