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Bringing RNA to Life

Chemistry professor earns prestigious NSF CAREER award

Alan Chen, assistant chemistry professor.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Dec. 6, 2016) – Assistant chemistry professor Alan Chen is dedicated to bringing complex RNA molecules to life through 3D computer simulation.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) will be joining him on the challenge.

Chen, a member of The RNA Institute at UAlbany, has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from NSF. The 5-year research grant supports junior faculty who exemplify excellence in teaching, research, and the integration of education and research to advance the mission of their organization.

Each year, more than 2,500 faculty members nationwide apply for CAREER awards, with fewer than 20 percent chosen to receive grants. It is one of the most prestigious honors early-career researchers can receive.

“We are delighted that Dr. Chen has been given such an important recognition by a national review panel. I am confident that his research will significantly advance our understanding of nanoscale RNA folding when examined under imposed structural constraints.” said James Dias, Vice President for Research. “This award yet again shows that The RNA Institute at UAlbany attracts the highest caliber of young scientists who seek an environment for limitless professional growth achievable on a competitive timescale.”

“Alan represents the highest ideals in independent, innovative and collaborative young faculty of any U.S. research university,” added Paul Agris, Director of The RNA Institute. “It is obvious from the CAREER award that the peer review panel thought as much, as well. The RNA Institute and the Department of Chemistry are fortunate to have successfully recruited Alan for his insights into the computer modeling of RNA molecules and their functions in regulating gene function.”

Chen will receive a total of $836,495 for his project titled “Predicting high-resolution RNA tertiary structures using an experimentally calibrated force-field for RNA folding.”

Alan Chen in front of the life sciences building.
Alan Chen (right) is using his expertise in RNA simulation to help fight human disease. (Photo by Mark Schmidt)

The project’s primary goal is to develop accurate computer simulations of RNA molecules, by using nanoscale measurements. Chen said that though researchers have become quite good at simulating the structure of proteins, the results have been much more disappointing when attempting to simulate RNA. In fact, many RNA computer models have not been improved in nearly 20 years.

With RNA therapeutics playing a major role in fighting some of the most difficult human diseases, Chen believes it’s imperative for industry researchers to be able to view accurate structural models.

“This project is enabling my experimental colleagues to actually ‘see’ on their computer screen the 3D shape of the molecules they have been manipulating ‘in the dark’ all these years,” Chen said. “For me, this grant is a major vote of confidence from my scientific peers that they agree RNA simulations need to be fixed and that my proposed strategies to accomplish this are innovative and worth trying. This is a huge vindication of all the hard work my students and postdocs have invested in these projects.”

Beyond Chen’s research, the CAREER award will also be providing support for UAlbany’s World of Chemistry Living-Learning Community (L-LC) students to visit biotech companies and network with industry professionals on the East Coast.

Chen has been volunteering to lead the World of Chemistry L-LC for the last three years. He included the networking idea in his proposal. NSF will pay van/bus rental fees for the duration of Chen’s grant.

“As the L-LC leader, I’ve wanted to take our students on field trips to biotech companies so they could see firsthand what jobs are possible for them,” Chen said. “Previously there was no way to pay for the transportation to get them there. Thanks to the NSF, I have already begun coordinating with my biotech contacts to make this happen starting in fall 2017.”

Chen is The RNA Institute’s second NSF CAREER award receipt, with the first being biology professor Pan Li. Since arriving to UAlbany in 2014, Chen credits Agris and Li Niu, chair of the University’s Chemistry Department, for being supportive of his research.

“I certainly would not have gotten this grant without Li Niu’s tireless work building a department that is highly-supportive of young faculty at every turn, which is a rarity in this hyper-competitive era of scientific research,” Chen said. “Along similar lines, I also would not have been successful without Paul Agris’ vision in creating The RNA Institute. My experimental collaborators are not only a joy to work with but are absolutely essential for my computational research program to succeed.”

To learn more about Chen’s research, visit the Chen-RNA Lab website. Additional information on the NSF CAREER award is available here.

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