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Nurturing Tomorrow’s RNA Researchers

RNA Fellows from 2015-16 and 2016-17, left to right, Marissa Louis, Rebecca D'Esposito, Casey Warszycki, Rachel Nelson, Botros Toro, Rachel Cary, Justin Waldern and Alicia McCarthy. (Photo by Carlo de Jesus) 

ALBANY, N.Y. (July 18, 2016) — The world’s future science leaders face a playing field of increased specialization and team-driven research, and six new graduate RNA Fellows are set to receive the kind of comprehensive training across curriculum boundaries that prepares them for that world, and to move advances in RNA science into beneficial technologies.

Three Ph.D. candidates in biology — Marissa Louis, Botros Toro and Justin Waldern — two in biomedical sciences — Ryan McDowell and Casey Warszycki — and one in chemistry, Carlos Andino, comprise the second-year cohort of the University’s RNA Training Program.

The program is a collaboration of the Office of Graduate Education, departments of Biological Sciences, Biomedical Sciences, and Chemistry, and The RNA Institute. Faculty from these areas have together created an interdisciplinary curriculum that provides comprehensive access to faculty, techniques and research collaborations.

Biologist Marlene Belfort, Distinguished Professor and director of the program, said the inaugural year showed the program to be beneficial both to its student cohort and the University’s academic mission. “It was gratifying to see the group coalesce over their RNA-centric coursework and research interests into a spirited bunch,” she said. “They provided a terrific training component to the research activities of The RNA Institute.”

The fellows, each guided by a faculty mentor, take an RNA-centric curriculum of courses and colloquia. The latter includes a once-per-month RNA Fellows Colloquium, in which each UAlbany fellow presents their current work to a regional gathering of graduate school scholars, their mentors and colleagues..

“Receiving the fellowship was a pleasant surprise,” said Marissa Louis, a Carson Carr Scholar who will be studying the Zika virus within RNA cells, mentored by biologist Cara Pager. “I am excited at the prospect of enriching my knowledge of RNA research.”

“I look forward to the collaborative nature of the fellowship and the community it builds,” said Waldern, whose mentor is Belfort. “The monthly RNA Fellows Colloquium is a great opportunity to get together and discuss your own research while keeping up with what everyone else in the RNA field is working on,”

Rachel Cary, a fellow a year ago, lauded the interdisciplinary nature of the program. "RNA is an intrinsically difficult molecule to study and through the fellowship courses I was able to learn a plethora of methods relevant to my research that allowed me to further analyze viral RNA," she said.

The idea for the RNA Training Program came from Belfort and Paul Agris, director of The RNA Institute. Belfort has previously administered training programs for UAlbany students in the Capital Region, including one for biomedical science students to study infections disease at the state’s Wadsworth Labs, and a biotechnology training program at RPI.

With strong support from the three science departments, The RNA Training Program allows a unique concentration on various areas of RNA science and, by providing a stipend, frees students to explore research areas with greater intensity.

“The biggest gift the program gives me is time,” said new fellow Toro, who is investigating nucleic acid interactions using the Institute’s mass spectrometer, with Associate Professor Pan Li as his mentor. “I’ll be running more experiments, analyzing more data, and writing up more of my results.”

As the program matures, it will form the basis for an application to National Institutes of Health to support future years of the fellowship.

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