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RNA Science Training is Rewarded by NIH

The new RNA Fellows, who will take advantage of a $1.1 million NIH training grant, gather at the Life Sciences Research Building. They are, left to right, front row, May Yue Lee (nanobiosciences), Zhixue Bai (chemistry), Anwesha Sarkar (biology), Kahini Sarkar (biology); back row, Tristen Head (nanobiosciences), Priyanka Sehta (biology), Nicole Ralbovsky (chemistry), Rachel Fay (biomedical sciences) and Jesus Frias (biology). Absent were Ali Ropri (biomedical sciences), Pheonah Badu (biology), and Ya Ying Zheng (chemistry). (Photos by Patrick Dodson)

RNA Institute biological scientists Thomas Begley, principal investigator on the $1.1 million T32 grant, and Marlene Belfort, co-PI and Distinguished Professor of Biology. 

ALBANY, N.Y. (Aug. 6, 2019) — Success is breeding success for UAlbany’s rigorous graduate school training program in RNA science.

A new $1.114 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health to the RNA Fellows Program is positive proof. The award will enlarge the yearly cohort of new fellows by three additional students for each of the next five years. Along with support from UAlbany's office of the Dean of the Graduate School and SUNY Polytechnic Institute, the fellows will number a record 12 this year, far above their past cohort peak of seven.

The award, an NIH T32 instructional grant titled “RNA Science and Technology in Health and Disease,” enlarges the scope of the program as well, adding nanobioscience students to those from the departments of Biological Sciences, Biomedical Sciences and Chemistry. The new group of students reflects the Fellows Program, with the new grant, becoming a formal SUNY collaboration between UAlbany and SUNY Poly.

Plus, optional tracks are being created for fellows that involve writing excellence and entrepreneurship through programs with the New York State Writers Institute and the UAlbany Innovation Center.

An Expanded Academic Lineup for Students

“The T32 program will continue to train graduate students in the principles of RNA and related technologies that have applications in human health and disease, but now supports a truly comprehensive, intellectually rigorous and individualized graduate training experience,” said Thomas Begley, professor of biology, director of the RNA Fellows program and principal investigator (PI) on the grant.

“Our training program will provide a cadre of scientists that can transition to careers in science and technology companies, science communication organizations, public service or academia — all of which provide important components that help ensure the public health.”

Begley pointed to the RNA Fellows’ first four years as the key to obtaining the new NIH grant. “Our RNA Fellows have outstanding records of achievement in class work, research and at national conferences,” he said. “They are highly competitive for national awards and other training opportunities. The first cohort (2015-16) has begun to graduate and land jobs in academic, government and industrial settings.”

Andy Berglund, director of the RNA Institute, noted, “The vision and hard work of professors Marlene Belfort and Tom Begley in developing the RNA graduate fellows program has been recognized by this prestigious NIH T32 training grant. I am excited to work with the faculty to implement the vision of this innovative program and provide our graduate students with an outstanding training environment to prepare them for successful careers in academia, industry, non-profit and government.”

Belfort, the program’s original director, UAlbany Distinguished Professor of Biology and a co-PI on the grant, said, “We’re thrilled to have landed the NIH training grant, in view of strong national competition. There’s no question that the excellent track record of our RNA Fellows gave us the competitive edge.” She expressed gratitude for the support the program received over the past four years from Graduate School Dean Kevin Williams and his office, and from the UAlbany departments.

“A worthwhile investment!” she concluded. “And I’m also happy to say that there’s already a very strong esprit de corps among the new fellows, who gathered recently at an off-campus RNA Institute retreat.”

Nathaniel Cady, T32 grant co-PI and Empire Innovation Professor of Nanobioscience
Nathaniel Cady, T32 grant co-PI and Empire Innovation Professor of Nanobioscience.

A Formal Connection with SUNY Poly

While members of SUNY Poly’s Colleges of Nanoscale Sciences and Engineering (CNSE) and the RNA Institute have had mentoring and grassroots research links for years, the T32 training grant, said Begley, “creates a significant formal training link that should allow our students to benefit from unique resources at CNSE and UAlbany, and demonstrates how we can work together to develop joint programs.”

“The T32 program helps to strengthen our growing interdisciplinary research efforts in nanotechnology and biology,” said Nathaniel Cady, professor of nanobioscience at CNSE and PI on the T32 subcontract. “In particular, the partnership and expanded training opportunities will help us to expand CNSE’s new MS/PhD degree program in nanobioscience.”

Paul Grondahl, director of the Writers Institute, said: “We were honored to be asked to join this team effort by helping to provide applicable literary programming that will enrich the writing skills of the RNA Fellows. We also will work alongside noted science writer and editor Anette Breindl, who will lead intensive writing workshops for the fellows.

“We look forward to playing a role in preparing a new generation of scientists who can communicate their research effectively for a general audience.”

Robert Manasier, entrepreneur-in-residence of the UAlbany Innovation Center and Innovate 518, the Capital Region’s state-designated “innovation hotspot,” said: “The Innovation Center is dedicated to providing business resources and industry collaboration partners to UAlbany’s grant recipients and projects. We are excited for the RNA Institute as this grant will create further opportunities for cross-collaboration across our campuses and deeper involvement among our faculty, students and innovation assets.”

Along with the new T32 grant, the RNA Fellows Program is supported by more than $1 million in matching funds from academic colleges, departments and offices at UAlbany and SUNY Poly.

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