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Graduate Training Grants Spark New Discoveries in Biotechnology

May 19, 2008

Eleven graduate students from eight University of California campuses have been selected to each receive a $50,000 training grant, intended to hasten innovations in a variety of biotechnology-related fields.

The highly competitive Graduate Research and Education in Adaptive bioTechnology (GREAT) Training Grants total more than half a million dollars and are awarded by the UC Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program. The program funds a total of 22 new and continuing graduate students per year with the grants, which are among the highest individual awards given for graduate education and training anywhere in the nation.

"The GREAT training grant program is all about providing an environment that will nurture rapid advancements in technology in diverse fields such as nanotechnology and biomedical engineering," said Martina Newell McGloughlin, director of the UC Davis-based UC Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program.

"Each year, this spirited competition draws the brightest young minds from all of the UC campuses, with 11 graduate-student researchers selected on the basis of their demonstrated ability to understand and solve problems that cross over very different disciplines."

The two-year training awards support biotechnology-related research that incorporates cross-disciplinary training in areas that span essentially all fields of science, engineering, medicine and agriculture.

The program has graduated 22 students from the program, who have gone on to careers ranging from full-time faculty members in academia to biotechnology entrepreneurs.

At the January meeting of the UC Board of Regents, President Robert Dynes chose two 2007 GREAT students to illustrate the quality of the university's graduates and graduate education programs. The students were Emily Crawford, a UC San Francisco trainee in chemistry and chemical biology, and Lavi Secundo, a UC Berkeley trainee in neuroscience.

Crawford is developing a new technology for understanding the role of remodeler enzymes that dismantle cells during cell death. These could be the basis for new treatments in diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer. Secundo is developing a brain-controlled prosthesis capable of reproducing a wide range of motor and sensory functions. Such a device would allow patients with neurological problems to perform motor actions using only their thoughts.

This year's GREAT training grant recipients and their respective UC campuses are:

UC Berkeley

  • Bioengineering student David Breslauer, taking his cues from nature, is developing biologically inspired microfluidic spider silk spinning for high performance biomaterials, under the sponsorship of award winning sponsor Luke Lee, an associate professor of bioengineering.

UC Davis

  • Biomedical engineering student Chawin Ounkomol, with the support of Assistant Professor Volkmar Heinrich, has designed a new horizontal-force microscope to unravel the dynamic strengths of cadherin-mediated cell-cell interactions, which play a vital function in processes like the formation of tissues and organs and also have been implicated in cancer propagation.

UC Irvine

  • Neurobiology student Steven Michael Wiltgen, working with Professor Ian Parker, has created a new technique to image spatial correlates of single-channel function, important in studying cellular processes such as synaptic transmission and muscle contraction, which depend on both the molecular properties and the nanoscale localization of membrane ion channels.


  • Computer science student Christopher Jones, under the sponsorship of Nelson Freimer, a professor of psychiatry and behavior, is developing methodology for "phenomic" investigations to determine genetic factors that predispose people to devastating diseases of the brain.

UC San Diego

  • Bioengineering student Garrett Cale Smith is using chemical and structural nanotube engineering to develop enhanced bone regeneration of implant surfaces under the sponsorship of Sungho Jin, a distinguished professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

UC San Francisco

  • Chemical biology student Segun Williams, with sponsor Kevan Shokat, a professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology, is working on an unusual focus for one of the most important and ubiquitous signaling systems in cells, namely the kinase family. These are normally studied in conjunction with cancer research, but Segun is examining conformationally selective PI3 kinase inhibitors for the treatment of sepsis, a severe infection in the blood and tissues.
  • Chemistry student Daniel Gray under the tutelage of sponsor Jim Wells, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences, is working on apoptosis, which is a primary defense mechanism against cancer. Gray is developing techniques to identify and validate the minimal set of substrates required to induce apoptosis in order to define the "Achilles heel" of a cancer cell.

UC Santa Barbara

  • Biochemistry student Douglas Matje, with sponsor Norbert Reich, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is using directed enzyme evolution for nanotechnology applications. This may be useful in tracking DNA inside a living cell or in making new molecular-scale structures, such as nanowires, for use in miniature biomedical sensors that travel the bloodstream and monitor health.

UC Santa Cruz

  • Molecular and cellular biology student Jesse Richard Raab, working with Associate Professor Rohinton Kamakaka, is developing bioinformatics tools to identify and characterize important elements in gene regulation, since precise gene activity is crucial in human development. He is studying insulator elements, which are not well understood yet have important functions in gene expression in everything from yeast to mammals.
  • Electrical engineering student Oscar Azucena, under the sponsorship of Associate Professor Joel Kubby, is developing novel adaptive optics microscopy for deep tissue imaging. Since image degradation is a serious problem as light travels through thick biological specimens, this instrument will have widespread application in many fields of biology and biomedicine.
  • David Bernick, with sponsor Todd Lowe, an associate professor of biomolecular engineering, is working to develop methods for understanding how genes operate within a special class of microbes called the Archaea, which have some of the most unusual biology across all kingdoms and may have great potential for biotechnology applications.

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