On behalf of Dean Richard Libby, it is our pleasure to announce the 2023 PhD Award recipients:
The Wallace O. Fenn Award
Griffin Schroeder (Biochemistry)
Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is a key intermediate in the transmission of genetic information from DNA to proteins. Beyond this passive role as an information carrier, some RNAs can adopt complex three-dimensional architectures that impart biological function. For example, riboswitches are folded RNAs that directly sense specific intracellular metabolites. The RNA-metabolite handshake leads to riboswitch conformational changes that control downstream gene expression. Although most riboswitches sense a single metabolite, Griffin discovered that class 1 type I prequeuosine1 (preQ1) riboswitches recognize two metabolites in a single binding pocket, causing positive cooperativity (i.e., binding of the first metabolite enhances binding of the second and vice versa). This novel observation has implications for development of new biorthogonal antibacterials that target both metabolite binding sites simultaneously. Griffin also showed that the knotted fold of the preQ1 riboswitch is more important for gene regulation than burial of signal sequences that specify polypeptide synthesis. This finding has implications for the discovery of new riboswitches and the structures used by RNAs for gene regulation.
The Vincent du Vigneaud Award
Jessica Ackerman (Pathology)
Jess Ackerman is the 2023 recipient of Vincent du Vigneaud Award. This award is based on a student’s unique “potential for stimulating and extending research in their field”. Jess's PhD thesis was entitled “Lineage Tracing and Spatial Transcriptomics Illustrate the Role of Myofibroblasts During Fibrotic Tendon Healing". This project was focused on the clinical challenge of post-operative scar formation following surgical repair of acute tendon injuries. This complication has a dramatic impact on patient quality of life, and there are currently no biological therapies in use to improve the healing process. A key barrier to the identification of therapeutic targets is the limited understanding of the cell and molecular environment during healing.
Defining these mechanisms in a spatially-informed way has high translational relevance as there are organized tissue regions indicative of ideal tissue repair, and areas of high disorganization associated with function-limiting scar formation, and defining these processes further inform therapeutic selection. To address this massive gap in knowledge, Jess turned to the emerging technology of spatial transcriptomics. This technique allows high-resolution molecular profiling while retaining relevant spatial and morphological tissue information. Jess began this work in the Fall of 2019. At the time, there were only a handful of peer-reviewed studies in the literature outlining this technology in any tissue, and the first commercially available kit had just been launched.
Jess generated a comprehensive spatial-molecular atlas of tendon healing. This resource (Ackerman et al., Cell Reports. 2022) provides an unprecedented characterization of the tendon healing process, can be queried to answer a nearly endless of list of open questions in the field, and has already catalyzed several new areas of investigation.
The Leadership Award for Excellence in Equity and Inclusion
Raven Osborn (Translational Biomedical Science)
Raven Osborn is the 2023 recipient of the Leadership Award for Excellence in Equity and Inclusion. This award recognizes a PhD student for “outstanding effort in advancing equity and inclusion throughout their graduate career at the School of Medicine and Dentistry (SMD).”
Raven has described herself as “a first-generation college graduate… [who is] passionate about advocacy, building pipelines, and mentoring underrepresented people in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).” She has also said that “I want to do my part to ensure that the path is clearer for those who come after me.” Her actions underscore her words.
She was the co-founder (2018), Inaugural Treasurer (2018-2020) and later President (2020-2021) of the University of Rochester’s (UR) chapter of the Alliance for Diversity in Science and Engineering (ADSE). In those roles, she was instrumental in establishing one of the first on-campus affinity groups for graduate students, which not only gave learners from groups underrepresented in science and medicine a voice at our institution, but also provided them with a venue in which to express their experiences, opinions, and needs.
In addition, Raven is a member of the student accountability panel that meets monthly with administrative leadership to ensure that SMD upholds its commitments to improving the culture and climate for our graduate learners. She has also served as the co-chair of Rochester’s Young Science Club (2018-2019), helping to bring gifted and underserved middle school students into science. Importantly, Raven has done all of this while still being a very successful and productive graduate student.
In conclusion, and in words of her fellow PhD student, Adrián Moises Molina Vargas, “Raven Osborn is a selfless leader who has been pivotal in creating a more equitable and accessible place for trainees at the U of R. Her legacy is the foundation of a better, stronger, cohesive, and more equitable University.
Thank you to the selection committee and to all who nominated.