Awards Spur Excellence in Research

By Medlin, Jennifer | Environmental Health Perspectives, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Awards Spur Excellence in Research


Medlin, Jennifer, Environmental Health Perspectives


Since the National Research Service Awards (NRSA) Program was enacted by Congress in 1974, the NIH has awarded institutional training grants to universities and research centers with the proven commitment and resources to nurture aspiring young scientists and train them for careers in biomedical, behavioral, and clinical research. As the NIH's primary means of supporting graduate and postdoctoral training, the since-renamed Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Program, now in its 30th year, seeks to prepare qualified individuals for careers that will have a significant impact on the nation's research agenda.

Program directors at the participating institutions--which are among the nation's top public and private research universities--select the trainees and develop a customized multidisciplinary curriculum of study and research experiences that together offer research training of the highest quality. Topics of study match areas of interest to the granting institute; at the NIEHS, these include molecular toxicology and epidemiology, neurotoxicology, toxicogenomics, biostatistics, bioinformatics, human and veterinary pathology, environmental health sciences, and occupational medicine.

"Topics of research are constantly evolving," says Carol Shreffler, who directs the program at the NIEHS. "Right now in the NIH, there is a big emphasis on interdisciplinary research."

In fiscal year 2003, as part of the NRSA Program, the NIEHS supported 49 institutional training grants totaling more than $19 million to fund 340 predoctoral and 106 postdoctoral trainees. The beneficiaries of the program are "the next generation of scientists," says Shreffler. "These are the new, young, vigorous individuals with innovative ideas who will carry on our research objectives in the future."

Groundwork for Growth

Each of the 49 NIEHS grantee institutions has a unique research focus, and all of them are known as trailblazers in their particular fields: "Whatever [research] they are doing, they are doing it better than anyone," Shreffler says. Trainees themselves are given the rare opportunity to work with and learn from faculty and principal investigators that are performing at the top of their fields.

During her postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University, former trainee Linda Distlerath, now vice president of global health policy for Merck and Company, studied the drug-metabolizing enzyme cytochrome P450. She and her colleagues sought to better understand the biochemical basis for genetic differences in drug metabolism and toxicity, and published a number of noteworthy papers, such as a 25 July 1985 report in the Journal of Biological Chemistry on potential polymorphisms involved in oxidative drug metabolism. "I feel very privileged to have been a part of that work--it was one of the seminal studies in the field at the time," she says. Distlerath still speaks reverentially of her mentor at Vanderbilt, Fred Guengerich. "He inspired high, high standards of quality, ethics, integrity, and validation of data," she says--standards she applies today at Merck.

Current trainee Christopher Toscano knew he wanted to conduct research that would advance science. Ultimately that desire brought him to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where he is using animal models to study the molecular mechanisms of calcium signaling pathways that are short-circuited by lead exposure.

In particular, Toscano is studying N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor proteins present in the membrane of brain neurons. Lead binds directly to the NMDA receptors with a high affinity and inhibits their activation, causing the influx of calcium--which normally occurs when the neuron fires--to decrease. Such decreases disrupt calcium signaling pathways, which can disrupt normal functioning of the neuron and contribute to learning and memory deficits seen in childhood lead exposure, Toscano explains.

Toscano says he is drawn to this research because it offers hope for prevention and reversal of lead-induced neurological defects. …

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