Each year, NIH nominates outstanding young scientists for the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to scientists beginning their independent research careers. The scientists are selected for their innovative research record, potential to continue on this productive route and community service activities. Among this year’s PECASE recipients (nominated in 2014) are two NIGMS grantees, Tufts University’s Aimee Shen (who started her career at the University of Vermont) and Montana State University’s Blake Wiedenheft (who was the inaugural NIGMS Director’s Early Career Investigator Lecturer). Both scientists launched their labs with support from our Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, which fosters health-related research and enhances the competitiveness of investigators at institutions in states with historically low levels of NIH funding.
Below, they answer questions about their research and community service efforts, offer advice to other early career scientists, and share their experiences with the IDeA program.
What is the focus of your research?
Blake Wiedenheft: Viruses that infect bacteria (i.e., bacteriophages) are the most abundant biological entities on earth. The selective pressures imposed by these pervasive predators have a profound impact on the composition and the behavior of microbial communities in every ecological setting. In my lab, we rely on a combination of techniques from bioinformatics, genetics, biochemistry and structural biology to understand the mechanisms that bacteria use to defend themselves from viral infection.
Aimee Shen: My lab studies Clostridium difficile, the leading cause of healthcare-associated infection in the United States. C. difficile forms metabolically dormant cells known as spores that allow the microbe to survive exit from the gastrointestinal tract of a mammalian host. My research is directed at understanding how C. difficile spores form in order to transmit infection and how they germinate and transform into disease-causing cells to initiate infection.
We’re pleased that two long-time NIGMS grantees have been recognized with the 2015 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their studies of the repair processes that correct damage affecting base pairing or causing a distortion in the helical structure of DNA. This comes on the heels of the 2015 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, which was also given for discoveries concerning the DNA-damage response.
Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar, who will share the Nobel Prize with Tomas Lindahl, have received continuous support from us since 1975 and 1982, respectively. By asking questions about basic cellular processes, these scientists have provided a detailed understanding of some of the molecular repair mechanisms involved in health and disease.
Like any groundbreaking research, their studies have raised numerous other important questions. Some of these include: How do cells sense damaged DNA? How are the proteins that repair damaged regions cleared from the DNA after repairs are complete? How can we specifically undermine the DNA repair systems in cancerous cells so that those cells die?
For more details about the Nobel Prize-winning work, see our statement and links to additional material.
We congratulate our long-time grantee Steve Elledge of Brigham and Women’s Hospital on being recognized with the 2015 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for “discoveries concerning the DNA-damage response—a fundamental mechanism that protects the genomes of all living organisms.” He shares the honor with Evelyn M. Witkin of Rutgers University.
For a quarter century, we’ve funded Elledge’s investigations of the molecular underpinnings of this fundamental biological process. While working with the yeast model system in the 1990s, his group showed that the Rad53 kinase plays an important role in coordinating DNA repair with progression through the cell cycle.
More recently, Elledge and his team have identified over 1,000 candidate proteins that may participate in the mammalian DNA-damage response. They are now seeking to uncover the precise functions of these proteins.
The Lasker Award is a fitting occasion to reflect on how far we’ve come in this field and the exciting opportunities that lie ahead.