Life sciences award given to just 13 graduate students nationwide on the basis of quality, originality and significance of work

Monday, March 8, 2010

 WORCESTER, Mass.— Pedro Batista and Chengjian Li, students at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School have received the 2010 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award for their work unraveling the molecular mysteries of small RNA pathways. Only 13 students from North America were chosen for this prestigious award, with UMass Medical School being one of only three institutions to have multiple winners.

Batista and Li join a distinguished group of previous UMass Medical School students to receive the Weintraub award. Past winners include Marcus Noyes, PhD, in 2009; Diane Schwarz, PhD, in 2005; and Alla Grishok, PhD, who received the award in 2002 after graduating from the GSBS in 2001. Sponsored by the Basic Sciences Division of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, the Weintraub award recognizes the best graduate students in the life sciences in the nation and world on the basis of the quality, originality and significance of their work.

“Having two Weintraub winners in one year speaks to the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s ability to recruit great students and train them to be superb scientists,” said Phillip D. Zamore, PhD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, the Gretchen Stone Cook Chair of Biomedical Sciences and professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology.

A member of the Zamore Lab, Li’s doctoral thesis research focuses on how small RNA molecules in Drosophila—known as piwi-interacting RNA—protect eggs and sperm from genetic parasites. Li, a fifth-year student, confirmed that there is a strong amplification cycle where the presence of parasites called transposon mRNA, which can jump into the genome and cause mutation, trigger the increased production of piwi-interacting RNA that acts to destroy the parasite by silencing the transposon, thereby protecting the cell’s genome.

“Chengjian’s research into this gorgeous and mysterious molecular pathway provides new insights into how genetic material is protected and maintained in the reproduction cycle so DNA can be passed on from generation to generation,” said Zamore, in whose lab Dianne Schwartz was a student when she received the Weintraub award in 2005.

“Working at UMass Medical School is a tremendously collaborative process,” said Li. “We’re encouraged to share ideas and suggest new avenues of inquiry in a way that reflects the collegial values of the Weintraub Award.”

Across the campus from Li, in the lab of 2006 Nobel Laureate Craig C. Mello, PhD, Batista’s doctoral research thesis explores how certain small RNA molecules work in conjunction with Argonaut proteins in C. elegans and the role they play in cellular function and genome stability. As a result of his research, Batista indentified small RNA pathways that, by targeting invasive nucleic acids, play an important role in maintaining genome integrity, and also function in chromosome segregation.. Batista, a seventh-year student, is currently researching other small RNA molecules to gain further insight into the role this pathway may play in fertility and embryo development. An exchange student from the Gulbenkian PhD Program in Lisbon, Portugal, Batista has been a member of the Mello Lab since 2004.

“Despite all the advances in recent years, the field of small RNAs is still just beginning to be explored,” said Batista, a native of Lisbon, Portugal. “Study after study is revealing that small RNA molecules play surprising and essential roles in cellular mechanisms that we thought we already understood. I knew that if I wanted to work with small RNA that UMass Medical School was the place to do it.”

“I knew Hal when I was a post-doctoral student at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He strongly believed in cross-fertilization between researchers as the key to breakthroughs,” said Mello, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine and distinguished professor of molecular medicine and cell biology at UMass Medical School. “Pedro is an outstanding example of the power of this approach. By openly sharing ideas and collaborating with colleagues, Pedro was able to produce key insights that broke open exciting new areas of research.”

The Weintraub award, established in 2000, honors the late Harold “Hal” M. Weintraub, PhD, a founding member of Fred Hutchinson’s Basic Sciences Division, who died of brain cancer in 1995 at age 49. Weintraub was an international leader in the field of molecular biology; among his many contributions, he identified genes responsible for instructing cells to differentiate, or develop, into specific tissues such as muscle or bone. The award honors Weintraub and his enthusiastic support of colleagues, students and young scientists.

Li and Batista will participate with other award recipients in a scientific symposium on May 7 at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

About the University of Massachusetts Medical School
The University of Massachusetts Medical School, one of the fastest growing academic health centers in the country, has built a reputation as a world-class research institution, consistently producing noteworthy advances in clinical and basic research. The Medical School attracts more than $240 million in research funding annually, 80 percent of which comes from federal funding sources. The mission of the Medical School is to advance the health and well-being of the people of the commonwealth and the world through pioneering education, research, public service and health care delivery with its clinical partner, UMass Memorial Health Care. For more information, visit

Contact: Jim Fessenden
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