Vol. 12 No. 2 - March, 2010

Two GSBS students receive prestigious Weintraub award

weintraub li
Robert Carlin Photography
Chengjian Li

GSBS students Pedro Batista and Chengjian Li 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. UMass Medical School is one of only three institutions to have multiple winners. 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 UMass 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.

weintraub batista
Robert Carlin Photography
Pedro Batista

Li is a fifth-year student in the Zamore Lab. His doctoral thesis research focuses on how small RNA molecules in Drosophila—known as piwi-interacting RNA—protect eggs and sperm from genetic parasites. (Another student from the Zamore lab won the Weintraub award in 2005—see sidebar below.)

"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 campus from Li, fellow recipient Batista 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. Batista is a seventh-year student on exchange from the Gulbenkian PhD Program in Lisbon, Portugal. Since 2004, he has been a member of the lab of Nobel Laureate Craig C. Mello, PhD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine and professor of molecular medicine and cell biology.

"Despite all the advances in recent years, the field of small RNAs is still just beginning to be explored,” said Batista. “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."

Batista and Li join a distinguished group of previous UMMS Weintraub recipients.

Past winners include Marcus Noyes, PhD, in 2009; Diane Schwarz, PhD, in 2005; and Alla Grishok, PhD, who received the award in 2002, having graduated from the GSBS the previous year.

"I knew Hal [Harold Weintraub] when I was a post-doctoral student at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He strongly believed in cross-fertilization between researchers as the key to breakthroughs," said Dr. Mello. "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. Dr. 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 him and his enthusiastic support of colleagues, students and young scientists.