Two UMMS students land prestigious HHMI awards

International student research fellowships challenge promising pre-doctoral students to ‘venture forward without fear’

By Ellie Castano

UMass Medical School Communications

August 14, 2013
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Harleen Saini, top, and Meetu Seth are among 42 international pre-doctoral students who have received Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellowships.

Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences students Meetu Seth and Harleen Saini are among the 42 international pre-doctoral students that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has selected to receive fellowships that will support them as they complete their graduate studies in U.S. universities. The highly competitive fellowship is funded at $43,000 per year for up to three years.

HHMI created the program because it recognized a problem: International students in U.S. graduate schools often have difficulty getting funding to support their studies. For example, they are not eligible for federal fellowships or training grant support, or other governmental opportunities that are generally reserved for U.S. citizens. The Institute chose to fund the third to fifth years of graduate school, because by this time most students have chosen an advisor, identified a research project and demonstrated their potential for success in the lab.

“We hope that the HHMI award will encourage each student to build on their already considerable accomplishments, to apply creativity to current problems and to explore new ideas, to venture forward without fear, and to take risks as they work to solve difficult problems,” said David J. Asai, senior director in science education at HHMI.

Seth, who is from India, is working in the lab of Craig C. Mello, PhD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine and distinguished professor of molecular medicine and cell & developmental biology.

“Meetu was an outstanding candidate for the HHMI international student scholarship,” said Dr. Mello. “She has tremendous enthusiasm for her research and her motivation and attention to detail have been a driving force for major new discoveries in the lab. While still in her rotation, Meetu's efforts were instrumental for studies on RNA-induced epigenetic silencing, leading to an important publication from the lab with her as second author. Now she has a first-author paper under review describing ‘RNAa,’ an RNA-induced gene activation pathway that protects genes from epigenetic silencing. She has a bright future, and it is a pleasure to have an opportunity to mentor such a gifted and hard-working student.”

Seth is equally enthusiatic when talking about Mello. “I admire my mentor for his ability to think big in the area of evolutionary biology and translate his vision into several research initiatives. Working with him, I am learning to pay attention to details while keeping the big picture in my mind,” she said.

Saini, also from India, is working the lab of Melissa Moore, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, the Eleanor Eustis Farrington Chair in Cancer Research and professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology.

“This fellowship will support my graduate research and provide me with opportunities to develop new associations with the scientific community at HHMI,” said Saini. “The credit for the fellowship goes to the excellent environment for scientific training provided by UMMS. Here, I feel fortunate to have Prof. Melissa Moore as my mentor. She is not only a superb researcher and teacher, but also a continuous source of inspiration for pursuing basic science research.”

This year’s fellows are studying at 22 universities across the U.S., and represent 19 different countries.

Sixty-one PhD-granting institutions were eligible to nominate graduate students for the fellowships this year. Three hundred seventy-seven students applied, and were reviewed by a panel of top scientists and graduate educators. Only institutions currently hosting at least one HHMI investigator or those that are recipients of a current HHMI graduate training grant could nominate candidates and host fellows.

HHMI has invested nearly $10.8 million in the program over the last three years, including more than $1.8 million to support this year’s fellows. The International Student Research Fellowships build on HHMI’s commitment to funding international scientists. Last year, HHMI selected 28 International Early Career Scientists to help talented individuals who have trained in the U.S. establish independent research programs in 12 countries where funding for scientific support is scarce.