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Gina Caldas named 2015 Pew Latin American Fellow

By Megan Bard

UMass Medical School Communications

June 11, 2015
  Gina Caldas, PhD
  Gina Caldas, PhD

Postdoctoral scholar Gina V. Caldas, PhD, has been named a 2015 Pew Latin American Fellow in Biomedical Sciences by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Dr. Caldas, a native of Colombia, is one of 10 individuals identified by the organization as exceptional scientists from Latin America who are pursuing postdoctoral studies in the United States with a distinguished mentor.

“I’m extremely happy to have received this award; it’s one of the most prestigious awards for young Latin American scientists,” Caldas said.

The Pew Latin American Fellows program allows early-career scientists from Latin America to train in top U.S. laboratories and develop skills and connections that will help them become scientific leaders in their home countries. While in the United States, the fellows receive salary support during their two years of postdoctoral training and are given an additional award if they return to their home countries at the end of the fellowship. More than 70 percent of fellows have used this incentive to establish their own laboratories in Latin America.

While at UMass Medical School, Caldas is doing research in the lab of Nobel Laureate Craig C. Mello, PhD, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator,the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine and distinguished professor of molecular medicine and cell biology & developmental biology, who received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2006 for the co-discovery of RNA interference. Dr. Mello is also a 1995 Pew biomedical scholar and Pew Scholars National Advisory Committee chairman.

Caldas’s research focuses on a specific protein in C. elegans that, although capable of destroying RNAs in vitro, instead ‘captures’ the RNAs but does not eliminate them. This appears to protect these RNAs from destruction.

“I will explore how this specific protein performs this paradoxical feat of molecular heroism—and whether this behavior is somehow linked to the protein’s ability to destroy RNAs. Because similar systems of genetic control operate in humans, these results will provide insights into the role such opposing pathways play in human health and disease,” Caldas said. 

Pew’s Latin American Fellows program began in 1991 and operates alongside the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences, which has fostered early-career innovation by U.S. scientists since 1985. The Fellows program has invested in more than 200 young scientists from across the region, including postdoctoral researchers from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Researchers are selected by a national advisory committee composed of renowned scientists, including Chairman Torsten N. Wiesel, MD, president emeritus of Rockefeller University and a 1981 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine.

“Our competitively selected Pew fellows all share a burning commitment to explore science in the discovery of nature’s secrets to the benefit of mankind,” Dr. Wiesel said.

UMMS Pew Latin American Fellow in the Biomedical Sciences include:

  • 2014: Alejandro Vasquez-Rifo, PhD, postdoctoral scholar, and
  • 2012: Juan I. Fuxman Bass, PhD, postdoctoral scholar.

UMMS Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences recipients include:

  • 2014: Brian A. Kelch, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology;
  • 2011: Thomas Fazzio, PhD, associate professor of molecular medicine;
  • 2010: David Guertin, PhD, associate professor of molecular medicine;
  • 2005: Lambertus van den Berg, PhD, associate professor of molecular medicine;
  • 2000: Phillip D. Zamore, PhD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, the Gretchen Stone Cook Chair of Biomedical Sciences and professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology;
  • 1995: Craig C. Mello, PhD, 2006 Nobel Laureate, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine and distinguished professor of molecular medicine and cell biology; and
  • 1992: John M. Leong, MD, PhD, professor of microbiology & physiological systems.

Related links on UMassMedNow:
Alejandro Vasquez-Rifo, PhD, was named a 2014 Pew Latin American Fellow
Fuxman Bass named 2012 Pew Latin American Fellow
Thomas Fazzio named 2011 Pew Scholar