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Upstate students win prestigious research award

Two Upstate PhD candidates have been awarded the Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award from the National Institute of Health (NIH), also known as F31 funding.

These awards are given to “promising predoctoral students with potential to develop into productive, independent research scientists." Nathan McKean and Allysa P. Kemraj, both studying under Upstate's  Alaji Bah, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, will have their research funded for the next two years as they complete their doctoral degrees.

McKean has focused his research on the carboxy terminal domain (CTD) of RNA polyermase II, specifically investigating the liquid-liquid phase separation of the CTD.

“The CTD is a disordered region that's found on the largest subunit of RNA polymerase II; it is involved in the formation of what are called transcription factories,” McKean said. Transcription is the process where a segment of DNA is copied into RNA. Dysregulation of this process is associated with cancer, diabetes, obesity, autoimmunity, neurological disorders, and cardiovascular diseases. His project will study the CTD from fungi living in extreme environments, studying their biophysical properties.

McKean took a non-traditional route to biochemistry; he studied ecology at SUNY Oswego before finding his way to Bah’s lab as a lab manager. Seeing Bah’s work inspired him to apply to the PhD program.

"I really like the imaginative nature of the work,” he explains. “There are things that we can't see, things that you can imagine and think, ‘how does this look, how does this behave?’ and you can apply that to the fundamentals of science. There's this crossroads between imagination and science.”

Kemraj’s fellowship is the first NIH National Cancer Institute (NCI) fellowship at Upstate in 5 years, with her grant scoring in the 10th percentile of F31 NCI applicants. She is focusing her project on Abl kinase-Interactor 1 (ABI1), a modular interactor protein implicated in both prostate and breast cancer. Bah and Upstate cancer researcher Leszek Kotula, MD/PhD, recently worked together to discover that ABI1 binds to AR and chromatin to regulate gene expression.

“Overall, this work can lead to the development of better therapeutics for these diseases,” Kemraj said. “ABI1 contains a large, disordered region and has yet to be biophysically characterized. A lot of the work that I'm doing on ABI1  can be applied to other proteins containing a large, disordered region as well."

While Kemraj has always loved science—at the age of nine, she dressed up as Marie Curie for a school reading assignment— it was her personal experience that led her to specifically study diseases and therapeutics.

“I have a rare connective tissue disorder; I saw how important science is for diagnosis and treatment.” During undergrad she worked with a professor who studied her specific disease, spurring her desire to study biochemistry. “Since then, I realized ‘Oh my gosh, this really has an impact on people's lives.’ This could really make a difference.”

Both McKean and Kemraj point out how beneficial applying for the F31 was. “Dr. Bah values training and the importance of preparing us for anything that we may come across in the future;” explained Kemraj. “He knew that it'd be a great process for me, regardless of if I got it or not.”

“When you write a grant like this, you have to understand the project in its entirety,” said McKean. “Then you need to sell all of that to somebody who has absolutely no idea what your research is. [Winning a grant like this] says ‘I can understand and execute the science.”

Kemraj echos that sentiment.  “It shows that I'm able to write and communicate my science. Winning this grant has allowed me to trust myself more as a scientist and a writer; it’s given me the confidence to consider careers I never would have before and help others with their science writing.”

Read more about Upstate’s department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology here.

Students who are interested in learning more about applying for this or other funding, should contact the Pre-Award office for information and guidance.

Caption: Upstate doctoral students Nathan McKean and Allysa P. Kemoraj are winners of the Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award from the National Institute of Health (NIH), also known as F31 funding.