$2.8 million NIH grant awarded to UH for bionano training


B. Montgomery Pettitt named multi-institutional lead, endorses 'meta-university' concept

HOUSTON, Oct. 19, 2004 A $2.8 million National Institutes of Health grant awarded to the University of Houston is not only expanding research, but also preparing the next generation of scientists among Houston universities and medical schools.

The T90R90 grant, earmarked specifically for bionano training and research, was awarded to UH through the school's Institute for Molecular Design (IMD) for the Keck Center for Computational and Structural Biology. The grant will be disbursed to undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students over the course of the next five years as competitive fellowships among those at UH, Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. These institutions make up the Gulf Coast Consortia (GCC), a group designed to combine institutional strengths to train new scientists, establish a research infrastructure to collect data, cultivate a supportive atmosphere for both biological and non-biological researchers and students, and apply the resulting knowledge to prevent and treat diseases.

"This grant substantiates the fact that you can't separate research and training," said B. Montgomery Pettitt, principal investigator for this grant and Cullen Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, professor of physics, biology and biochemistry, and associate dean of computational and computer science for the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. "Like anything, research is a practiced art, and the discoveries that result are what come from hands-on training. Grants like this give students experience in doing research, as well as helping them find out what areas they excel in and should likely pursue further."

Just as the GCC melds training and research, this National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant reinforces a similar approach to scientific education. All part of a new NIH roadmap initiative, the grant supports the shared vision of interdisciplinary education to which the Keck center and GCC contribute.

The grant seeks to develop a new type of interdisciplinary scientist in the emerging field of nanobiology that draws upon the interface and combines the tools, ideas and materials of nanoscience and biology. The new discipline will be characterized by the interplay between current nanoscience applications in high technology and biotechnology and biomedical applications for clinical and research medicine. The intended mission is to integrate the principles of nanoscale science and biology in research and coursework to develop the first generation of nanobiologists. The result will be bionano research that examines disease discovery, disease prevention and drug discovery, as well as laying the foundation for a new wave of scientific discovery and applications to address health care, environmental monitoring and transportation.

"We're using the basic sciences as a springboard to branch out to more applied science through this grant," Pettitt said. "Training is research in a lab. The traditional boxes of basic degrees that delineate disciplines no longer describe real research."

Along those lines, what is especially innovative about this grant extends beyond just the recent money awarded. While UH is the lead center and the fellowships are being administered through IMD, Pettitt's role as director of the Keck Center for Computational and Structural Biology allows the grant to be shared among the member institutions of the GCC. With six institutions and 40 other investigators besides Pettitt collaborating, students are able to take full advantage of the various resources that each institution is uniquely capable of providing while still being able to claim a home base from which they will receive their degrees.

"These vehicles allow us to put teams together in a meta-university of sorts," Pettitt said. "This is just the right thing for student training and education. Through interdisciplinary and inter-institutional study, we can offer a custom-tailored curriculum for each student that opens up the playing field to study at each university under different professors and experts. This is how new ideas are born."

This has become a very effective recruiting tool for UH. Its "students are getting snapped up because industry demands workers that are diverse and trained across the board." He emphasizes that this "no one size fits all" approach is a more accurate reflection of the types of researchers needed for the scientific challenges that exist in today's society. With applications already pouring in, he said they expect to begin handing out fellowships as early as this semester.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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