Virginia Tech’s Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have each awarded one systems biology summer research internship to an undergraduate student poster presenter at the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) Annual Conference. These awards will give the students the opportunity to work side by side with Virginia Tech researchers for ten weeks during the summer of 2006.

VBI Research Professor and Virginia Tech Professor of Mathematics Reinhard Laubenbacher presented these newly established fellowships at the SACNAS Annual Conference, which was held in Denver, Colo., earlier this fall. The award process was based on a review of college transcripts, poster abstracts presented at the 2005 conference, and essay submissions.

The recipients will spend two months next summer actively participating in an ongoing systems biology research project at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute or College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Each student will receive room and board, airfare, a $2,500 stipend, and the opportunity to present their research results at the next SACNAS Annual Conference.

Rahul Sharma and Liubin Yang were awarded these first fellowships.

Sharma is a student at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., and has an interest in microbiology. Sharma’s poster at the SACNAS conference presented results on a collaborative research project titled, “Novel genes responsible for the resistance of two unrelated Helicobacter pylori strains.” The identification of specific genes responsible for the mutation of H. pylori, which can cause digestive illnesses, could lead to the design of a more efficient combination drug therapy than is presently available.

Yang is a biology student at Yale University, and is interested in health and medicine issues. “Expression of ceruloplasmin in the preeclamptic placenta,” was the title of the poster Yang presented at the conference. Ceruloplasmin is the major copper-containing protein in blood plasma and the levels of this protein increase during pregnancy. In the study, the levels of ceruloplasmin were observed to increase in placental tissue from preeclamptic pregnancies, which indicates that ceruloplasmin could serve as a novel placental marker of preeclampsia. Preeclampsia is a rapidly progressing condition characterized by high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine. It is one of the leading global causes of maternal and infant illness and death.

“VBI is dedicated to providing a variety of learning opportunities for students at all education levels,” said Laubenbacher. “The SACNAS Systems Biology Fellowship is an example of the Institute’s commitment to providing research opportunities for students from underrepresented groups, helping to immerse them in a team science research environment.”

Craig Nessler, associate dean for research in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences added, “These fellowships will also enrich our programs by bringing outstanding undergraduates from diverse backgrounds to Virginia Tech.”

Since the organization’s beginnings in 1973, SACNAS membership has been composed of science faculty and administrators, researchers from federal and industry sectors, K-12 educators and administrators, and community college, undergraduate, and graduate students. As a result, SACNAS is a diverse society with a vested interest in promoting opportunities in advanced science education for Chicano/Latino, Native American, and other underrepresented minority students. The SACNAS Annual Conference features career advancement workshops, scientific symposia, exhibits, student presentations, and guest speakers and is designed to provide the resources students need to pursue advanced degrees in the sciences.

Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) at Virginia Tech has a research platform centered on understanding the “disease triangle” of host-pathogen-environment interactions. With almost $52 million in extramural research funding awarded to date, VBI researchers are working on many human, crop, and animal diseases.

Ranked 11th in agricultural research expenditures by the National Science Foundation, Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences offers students the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s leading agricultural scientists. The college’s comprehensive curriculum gives students a balanced education that ranges from food and fiber production to economics to human health. The college is a national leader in incorporating technology, biotechnology, computer applications, and other recent scientific advances into its teaching program.