Friday, December 9, 2016

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Zayas is studying genes involved in tissue regeneration.

A Step Up

Early funding can be career-changing for young researchers.
By Michael Price

Be sure to check out videos of both Ricardo Zayas and Amy Drahota: After you click on the video still, click the "Playlist" button in the upper left corner to see both videos.

Building your research career in academia is tough work. Young faculty juggle numerous responsibilities during their early working years, and it can be tricky for them to find the time to apply for grants and actually do their research.

Some, however, are talented, driven, and fortunate enough to receive generous grants in the early stages of their academic lives, giving them the funding and time needed to establish their careers.

The two largest federal research funders in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, award the prestigious NIH Career Development Awards (otherwise known as K Awards) and NSF CAREER Awards to promising scientists. These career-making awards typically help fund a portion of researchers’ salary and allow them to hire assistants.

Two SDSU researchers recently received these awards, and both are beginning to make their mark in their respective fields.

Assessing community clinics

When psychologist Amy Drahota finished her master’s degree in psychology at SDSU in 2003, she knew she wanted to return someday.

“I really appreciate the balance between research and teaching at SDSU,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to do both of those things, and have the opportunity to do both well.”

After finishing her Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2008 and working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego, she leapt at the chance to take a job as an assistant research professor at SDSU.

Drahota works in a new field of social science called “implementation science,” which takes a data-driven approach to examining the effectiveness of social policies and programs. She’s among the first autism researchers to specialize in this area.

The novelty of the field, crucial need for data, and Drahota’s specific expertise led the National Institutes of Mental Health to give her a K Award to study the implementation of research-based autism treatments at community organizations.

The majority of people with autism, which affects 1 in 68 children, see community providers for their behavioral health care, but there’s little data on what kind of care they’re receiving and whether it’s based on scientific evidence.

Drahota is developing a model known as ACT SMART (Autism Community Toolkit: Systems to Measure and Adapt Research-based Treatments) to help these community providers better recognize their staffing and infrastructure needs and develop strategies to provide evidence-based interventions.

She said the K Award has been instrumental in her success so far at SDSU. It has eliminated immediate worries about funding and has also paid for training opportunities for her to develop new skills and build partnerships with the community. She’s presently in the third year of her grant and running a pilot study of the ACT SMART model.

“With K Awards, your goals can shift as you collect data. I’ve been able to take my time truly developing my expertise.”

The amazing regenerating worm

SDSU biologist Ricardo Zayas’s research is a little …  squishier. He studies the regenerative properties of a type of tiny, non-parasitic flatworm called planarians, specifically the species Schmidtea mediterranea.

These rice grain–sized animals are noteworthy because they can recover from extremely traumatic injuries. An unusually high percentage of their cells — between 10 and 20 percent — are stem cells, allowing them to repair damage to their bodies quickly and efficiently.

Learning more about how these creatures produce and take advantage of their stem cells could open up avenues for human disease treatment.

“Planarians share some key features with us, such as a centralized nervous system,” Zayas said. “If we can understand them better, it might have applications for treating cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and other diseases related to damaged cells.”

Zayas seeks to answer a specific yet important question: Which genes involved in regulating the degradation and recycling of cellular proteins are involved in tissue regeneration, and what are their targets? It's a hot problem in the field, he said.

Last year, NSF awarded Zayas a CAREER Award to help him find the answer. The funding has allowed him to set up a lab and hire graduate and undergraduate students. In a new course Zayas will begin teaching in 2015, students will generate data to be used in his research, giving them valuable research experience.

Like Drahota, Zayas said he is thrilled that SDSU affords him the opportunity to merge his passions for both teaching and scholarship.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Zayas said.

This story is featured in the summer 2014 issue of 360:The Magazine of San Diego State University.