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Two BioE students earn prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Da Yeon Eom, BioE intern
4/12/2018 2:12:32 PM

University of Illinois Bioengineering doctoral candidates Natalia Gonzalez Medina and Michael Gapinske have received prestigious National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships. The NSF fellowship program is highly competitive with more than 12,000 students applying in 2018 for 2,000 awards.

A member of Assistant Professor Andrew Smith's lab, Gonzalez Medina is conducting research on using nanocarriers to combat the worldwide prevalence of obesity and the diseases that can follow from the inflammatory effects such as type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

Natalia Gonzalez Medina
Natalia Gonzalez Medina

The rate of obesity nearly tripled between 1975 and 2016 and 37.7 percent of adults are obese. Excess nutrients in adipose tissue, commonly known as fat, leads to a permanent inflammatory state due to a phenotype change in a subset of immune cells known as macrophages.

"My work focuses on using nanocarriers, in addition to combination drug therapy, to increase catabolic metabolic effects and to decrease inflammation in the adipose tissue," says Gonzalez Medina, who works at the Micro + Nanotechnology Lab at Illinois.

The nanocarriers act to improve drug delivery by targeting inflammatory macrophages in adipose tissue and eliminating undesirable off-target side effects common to many pharmaceutical drugs.

And combination drug therapy looks at engineering conjugates to achieve synergistic effects in therapy by combining drugs to produce an additive effect, such that a smaller or less frequent dose is needed to achieve beneficial effects.

"It's a huge honor," says Gonzalez Medina. "The funding the NSF provides will allow me to focus more deeply on my research and its dissemination in the coming years. Additionally, this fellowship also opens up many opportunities for professional development and communication with other fellows and alumni, which I am excited to pursue."

In the past, Gonzalez Medina received other NSF support for her scientific interests—she completed two NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduate programs and was awarded a SURGE fellowship. Her long-term research goal is to simultaneously rewire inflammation and metabolism signaling in macrophages with minimal side effects.

"Through the course of my research, I hope to investigate synergy of drugs and test the impact of a targeted nanoformulation on drug delivery while verifying synergy in vivo and limiting off-target side effects," she says.

"Outside of the lab, I hope to focus on disseminating my research to the public, especially to populations at risk for obesity. Additionally, I hope to improve access for minority students to STEM by mentoring undergraduate students."

Michael Gapinske
Michael Gapinske

Michael Gapinske, who is working in Bioengineering Assistant Professor Pablo Perez-Pinera’s Genome Engineering and Transcriptional Regulation Lab, completed his undergraduate education at the University of Illinois as a chancellor’s scholar and graduated with high honors. His research focuses on using the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR-Cas9), a gene editing tool, to look for new ways to control gene transcription and splicing.

"CRISPR is a revolutionary system for genomic targeting, and the breadth of its applications is expanding all the time," says Gapinske.

"That said, there is still a lot of unexplored territory with the field, and a lot that needs to be done before it’s safe enough to be widely adopted therapeutically. My work aims to address a number of incurable monogenic diseases with a new method for controlling mRNA splicing."

Gapinske looks forward to the opportunities, such as the Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide Program,  that the NSF fellowship will bring. Upon finishing his graduate degree, he plans on pursuing a postdoctoral research position in academia.

The NSF fellowships support outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Awardees receive three years of financial support with a five-year fellowship period—$34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution.

Bioengineering graduate student Parinaz Fathi, a member of Bioengineering Associate Professor Dipanjan Pan's research group, earned an honorable mention from NSF for her 2018 Graduate Fellowship application. Her research focuses on translational medicine applications of biomaterials and nanomaterials.

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