Caption: From left, Tre Artis, Nicole Palacio, Ronald Rodriguez, Nohely Abreu

PHILADELPHIA—Four young scholars participating in the PennPREP program have been awarded National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships. The fellowship supports outstanding graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics who will be pursuing research-based graduate degrees.

The University of Pennsylvania Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PennPREP) offers a one-to-two-year research experience for students who have completed college and want to pursue a doctoral degree in the biomedical sciences.

“The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program is a prestigious award that honors the potential of students in STEM disciplines,” said PennPREP’s program director, Arnaldo J. Diaz, PhD, assistant dean for research training programs and director of recruitment and retention of diversity scholars for the Perelman School of Medicine. “Each year, thousands of students apply, but only a small fraction of those applicants are awarded the fellowship. The fact that four of the seven PREP scholars who applied this year received this honor is a strong indicator of the effectiveness of our program in preparing our students for success in their next level of training.” 

Eleven of this year’s PennPREP scholars will be starting graduate school in the fall (ten have been admitted to PhD programs, and one admitted to an MD-PhD program; three of the PREP scholars will be pursuing their graduate degrees at Penn).

NSF fellows receive a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees (paid to the institution), opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their own research.

PennPREP scholar Ronald Rodriguez’s successful proposal focuses on gaining a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved in protein anchoring, an important process in cell growth, differentiation, and morphology. Rodriguez will seek to develop effective approaches for disrupting anchoring of specific proteins, such as toxins and virulence factors in bacteria. 

Nicole Palacio’s successful proposal addresses mechanisms of inflammasome responses to bacterial infection. Inflammasomes are components of the immune system. Palacio will explore the contribution of flagellin (which helps bacteria swim) as an inflammasome activator in Legionella pneumophila infection (Legionnaires' disease).

Tre Artis’s successful proposal will explore the function of DNA methylation in the honeybee. Methylation is a process that helps repress gene transcription. Artis will seek to determine the effects on gene expression, brain development, behavior, and reproductive outcomes when DNA methylation levels in these tissues are altered by silencing AmTET, a regulatory enzyme. 

Nohely Abreu’s successful proposal seeks to define the regulatory mechanism of dense core vesicle trafficking. Dense core vesicles in neurons contain peptide neurotransmitters, whose signaling modulates basic human behaviors. The appropriate transport and delivery of these vesicles to release sites along the axon is important for normal neuronal activity. 

Past NSF Graduate Research Fellowship recipients include many Nobel Prize winners, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, the former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt.

The PennPREP program is co-directed by Dr. Kelly Jordan-Sciutto, associate dean for graduate education and professor of pathology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, and Donita Brady, PhD, Presidential Professor of Cancer Biology.

Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, excellence in patient care, and community service. The organization consists of the University of Pennsylvania Health System and Penn’s Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine, founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school.

The Perelman School of Medicine is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $550 million awarded in the 2022 fiscal year. Home to a proud history of “firsts” in medicine, Penn Medicine teams have pioneered discoveries and innovations that have shaped modern medicine, including recent breakthroughs such as CAR T cell therapy for cancer and the mRNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccines.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities stretch from the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania to the New Jersey shore. These include the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Chester County Hospital, Lancaster General Health, Penn Medicine Princeton Health, and Pennsylvania Hospital—the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.

Penn Medicine is an $11.1 billion enterprise powered by more than 49,000 talented faculty and staff.

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