A Sanford-Burnham graduate student on the road to success

By Kristina Meek
March 15, 2012
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Becoming an excellent scientist requires not only top-notch intelligence and strong scientific skills, but the tools for supporting a career—namely, the ability to secure funding. A researcher may have a brilliant idea, but with no way to pay for it, that idea may die before reaching fruition. Students in Sanford-Burnham’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences learn the skills they need to succeed, which are ever more important in a time when competition for grant funding is more intense than ever.

Philip McQuary, a student of Dr. Malene Hansen in the Institute’s Del E. Webb Center for Neuroscience, Aging, and Stem Cell Research, just became the first Sanford-Burnham graduate student to receive an NIH-supported fellowship. This F31 grant, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, will support Philip’s study of protein production in tiny worms known as Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans). Philip and others in the lab investigate the rate of protein production in C. elegans, where they have observed that eliminating certain genes causes protein synthesis to shut down, thus causing the organisms to live longer. The increased understanding of this process could have implications for the aging process in humans.

As any researcher knows, applying for a grant is a “labor of love.” “It was extremely rigorous,” Philip says of the process. “A lot of hard work went into writing that application. The whole process took more than a year.”

This type of award is valuable not only for the funding it provides, but because it helps demonstrate grant writing skills and establish a pattern of funding even while the applicant is still in school. An F31 fellowship requires the applicant to clearly think about his or her goals for a career as an independent researcher.  The NIH takes into account the full range of the applicant’s credentials, including academic success, the commitment to his or her training, and letters of reference. Having a strong mentor can be invaluable in such a process.

“Malene is a great mentor,” Philip says. “I can go to her and ask her anything. She’s a relatively new principal investigator and she has developed a great lab environment–one dedicated to aging science.”

Dr. Hansen’s respect is mutual. “Philip has an exemplary drive to do science,” she says. “His achievement in getting this competitive fellowship is really a great recognition of this point, as well as the hard work he put into writing the extensive application.”

Philip, originally from Houston, Texas, earned his M.Sc. in Molecular Biology from San Diego State University in 2007. He worked for a few months in the lab of Dr. Kristiina Vuori, Institute president and director of Sanford-Burnham’s NCI-designated Cancer Center, before seeking a place in the Sanford-Burnham graduate program. When accepted, he initially started out as a joint graduate student also working in the lab of Dr. Dieter Wolf to study protein production in yeast, but changed a year ago to be exclusively in the Hansen lab to—in the interest of time—focus entirely on the worm project.

When Philip started as a graduate student in 2008, the program was new and offered him the chance to stay in the area. “San Diego is a great place to make a career. If you want to stay in academia, there are numerous schools and institutes here. If you want to move into industry, this is one of the top hotbeds in the U.S. So it’s great whatever route you want to take.”

It appears that whichever avenue Philip takes, his education at Sanford-Burnham has helped put him on the path to a promising future.

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Kristina Meek

Kristina was an SBP Communications staff member.

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