NIH rewards high-risk research by two young faculty

The high-risk, high-reward research program of the National Institutes of Health has chosen two of UC Berkeley’s newest faculty members to receive funds to pursue innovative approaches to some of today’s most pressing biomedical challenges.

Zhang and Brar

Wenjun Zhang and Gloria Brar, young assistant professors who received 2015 New Innovators Awards from NIH.

Gloria Brar, an assistant professor of molecular and cell biology, and Wenjun Zhang, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the College of Chemistry, are among 41 New Innovator Award recipients announced Oct. 6.

The award, established in 2007, supports unusually innovative research from early-career investigators who have not yet received a research project grant from the NIH. The New Innovator Award is one of four high-risk, high-reward awards supported by the NIH to foster collaborative research that could have a big impact on health, but which bridges the specific disciplines typically funded by the agency.

“This program has consistently produced research that revolutionized scientific fields by giving investigators the freedom to take risks and explore potentially groundbreaking concepts.” said NIH director Francis Collins in announcing the new awards. “We look forward to the remarkable advances in biomedical research the 2015 awardees will make.”

Brar, who joined the College of Letters and Science in 2014, studies the genes that regulate meiosis, the process of cell division that leads to sperm and egg cells in organisms that reproduce sexually. Working with yeast, she uses a powerful new tool called ribosome profiling to identify the DNA translated specifically in meiotic cells, many of them small proteins never before studied. She also focuses on specializations to the meiotic ribosome and the functions of the stress response pathways in meiotic differentiation and organelle remodeling.

A UC Berkeley graduate (2002, molecular and cell biology), Brar received her Ph.D. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF.

Zhang, the Charles R. Wilke Endowed Chair in Chemical Engineering, joined the College of Chemistry in 2010. She is trying to understand and engineer the biosynthesis of natural products for applications related to both human health and bioenergy. She is also mining the genome in search of new bioactive small molecules and enzymes.

A graduate of Nanjing University in China, she received her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from UCLA and did postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School.

For a complete list of the New Innovator Award recipients, link to the NIH website.

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