Published: Sept. 10, 2019

New early career award trains world-class postdocs, advances wheels of innovation

Contact(s): Val Osowski College of Natural Science office: (517) 432-4561

When it comes to cutting edge science, researchers in the Michigan State University Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, or BMB, in the College of Natural Science lead the field but, fueling new ideas with time and energy takes more than a pit stop. It takes a team.

To grease the wheels of innovation and keep their investigations moving forward, BMB faculty initiated a transformative new training award for rising postdocs, recruiting researchers early in their careers to be the engines of interdisciplinary research at MSU.

“The Trainee Early Career Award for Mentoring in Unexplored Problems, or TEAM-UP, is a really innovative and efficient way to initiate collaborations between data-driven research projects,” said Amy Ralston, James K. Billman Jr., M.D. Endowed Professor. “Hypotheses do not get tested until there is a qualified trainee in the lab to produce the data and run with it. The TEAM-UP program is a great way to spark new research and then make sure the research happens.”

The idea for the postdoctoral award, which covers an annual salary and travel expenses and supports career development, was seeded two years ago by then newly appointed BMB chair Erich Grotewold, germinating two teams of faculty and two outstanding, inaugural postdoctoral awardees: Stephanie Hickey and Sakthivel Kailasam.

Hickey will be working with a team that includes Ralston, who studies how molecules instruct stem cell behavior, Jin He, assistant professor in BMB who studies brains cells and brain cancer, David Arnosti, professor in BMB who studies fundamental problems in early embryo genesis, and Arjun Krishnan, assistant professor in BMB and the Department of Computational Math, Science and Engineering who applies computational, data-driven approaches to the study of genomes. 

With three labs producing data related to how molecules define cell state—the Ralston, He and Arnosti labs—and the Krishnan Lab running analyses of the thousands to millions of data points, Hickey’s background in both computational and experimental biology will be the driving force that pulls together the diverse models into a powerful investigation of what cells do.

“Over the next two years, I’ll be able to merge my training in biology with my interest in bioinformatics, developing new computational approaches to analyze and integrate large collections of single-cell and bulk-tissue genomic data,” Hickey said. “We can then apply these approaches to study gene regulation in multiple model systems.”

Kailasam’s team includes structural biologist Jian Hu, associate professor, who uses crystallography to understand the molecular mechanisms involved in zinc and iron transport at the atomic level, and Hideki Takahashi, associate professorin BMB, who focuses on molecular mechanisms of sulfur and nitrogen assimilation and signaling.

“I feel very fortunate to have been selected for TEAM-UP,” said Kailasam, who received his doctorate degree in biotechnology from National Chung Hsing University in Taichung, Taiwan. “It gives me a great opportunity to work with world-class research labs at an elite institution, MSU.”

Kailasam’s investigations aim to dissect how plants transport essential metal nutrients like iron and zinc while simultaneously distinguishing the toxic elements, such as cadmium. These studies can lead to smarter crops for human nutrition.

“The identity of the metal nutrient transporter was revealed more than two decades ago, but it’s still a puzzle how these proteins transport broad substrates,” said Kailasam, whose impressive research in Arabidopsis iron homeostasis and regulation and experience in ZIP protein research makes him uniquely able to bridge the huge data sets of these two labs. “So far, there is no complete structural data available for these transporters, either from plants or humans, so I am very keen to understand the processes at the atomic level.”

This year’s postdocs are just the beginning of the initial, 4-year span of the TEAM-UP program, which has a future as far as MSU’s scientific community wants to take it. The next call for awardees will be open to other departments at MSU, giving faculty, in partnership with BMB, the opportunity to solve interdepartmental logistical issues that often leave brilliant ideas stuck in the mud.

“I’m excited to see where TEAM-UP is headed and where our trainees end up. What is their dream job and how can we get them there—not just by accident, but through the buy-in and support of multiple mentors,” Ralston said. “Let’s watch and see how amazing their career paths will be.”

MSU Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology faculty members recently initiated a transformative new training award for rising postdocs, recruiting researchers early in their careers to be the engines of interdisciplinary research at MSU. Photo by Michael Jordan, David-Lorne Photographic.