UMMS scientist named 2014 Pew Latin American Fellow in the biomedical sciences

June 24, 2014

WORCESTER, MA - Alejandro Vasquez-Rifo, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, was named a 2014 Pew Latin American Fellow in the Biomedical Sciences today by The Pew Charitable Trusts. By providing flexible funding and networking opportunities, the Pew Latin American Fellow program allows early-career scientists from Latin America to train in top U.S. laboratories and to develop skills and connections that will help them become scientific leaders in their home countries. Dr. Vasquez-Rifo joins nine other researchers named to this year's class.

"Being named a Pew Latin American Fellow is an incredible honor and a huge opportunity for me," said Vasquez-Rifo, a postdoctoral scholar in the lab of Victor Ambros, PhD, the Silverman Chair in Natural Sciences and professor of molecular medicine at UMMS. "The Pew Fellow is unique in that it provides postdoctoral scientists the opportunity and financial support needed to pursue independent research when they return to their home countries."

Latin American Fellows receive salary support during two years of postdoctoral training in laboratories led by prominent U.S. scientists. They are given an additional award if they return to their home countries at the end of the fellowship. More than 70 percent of fellows have used this incentive to establish their own laboratories in Latin America.

Alumni of the Latin American fellows program have leveraged their training in the U.S. to become mentors to others. Many now hold positions of leadership in research institutions across the globe.

"The Pew program makes it possible for me to return to South America and potentially establish my own lab," said Vasquez-Rifo. "If I could return and serve as a mentor to others pursuing science as a career, that would be a wonderful thing."

With the Pew support, Vasquez-Rifo will explore how physiological stresses, such as starvation or infection, can trigger an "emergency response pathway" that switches on a broad range of genes that help the organism survive. One way cells can coordinate the activity of these genes is via the generation of small regulatory ribonucleic acids (RNAs), called microRNAs.

Using an array of cutting-edge techniques in molecular and cell biology, genetics and computation, Vasquez-Rifo will evaluate whether the stress of feeding C. elegans an infectious bacterium, rather than the harmless bacteria it normally eats, changes the worms' overall production of microRNAs, or whether there are specific microRNAs that are synthesized to handle this danger.

Findings from his work could point the way toward therapeutic intervention for a variety of conditions that are thought to be precipitated by increased cellular stress, including cancer and aging.

Vasquez-Rifo earned his bachelor's degree in biology in his home country at the National University of Colombia. He received a doctorate in cellular and molecular biology in 2013 from Laval University in Canada, where he worked with Associate Professor of Molecular Biology Martin Simard, PhD.

Pew's Latin American Fellows program began in 1991 and operates alongside the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences, which has fostered early-career innovation by U.S. scientists since 1985. The Fellows program has invested in more than 200 young scientists from across region, including postdoctoral researchers from 10 countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Researchers are selected by a national advisory committee composed of renowned scientists, including Chairman Torsten N. Wiesel, M.D., president emeritus of Rockefeller University and a 1981 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine.
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UMMS Pew Latin American Fellow in the Biomedical Sciences include:UMMS Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences recipients include:About the University of Massachusetts Medical School

The University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS), one of five campuses of the University system, comprises the School of Medicine, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the Graduate School of Nursing, a thriving research enterprise and an innovative public service initiative, Commonwealth Medicine. Its mission is to advance the health of the people of the commonwealth through pioneering education, research, public service and health care delivery with its clinical partner, UMass Memorial Health Care. In doing so, it has built a reputation as a world-class research institution and as a leader in primary care education. The Medical School attracts more than $240 million annually in research funding, placing it among the top 50 medical schools in the nation. In 2006, UMMS's Craig C. Mello, PhD, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and the Blais University Chair in Molecular Medicine, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with colleague Andrew Z. Fire, PhD, of Stanford University, for their discoveries related to RNA interference (RNAi). The 2013 opening of the Albert Sherman Center ushered in a new era of biomedical research and education on campus. Designed to maximize collaboration across fields, the Sherman Center is home to scientists pursuing novel research in emerging scientific fields with the goal of translating new discoveries into innovative therapies for human diseases.

University of Massachusetts Medical School

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