NIH grant takes grad students on journey from gene to organism

John SchimentiFifteen faculty members from disciplines across campus will combine their experience as research educators to encourage the exploration of vertebrate developmental genomics to potentially improve the understanding of how genes guide development, thanks to a $659,529 training grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The grant will support three graduate students who have demonstrated an interest in both the subject and the collaborative research approach; it is intended to engage a new generation of scientists in multidisciplinary research. Spanning the lifetime of an organism, development encompasses processes from inception and growth to aging and death. Developmental genomics looks at development through a genetic lens and can help unlock the molecular mysteries of how cancer grows and spreads.

“The classical discipline of developmental biology involves careful observation of anatomy during developmental processes like growth and aging, whereas genomics focuses on activity at the molecular level. Developmental genomics is a fusion of the two,” said John Schimenti, the James Law Professor of Anatomy and principal investigator on the grant. He teaches genomics through the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We hope to train students who understand the biology of development and are excited to use genomics tools to understand how development works, from gene to organism.”

Each of the 15 faculty trainers brings a unique perspective to the table, merging experience areas from classical developmental biology, functional genomics and developmental genetics to computational genomics, neurobiology, reproductive biology, early post-implantation development and cancer research. The faculty trainers will mentor, supervise and support the selected graduate students for up to three years. Each year, three awardees will be chosen to develop specialized expertise in vertebrate developmental genomics, investigating the role of genes in the ways cells grow, differentiate and form tissues in the body. The students will participate in activities through Cornell’s Center for Vertebrate Genomics, including attending a monthly journal club, presenting at Cornell’s vertebrate genomics research forum, creating posters for symposia and presenting their work at conferences.

The NIH-supported program will take place in the context of Cornell University’s Life Sciences Initiative and will be facilitated under the umbrella of Cornell’s Center for Vertebrate Genomics, which will offer administrative and infrastructure support.

“University support helped us develop an innovative paradigm to train scientists who can work at the intersection of disciplines and bring a comparative approach to the challenge at hand,” said Schimenti. “The NIH resources will help us to sustain the program and prepare additional scientists who can leverage the tools and resources from diverse fields in a world where biotechnology is moving at lightning speed. The silos of the past are no longer sufficient; the answers to our most difficult challenges and exciting questions in biology require intrepid scientists who embrace the breathtaking power of modern tools from multiple disciplines.”

This is the second NIH-supported training grant secured by faculty in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Mark Roberson, professor of physiology and chair of the Department of Biomedical Sciences, collaborates with faculty to prepare students to merge the studies of reproductive sciences and genomics.

“Training programs like these bring groups together, providing resources to support many different labs, colleges and students,” Schimenti said. “We are merging perspectives to develop a more complete picture, and offering our graduate trainees enviable training opportunities in the process.

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