UTSW graduate students earn Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellowships

Graduate students Qian Cong, Xin Cai, and Matthew McFarlane (from left) received HHMI predoctoral fellowships.

By Deborah Wormser

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute recently awarded highly competitive predoctoral fellowships to UT Southwestern Medical Center graduate students Xin Cai, Qian Cong, and Matthew McFarlane.

They are among 50 graduate students from 19 countries to receive the prestigious fellowships, worth $43,000 a year. HHMI’s International Student Research Fellowship Program supports international students during their third to fifth years of graduate school in the United States.

“These awards are exceptionally tough to get, and this is the best UT Southwestern has ever done in this competition. The only schools that received more than three were Harvard with five and Stanford with four, so UT Southwestern is in esteemed company,” said Dr. David Russell, Professor of Molecular Genetics, Vice Provost, and Dean of Basic Research at UT Southwestern. 

“Assistant Dean Dr. Lisa Gardner deserves special thanks for organizing our selection process for this HHMI competition,” said Dr. Michael Roth, Interim Dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

Xin Cai of Vancouver, British Columbia, is in his fourth year of the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP). He said he was drawn to UT Southwestern because of its stellar reputation and the opportunity to tackle important and fascinating problems.

Under the mentorship or Dr. Zhijian “James” Chen, Professor of Molecular Biology and an HHMI investigator, Mr. Cai studies how cells regulate their antiviral responses through the mitochondrial antiviral signaling (MAVS) protein, which is activated through a prion-like mechanism. Prions are infectious, self-perpetuating proteins that can cause rare, fatal brain infections in mammals.

In a study in Cell last year, Dr. Chen’s lab identified the first so-called “good” prion-like protein, MAVS, in mammalian cells and showed its prion-like activity is essential for the antiviral response.

Mr. Cai said, “My goal is to understand how this protein is regulated and how it’s cleared after a successful antiviral response. This support from HHMI gives me the confidence to pursue these high-risk and high-reward experiments.” 

Matthew McFarlane of Toronto, in his fourth year of the MSTP program, studies hormonal control of appetite and metabolism under the mentorship of Dr. Michael S. Brown, Director of the Erik Jonsson Center for Research in Molecular Genetics and Human Disease. Dr. Brown shared the Nobel Prize in 1985 with Dr. Joseph L. Goldstein, Chair of Molecular Genetics, for their discovery of the underlying mechanisms of cholesterol metabolism.

Mr. McFarlane said he got a great impression of UT South-western from MSTP Associate Dean Dr. Andrew Zinn and the students who organized his interview recruitment weekend for the program. He was particularly struck by the open academic climate.

“UT Southwestern is just so intimate and collaborative,” said Mr. McFarlane, who earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard University.

Qian Cong of Harbin, China, received her undergraduate degree in biological sciences from Peking University. She is a fourth-year graduate fellow under the mentorship of Dr. Nick Grishin, Professor of Biophysics and Biochemistry and an HHMI investigator.

Ms. Cong said UT Southwestern is well-known throughout China.

“UT Southwestern has a very good reputation among Chinese students,” she said. “It has many excellent labs specialized in many different fields for students to choose from.”

The fellowship will further her work using computer simulations to predict the 3-D structures of disease-causing proteins. The research could lead to a deeper understanding of human diseases, Ms. Cong said.

“This grant encourages me to pursue my very challenging thesis project, and also boosts my confidence in science as a career choice,” she said.


Dr. Brown holds the W.A. (Monty) Moncrief Distinguished Chair in Cholesterol and Arteriosclerosis Research, and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine, and is a Regental Professor.

Dr. Chen holds the George L. MacGregor Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Science. 

Dr. Goldstein holds the Julie and Louis A. Beecherl Jr. Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Science, and the Paul J. Thomas Chair in Medicine, and is a Regental Professor.

Dr. Grishin is a Virginia Murchison Linthicum Scholar in Biomedical Research.

Dr. Roth holds the Diane and Hal Brierley Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Research.

Dr. Russell holds the Eugene McDermott Distinguished Chair in Molecular Genetics.