Students win Weintraub awards for cancer, infectious disease research

 UTSW graduate students Ruei-Jiun Hung and Robert Orchard were among 13 selected nationwide to receive Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Awards from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
UTSW graduate students Ruei-Jiun Hung and Robert Orchard were among 13 selected nationwide to receive Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Awards from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. (Lin Lofley Photo)

By Lin Lofley

UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences students Ruei-Jiun Hung and Robert Orchard have won prestigious awards for their research from the Basic Sciences Division of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

The two are among 13 graduate students nationwide to receive 2013 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Awards. They are also the first winners from UT Southwestern Medical Center.

The award was established in 2000 to honor the late Dr. Harold M. “Hal” Weintraub, a founding member of the Basic Sciences Division who died of brain cancer in 1995. Award winners will present their work in a scientific symposium May 3 at the Hutchinson Center. Each receives a certificate, travel expenses, and an honorarium from the Weintraub and Groudine Fund.

The announcement triggered elation across the Graduate School, especially in the labs of Dr. Jonathan Terman, Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Pharmacology, and Dr. Neal Alto, Assistant Professor of Microbiology. Ms. Hung works in Dr. Terman’s lab, while Mr. Orchard works in Dr. Alto’s lab. Both students will graduate this month.

“The Weintraub Award is judged on quality, originality, and significance of a graduate student’s work, as well as to represent a wide range of research topics,” said Dr. Michael Roth, Interim Dean of the Graduate School. “Ms. Hung and Mr. Orchard are being recognized because they have taken intellectual ownership of their research projects and successfully carried them out.

“The fact that we have two winners reflects the fact that our institution is strong in many areas of science and provides outstanding research opportunities.”

With the support of a Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas graduate fellowship, Ms. Hung is researching how normal and cancerous cells and their membranous processes navigate.

“One aspect of my research is to understand how neurons connect with each other, and how we can get them to reconnect following injury or neurodegenerative disease,” Ms. Hung said.

“Ruei-Jiun took a problem that had been troubling the field for almost 30 years and provided a mechanistic understanding to it,” Dr. Terman said. “She is an extremely talented young investigator and well-deserving of the Weintraub Award. We are all very excited for her.”

A native of Taiwan, Ms. Hung graduated from National Tsing Hua University in 2004 with a degree in biology. She has accepted a postdoctoral research position in the genetics lab of Dr. Norbert Perrimon at Harvard Medical School and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Mr. Orchard is studying the interface between host and pathogen interactions. Normally, cells have a dedicated program for sensing the direction of signaling molecules, which is critical for several basic processes, including cellular migration.

He has found that bacterial pathogens such as E. coli, shigella, and salmonella hijack these processes to cause infectious disease. Importantly, Mr. Orchard’s findings have uncovered a previously unrecognized signaling “circuit” that functions in mammalian cell polarity and bacterial infection.

“Robert’s thesis work merged two entirely different fields of science, which is a credit to his creativity, ambition, and hard work during his time in my laboratory,” Dr. Alto said. 

Mr. Orchard grew up in Abilene and graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in microbiology. His next stop will be a postdoctoral fellowship in the lab of Dr. Herbert “Skip” Virgin at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he will investigate how viruses evade the clearance by the immune system.

In 2011, Mr. Orchard was among more than 500 young researchers from 80 countries selected to attend the 61st Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany. 

“Probably the most important [takeaway] was sitting in the hall with dozens of other young researchers, just listening to what the Nobel Laureates had to say,” he recalled. “They all shared the same thing: They’re still enthusiastic about science.”

Dr. Alto and Dr. Terman are Rita C. and William P. Clements, Jr. Scholars in Medical Research.

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

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