Grad students garner HHMI international fellowships

HHMI winners
Fourth-year UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences students Jiaxi Wu and Chien-Der Lee have been selected to receive 2013 Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Student Research Fellowships.

By Lin Lofley

Two fourth-year students from the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences are among 42 recipients of 2013 Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Student Research Fellowships, which are awarded to the nation’s top young researchers.

Jiaxi Wu, a student in the laboratory of Dr. Zhijian “James” Chen, Professor of Molecular Biology in the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense, and Chien-Der Lee, a student in the laboratory of Dr. Benjamin Tu, Associate Professor of Biochemistry, are the fifth and sixth students from UT Southwestern Medical Center selected to be fellows since the awards began in 2011. HHMI currently supports 140 students from 35 countries during the most critical years of their Ph.D. work.

Each annual fellowship award provides $43,000 in support – a $30,000 stipend, a $3,000 fellow allowance, and a $10,000 institutional allowance.

“HHMI funding for international students is critical because National Institutes of Health and other fellowships will support only U.S. citizens or permanent residents,” said Dr. Andrew Zinn, Dean of the graduate school and director of the Medical Scientist Training Program. “But the U.S. does not have a monopoly on scientific talent; the ability to train international students allows our institution to recruit top students globally.

“The fact that six UT Southwestern students have garnered these fiercely competitive fellowships in the past three years attests to the quality of our graduate students and their research.”

The 2013 recipients represent 19 countries. HHMI has invested nearly $11 million in the International Fellows program.

Drs. Chen and Tu praised their protégés, for whom each wrote a letter of recommendation as part of the selection process.

“Jiaxi Wu is an exceptional talent who is ideally cut out to do biomedical research,” said Dr. Chen, an HHMI Investigator. “He’s had a series of recent publications, including four in the journal Science and one in Molecular Cell, on the discovery and characterization of a novel innate immunity pathway (the cGAS-cGAMP pathway). Receiving this fellowship is a testimonial to his creativity and his potential to make even more breakthrough discoveries.”

Mr. Wu – whose father is a surgeon and mother is a clinician, both in his native China – decided to follow the same path into science as he transitioned from high school to college. The 25-year-old’s goal following graduation is a postdoctoral fellowship on his way to a career in the biomedical sciences. Outside the lab he has served on campus as vice president of the UT Southwestern Chinese Student and Scholar Association (CSSA).

Dr. Tu called Mr. Lee “a gifted experimentalist and unafraid to use whatever approach is needed in his research. He is constantly thinking about how the system might be working.”

Mr. Lee, 29, earned a master’s degree in biochemistry in his native Taiwan before coming to graduate school at UT Southwestern. Early on, he had an interest in both biology and physics, and a career in science seemed to grow out of his interest in tinkering.

“I have liked to repair broken things since I was a child,” he said. “I am always inspired by the intelligence in the design of man-made things. Once you know how things work, then you can improve them with your own intelligence.

“It’s like doing science: If you know how it works, then you have a chance to make it better. Now I am inspired by how nature designs life, and I want to explore it more,” he said. “My goal is to make some discovery and try to do something good for human beings.”

Recipients of the HHMI International Student Fellowships are funded through the end of their fifth year of graduate school.

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

Dr. Tu is a W.W. Caruth Jr. Scholar in Biomedical Research.

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