Jump to main content

Ida M. Green Award winner solves mystery tied to COVID-19’s method of viral disguise

girl with long brown hair in lab
Gina J. Park, winner of the 2023 Ida M. Green Award, discovered a capping mechanism that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, uses to disguise its genetic material.

Gina J. Park, a student in the Perot Family Scholars Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP), has won the 2023 Ida M. Green Award for her leadership and research expertise. Ms. Park was first author on a study that revealed how the virus that causes COVID-19 evades detection by the cells it infects. 

The prize is presented annually by Southwestern Medical Foundation to recognize a woman in the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences for scientific excellence and service to the UT Southwestern community. It comes with a monetary award provided by UTSW’s Women in Science and Medicine Advisory Committee (WISMAC) with generous support from the Foundation. Ms. Park was honored at a reception in May.

“Gina Park is a source of tremendous inspiration for her peers and those who may wish to pursue a career in science or medicine,” said Michael McMahan, President and CEO of Southwestern Medical Foundation. “Her bold approach in research and the discovery she made as an M.D./Ph.D. candidate in the MSTP are advancing our community’s knowledge around mRNA, a mechanism which is integral to the understanding and treatment of viruses. The courageous spirit behind her work and her dedication to community are traits in great alignment with the visionary for whom this award was named.”

As part of her dissertation research, published in Nature, Ms. Park discovered the mechanism of mRNA capping by SARS-CoV-2, which involves a novel reaction catalyzed by a pseudokinase domain. She did the work in the lab of Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator Vincent Tagliabracci, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Molecular Biology,  a Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas Scholar, and a member of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Coronaviruses have been known to have a chemical camouflage on their genome, but it was unclear how this disguise was made by the virus. We solved this 40-year-old cold case,” Dr. Tagliabracci said, adding, “Gina’s creativity and determination demonstrated the scholastic excellence and leadership qualities recognized by the Ida M. Green Award.”

Earlier this year, Ms. Park was recognized with the 2022 William F. and Grace H. Kirkpatrick Award from the Graduate School for the most scientifically meritorious grant application, as judged by a committee of Graduate School faculty members.

Ms. Park’s contributions in support of fellow UT Southwestern graduate students include serving as a student representative for WISMAC, participating in outreach activities for the STARS (Science Teacher Access to Resources at Southwestern) symposium for teenagers, and playing an active role in the Women in MSTP Committee. She has also worked with the Alliance for Women Scientists as a panelist for Careers in Science and Medicine discussions at the Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School in Dallas and the Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Fort Worth, both public schools.

Tall man with beard and woman with long dark hair looking at slides in lab
Ms. Park works with Vincent Tagliabracci, Ph.D., studying viruses such as the one that causes COVID-19.

“I am honored to receive the Ida M. Green Award. Science is a team effort, and I have been fortunate to work with so many great people during the course of my project,” Ms. Park said. “I’d also like to thank Vinnie [Tagliabracci], who has been an incredible mentor throughout my time in graduate school. I’m especially grateful that he’s been so supportive of students driving our own projects and coming up with our own ideas and hypotheses, which has been instrumental for my growth and development as a scientist.”

Ms. Park was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved to New Jersey at the age of 8. She attended the University of Virginia, earning a bachelor’s in biology with a minor in studio art. She had her family’s support for all her interests and credits teachers who showed her how to pursue her passions.

“As someone who doesn’t come from a family of scientists or physicians, I know firsthand how important mentorship can be. I might not be here today if it weren’t for my high school biology teacher who encouraged my interest in medicine, or my undergraduate research mentor who first told me to consider M.D./Ph.D. programs,” she said. “Because of that, engaging with younger students and becoming a role model for the next generation of women in science and medicine has always been very important to me.”

Ms. Park became interested in medicine as a child. She first considered a career in science during college, where she discovered a love for asking questions and doing experiments.

She learned about UTSW when she took a class that covered cholesterol metabolism and found out about the Nobel Prize-winning work of Michael S. Brown, M.D., and Joseph L. Goldstein, M.D., who identified the low-density lipoprotein receptor. Their efforts laid the scientific groundwork for the statin class of lifesaving, cholesterol-lowering drugs. She also studied the achievements of UT Southwestern’s Helen Hobbs, M.D., and Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D., whose studies had the same effect for the newer class of cholesterol-reducing PCSK9 inhibitors.

Woman with long dark hair in lab looking at equipment
Ms. Park’s same work led to an earlier William F. and Grace H. Kirkpatrick Award as well as a National Institutes of Health award to further her research.

Dr. Goldstein is Chair of Molecular Genetics, while Dr. Brown is Director of the Erik Jonsson Center for Research in Molecular Genetics and Human Disease at UT Southwestern. Both are Professors of Molecular Genetics and Internal Medicine. The duo run a joint laboratory.

Dr. Hobbs is Director of the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development and Professor of Internal Medicine and Molecular Genetics. Her lab partner, Dr. Cohen, is a Professor in the Center for Human Nutrition and the McDermott Center.

“By this point, I knew I was interested in pursuing a career as a physician-scientist, and I was really inspired by these examples of basic scientific research that led to a better understanding of human biology and translated into therapies,” Ms. Park explained. “UTSW seemed to offer a really unique, collaborative environment that facilitates these groundbreaking discoveries. I knew it was where I wanted to come.”

Ms. Park is a third-year graduate student in the Cell and Molecular Biology Program and is in her fifth year of the MSTP, which grants dual M.D./Ph.D. degrees. She will return for her final two years of medical school in 2024. She plans to become a physician-scientist.

The Ida M. Green Award was established in 1987 to honor the late Ida M. Green and to acknowledge the generous contributions she and her late husband, Cecil, made to UT Southwestern.

Back-to top