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Nominata Award: Ryan Golden shines while combining molecular biology, CRISPR technology

By Deborah Wormser

Update: Video added July 1, 2017

Ryan Golden, the recipient of the 2017 Nominata Award, says the UT Southwestern Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) enabled him to combine his love of research with his lifetime goal of service to others.

Ryan Golden
Ryan Golden

The Nominata is the highest honor that UT Southwestern Medical Center bestows on a student in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Mr. Golden, who worked in the laboratory of Dr. Joshua Mendell, Professor of Molecular Biology, recently presented the Nominata Lecture to an audience of faculty members and fellow graduate students.

Mr. Golden’s parents are both retired, his mother from teaching elementary school and his father from a career in law enforcement. He has one sibling, a sister who works as an accountant in Atlanta. “My family taught me the value of service to others, and medicine struck me as a rewarding path for someone interested in service and biomedical science,” he said.

His love of science came naturally as a child growing up in Dublin, Georgia. That curiosity deepened at Mercer University, where he graduated summa cum laude and worked for three years in a biochemistry laboratory. His mentor suggested he pursue a combined M.D./Ph.D. degree plan, specifically the one at UT Southwestern, Mr. Golden said. He added that he is grateful to have conducted research in the laboratory of Dr. Mendell, who also is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at UT Southwestern.

“Ryan has demonstrated academic excellence and an exceptional level of research achievement. His accomplishments serve as an outstanding example for all graduate students at UT Southwestern,” said Graduate School Dean Dr. Andrew Zinn, in announcing the 2017 award. Dr. Zinn, Professor in the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development and the Department of Internal Medicine, is himself an M.D./Ph.D. graduate of UT Southwestern and the 1988 Nominata recipient.

“Ryan is an extremely talented and fearless scientist who has been a joy to mentor. Ryan performed a remarkably successful genome-wide CRISPR screen to address a fundamental question in our field, how microRNA activity is regulated. By applying this approach, coupled with elegant biochemical and molecular studies of the microRNA machinery, Ryan uncovered fundamental new insights into how microRNAs efficiently downregulate target messenger RNAs,” said Dr. Mendell.

“In addition, he generously helped many other laboratories on campus use a similar approach to interrogate a broad range of biological questions. He has therefore had a major impact on the science here at UT Southwestern and outside our institution. I am extremely proud of his accomplishments,” he added.

The Nominata Award, created by the Graduate Student Organization in 1980 to recognize academic excellence and research achievement among the advanced graduate students, includes a $2,000 monetary prize, a gift certificate, and the honor of presenting in the University Lecture Series.

Mr. Golden said, “I feel incredibly honored to receive this award and grateful that the selection committee has given me the opportunity to share my research at the prestigious University Lecture Series. I am thankful to Dr. Mendell, my lab, our collaborators, and the many mentors and peers who have supported me.”

He was in his third year in the lab when other groups reported successful genome-scale screening methods using gene editing powered by CRISPR. With Dr. Mendell’s support, Mr. Golden developed a novel strategy for identifying regulators of the microRNA pathway using these newly developed CRISPR tools.

As a result, Mr. Golden became lead author of a study recently published in the journal Nature that identified a new mechanism that choreographs how microRNAs find and couple with messenger RNAs.

The microRNA pathway is critically important to health and disease, serving as a kind of volume control for genes, dialing down the expression of specific proteins, said Dr. Mendell. MicroRNAs play important roles in heart disease and can inhibit or accelerate cancer, he added.

Mr. Golden, an eighth-year STP student, is now completing his third-year Medical School clinical clerkships. He is strongly considering combined clinical and research training with the ultimate goal of leading a research team devoted to increasing the fundamental understanding of disease and developing novel therapies.

His favorite extracurricular activity at UT Southwestern has been teaching high school students through the STARS (Science Teacher Access to Resources at Southwestern) program. “Younger students have so much curiosity and creativity, and it is refreshing to see how they process scientific concepts,” he said.

Off campus, he enjoys swing dancing. “The Dallas swing dancing community is surprisingly lively, and I spent a couple years taking classes. It has been a rich source of fun and friendship,” he said.

One lasting memory of his time in the laboratory is the experience of being on a coordinated team.

“Rapid progress in science depends upon good teamwork. It was a remarkable experience to be a member of a skilled and committed interdisciplinary research team,” he said.

In addition, Ho Yee Joyce Fung of the Molecular Biophysics Graduate Program and Liem Nguyen of the Cancer Biology Graduate Program are recipients of a Dean’s Discretionary Award, which reflects their notable research accomplishments and extraordinary ability to communicate their science outside of their field.

Dr. Mendell is a CPRIT Scholar in Cancer Research.

Dr. Zinn holds the Rolf Haberecht and Ute Schwarz Haberecht Deanship of the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.