Graduate student Esmat Hegazi (left) and postdoc Rebecca Kim-Yip (right). Images courtesy of Esmat Hegazi and Rebecca Kim-Yip.
The process of bringing a revelation made at a research bench into clinical practice, where it can benefit people directly—the practice of translational science—is often more difficult than many basic science researchers appreciate. The New Jersey Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science (NJ ACTS) aims to address this challenge by offering training and research support to individuals pursuing translational research in the biological and social sciences, engineering, and beyond. A statewide coalition of partners and affiliates, NJ ACTS is funded through a Clinical and Translational Science Award by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the National Institutes of Health. The Alliance unites researchers at Princeton and the New Jersey Institute of Technology with clinical researchers, physicians and investigators at the lead institution, Rutgers University. The NJ ACTS TL1 Training Program specifically offers predoctoral and postdoctoral Fellows training in clinical and translational science.
“How do you take a drug or antibiotic from the bench through validation, testing, licensing, and ultimately marketing to help people? It’s a long pathway, and it requires knowledge of how to run studies and do special statistical modeling. You have to have a certain amount of knowledge about what is already is possible in that domain, what’s missing, and what the needs are,” explains Dr. Daniel Notterman, Professor in the Princeton Department of Molecular Biology and Co-Director for the NJ ACTS Training Program.
“Since we don’t have a medical school at Princeton” says Notterman, “this program provides access to clinical and translational expertise at Rutgers.”
NJ ACTS TL1 Training Program Fellows from Princeton receive a year of stipend and tuition support; additional funding for research and training-related expenses (for predoctoral trainees); and access to conferences, meetings, seminars, and networking opportunities to help further the translational aspects of their work and enhance their career development. They also receive training on a range of topics, from Team Science to how to design and write grants for the National Institutes of Health, whose extramural research funding programs require a direct focus on human health. The program, which solicits new applicants annually, began in 2019. So far, 19 pre- and postdoctoral trainees have received awards through the NJ ACTS TL1 program; eight have hailed from Princeton, with four from the Department of Molecular Biology. Past awardees from the Department include MD/PhD student Chloe Cavanaugh (2019, Notterman lab) and graduate student Ellen Acosta (2020, Gitai lab). In September of 2021, two more members of the Department were inducted into the program: graduate student Esmat Hegazi (Muir lab) and postdoctoral researcher Rebecca Kim-Yip (Toettcher and Posfai labs).
“My research is focused on characterizing the biochemical and functional mechanisms of a set of highly prevalent cancer-associated histone mutations,” says Hegazi. “Because of the wide scope of cancer types these histone mutations occur in, I believe that my project has broad reaching translational impact. A current challenge in the cancer epigenetic field is the lack of cell specificity in therapeutic targeting. My project can better inform the development of targeted inhibitors to these epigenetic pathways.”
“My hope as a NJ ACTS Fellow is I will be able to bridge the gaps between my fundamental biochemistry research with its translational impact. This fellowship will propel my engagement with clinicians and experts who can give insight on how to directly translate my findings, and the challenges that exist in its translational application,” she adds.
Kim-Yip is likewise excited about the networking connections the program promotes. She also anticipates that the training the fellowship offers will be particularly helpful for her research on stem cell biology.
“Stem cells are an interesting model with amazing therapeutic potential because they have the ability to differentiate into any cell type of the body. However, there are still many challenges that remain to making this a reality because stem cells respond very heterogeneously to external stimuli, especially when you want them to differentiate into certain cell types. My research focuses on studying this heterogeneous behavior and one of the aspects that I’m particularly interested in is how their cell cycle progression contributes to this,” says Kim-Yip.
“Greater understanding of stem cell behavior in the lab will allow us to better engineer cell types of the right functions in the right proportions. This is crucial for any future potential in the organ regeneration field. Understanding how stem cells behave in a dish will also help us build more accurate models of how these cells behave in an organism,” notes Kim-Yip.
Hegazi and Kim-Yip join a diverse class of Fellows pursuing a wide range of research projects. Princeton graduate students and postdocs interested in applying to the NJ ACTS Fellowship program are urged to visit the program’s website and contact its on-campus manager, Bianca Freda ‘98, for more information.
Funding: Funding for NJ ACTS is provided by three Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) Program grants (UL1TR003017, KL2TR003018 and TL1TR003019).