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Recovery Act Helps Build a Second Career

Suzy Vasa with her advisors Morgan Giddings and Jennifer Webster-Cyriaque

Suzy Vasa (front row center) pictured with her advisors Dr. Morgan Giddings (left) and Dr. Jennifer Webster-Cyriaque (right).

Suzy Vasa checked one last time for typos, pressed the papers into an envelope, and mailed off her fellowship application to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). That was in April 2008, and the grant, called an F-31, would fund her first proposed research project and provide needed living expenses while Vasa, a graduate student in the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, finished her degree.

A few months later, Vasa received good and bad news. The reviewers were impressed, but the institute lacked the resources to fund Vasa’s and other high-quality applications. Vasa said she figured that was the end of the story until she received a phone call last March from Dr. Leslie Frieden, an NIDCR extramural training officer. “At this point, I’d completely forgotten about the fellowship,” said Vasa, 42. “Leslie asked if I still was interested in receiving funding? I thought, ‘Wow, it’s not every day that somebody offers you money to do what you enjoy.’”

Frieden explained, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the NIDCR now had the means to extend its payline and invest in Vasa’s great idea. She’s building a virtual cell that allows her to plug in her own calculations or those of her colleagues and digitally model the life cycle of the BK virus, a nearly ubiquitous but still poorly understood human pathogen that can be transmitted orally.

But, as Vasa explained, the two-year, $60,916 training grant means so much more than just a project title and dollar figure typed into a spread sheet. The grant has been a boon for her young career, a help at home during these tough economic times, and, above all, an enabling resource for Vasa and her colleagues in making sense of this important virus.

Computing Biology

Five years ago, Vasa had never heard of NIDCR, F-31s, or the BK virus. She worked as a software engineer in the telecommunications industry, and she and her husband Yojak, also in telecommunications, had settled into their home in suburban Cary, North Carolina to raise their two young children.

But, after nearly 15 years of turning out software, Vasa had begun to lose interest in the field. Vasa decided she needed a new professional challenge. She returned to college and, after some soul searching, decided to pursue an advanced degree - and second career - in biology. “I wanted to apply my computer science background in biology,” Vasa explained. “That’s why I chose the program. They offer an emphasis in computational biology.”

In today’s digital age, computational biology is a critical and growing discipline within biomedical research. It combines computer science, mathematics, and statistics to simulate on a computer screen the dynamics of a particular biological interaction or problem, for example, how the BK virus enters a cell.

Vasa said the more she explored biological questions on the computer screen, the more she realized that she’d made the right choice. “I really enjoy working with viruses in particular,” she said. “There’s so little known about them, and they’re so devious about ensuring their survival. It’s just really intriguing how these simple organisms can wreak so much havoc in our bodies.”

To begin putting her second career on track, Vasa applied for an NIDCR fellowship. “When I didn’t get the fellowship, it was a bit of a letdown” said Vasa. “But I got positive feedback on my proposal, and my score was pretty decent. I didn’t resubmit the proposal, but I felt good about the experience.”

Vasa subsequently received funding from the Molecular Biology of Viral Diseases Predoctoral Training Grant from the University of North Carolina to begin creating a virtual cell, the project that she had proposed previously to NIDCR. The UNC grant helped to cover most of her tuition last year and also provided a student stipend.

Despite juggling books and bills, Vasa’s research career had progressed nicely. In April 2008, she was a coauthor on her first scientific paper, a computer analysis of the structure of an RNA molecule in the HIV-1 virus over time. Another paper was in press on a software system called ShapeFinder and its rapid quantitative analysis of raw, or unfinished, DNA and RNA sequence data. She was the lead author.

Then came the Recovery Act. In May 2009, the NIDCR awarded Vasa a two-year fellowship from the NIDCR to continue with her project. The fellowship breaks down to $30,458 per year, including tuition support, a student stipend, and funds to purchase needed computer software to advance her research capabilities.

“I’ve created a computational model of a virtual cell,” said Vasa, who actively collaborates with Dr. Jennifer Webster-Cyriaque’s oral biology laboratory at UNC and is co-mentored by Dr. Morgan Giddings, who started her on the path of this computational modeling technique. “Basically, the model hypothesizes how the BK virus infects a cell and replicates within it. I’ve started with a model of a single cell, but my goal is to create a multi-cellular model that would allow us to imitate actual salivary gland tissue. From there, I’ll proceed to model the actual disease process in the salivary gland.”

Vasa said she has now completed her academic requirements to graduate with a degree in computational biology and will take part in the UNC graduation ceremony in the spring. Ultimately, she would like to launch her second career with a biotechnology company in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park region.

Background on NIH and the Recovery Act

The Recovery Act was signed into law February 17, 2009 to help stem the current economic crisis. It aims to create and save millions of jobs, advance American innovation, and lay a stronger economic foundation to grow the economy in the 21st century.

The Recovery Act made $10.4 billion available to NIH through September 2010 to expand public support for the most promising research ideas, construct and improve laboratory facilities, and purchase needed scientific equipment to enable the work.

Of the $10.4 billion, NIH has transferred $7.4 billion directly to its 27 institutes and centers and the NIH Common Fund, which supports cross-cutting research programs that involve multiple institutes. Based on its percentage of the total annual NIH budget appropriation, NIDCR received a two-year allocation of $101.8 million.

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This page last updated: February 26, 2014