kirstie cummings and gabriela popescu.

Kirstie A. Cummings (left), working in the lab of Gabriela K. Popescu, PhD, is exploring a novel type of glycinergic NMDA receptors implicated in schizophrenia.

Competitive NIH Fellowship Supports Brain Receptor Study

Published August 16, 2013 This content is archived.

Story by Suzanne Kashuba

Kirstie A. Cummings, a PhD student studying in the lab of Gabriela K. Popescu, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry, has been awarded a highly competitive, three-year fellowship from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

“Since starting one year ago in Dr. Popescu’s lab, I have gained a great deal of knowledge and confidence. ”
Kirstie A. Cummings, PhD Student
Department of Biochemistry

The approximately $150,000 Ruth L. Kirschstein F31 National Research Service Award for Individual Predoctoral Students supports training for a promising researcher in a health-related area.

Nationally, 500 students with the potential to become productive, independent investigators received new F31 awards in fiscal year 2012 through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Project Sheds Light on Possible Drug Target

Cummings’ fellowship award will allow her to research the functional mechanisms of a novel type of glycinergic N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors. These excitatory brain receptors are required for learning and memory formation, but are also implicated in schizophrenia.

“I want to determine what it is that makes these receptors so functionally diverse,” says Cummings.

Her research may provide insight that could lead to the development of drug therapies to address symptoms of schizophrenia.

‘Outstanding’ Application Cited for Research Plan

The NIH reviewers rated Cummings’ application as “outstanding,” scoring it in her batch’s top 14th percentile.

“The application addresses an interesting topic,” reviewers noted, and they cited Cummings’ “hypothesis-driven research plan with supportive preliminary data” and “well-designed set of experiments.”

In addition, reviewers praised Cummings’ plan for personalized training with her mentor, noting she will acquire skills in advanced electrophysiology.

Engaging, Supportive Environment Key to Success

Cummings says her “unique experiences” at UB as well as university resources for student researchers helped her develop a successful fellowship application.

She adds that engaging and supportive faculty members, thoughtful input from committee members and a highly supportive environment in Popescu’s lab also contributed to her success.

“Dr. Popescu is always receptive to my ideas and allows me to take directions that I am most interested in, while keeping me focused and on track,” Cummings notes. “I have gained a great deal of knowledge and confidence,” she adds.

Cummings also has benefited from UB’s Collaborative Learning and Integrated Mentoring in the Biosciences (CLIMB) program.

This professional development program for PhD students organized a mock NIH study section in which Cummings participated. The experience allowed her to receive preliminary feedback from faculty members prior to submitting her proposal.

4 Popescu Trainees Win NIH Fellowships

Cummings is the fourth trainee in Popescu’s lab to win predoctoral or postdoctoral NIH fellowships, an accomplishment Popescu credits primarily to her students’ innate abilities and hard work.

“Kirstie is a particularly talented, enthusiastic and organized aspiring scientist,” Popescu says. “She is independent in her thinking, courageous in her experimental approach and generous with her knowledge.”

Three UB predoctoral students currently have F31 NIH support for their research, including two in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences: Meaghan Paganelli, a neuroscience student who researches in Popescu’s lab, and Emily Clementi, who works with Anders Hakansson, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology.