Two Doctoral Students Win SUNY GREAT Awards

Published March 11, 2022

story by dirk hoffman

Two doctoral students in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences are among the recipients of the state’s second annual Graduate Research Empowering and Accelerating Talent (GREAT) Awards.

“External awards provide not only funding support, but also career-enhancing recognition. As UB moves to Top 25 recognition, having graduate students win these prestigious awards will support this goal. ”
Elizabeth A. Colucci
Assistant dean for graduate professional development in UB’s Graduate School

The honor provides $5,000 in flexible funds for research expenses, professional development and supplemental stipend support.

The two Jacobs School students to receive a 2022 SUNY GREAT Award are Steven A. Lewis, a trainee in the doctoral program in computational cell biology, anatomy and pathology; and Narayan Dhimal, a trainee in the doctoral program in neuroscience.

They are among 28 SUNY students receiving the GREAT awards; all award winners have also been recognized nationally for their research by prestigious graduate fellowship programs sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

This includes the NIH F31 Individual Fellowships and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).

Awards Provide Career-Enhancing Recognition

Lewis and Dhimal have each received an NIH F31 Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award.

“Our graduate students are crucial in shaping the future of medicine,” says Allison Brashear, MD, UB’s vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School. “It is heartening to see their research efforts recognized by SUNY. These projects are addressing important issues and can be difference makers in the lives of many.”

“This SUNY award elevates the prominence of these external fellowships for graduate students,” says Elizabeth A. Colucci, assistant dean for graduate professional development in UB’s Graduate School. “We at UB have been working diligently to increase awareness of the NSF GRFP and NIH individual awards, such as the F30 and F31.”

“External awards provide not only funding support, but also career-enhancing recognition,” Colucci says. “As UB moves to Top 25 recognition, having graduate students win these prestigious awards will support this goal.”

Focus on Improving Gross Anatomy Education

Steven A. Lewis.

Steven A. Lewis

Lewis, who is mentored by Scott T. Doyle, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences, is focusing his research on understanding anatomical structure imaging with an eye toward improving gross anatomy education.

“My research is focused on the development of physical and computational tools to enhance and extract meaningful information from cadaveric samples, especially utilizing artificial intelligence algorithms,” he says. “To do this, we define 3D models of anatomical structures from CT scans using deep learning, perform shape analysis, and establish diagnostic and prognostic information.”

“Our research aims at drastically improving the teaching of gross anatomy education with meaningful quantitative definitions of anatomical structures, and to provide anatomical and radiological researchers with tools to assist in the understanding of normal and pathological variation, analyzing the level of meaningful contrast enhancement, and creating methods to improve said contrast,” Lewis adds.

Since 2014, UB has been collecting whole-body, non-contrast enhanced CT scans from its Anatomical Gift Program, Lewis notes.

“This allows the anatomical information from these gifts to be preserved far longer than the physical specimens, and to be analyzed for significant, distinct structural characteristics that can help gross anatomy students understand natural and pathological human variation much better,” he says.

Seeking Therapeutic Strategies to Treat KD

Narayan Dhimal.

Narayan Dhimal

Dhimal works in the lab of M. Laura Feltri, MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of biochemistry and neurology and director of the Institute for Myelin and Glia Exploration.

He is studying the roles of autophagy and TFEB transcription factor in Krabbe disease (KD), a demyelinating disorder of the central and the peripheral nervous system caused by lack of GALC (galactosylceramidase)
enzyme function.

“GALC is a lysosomal enzyme that is required for degradation of myelin. As a result of lack of GALC, abnormal storage of myelin debris in lysosomes is seen in Krabbe patients,” Dhimal says. “I hypothesize that autophagy, the major degradation/recycling cellular mechanism in myelinating cells, may be dysregulated in Krabbe patients and contributing to disease severity.”

From his work, Dhimal says he hopes to find a therapeutic strategy where pharmacologically increasing or modulating the autophagy process might be beneficial and may serve as a combination treatment, along with bone marrow therapy, as well as ongoing gene therapy trials.

“My findings may help understand the mechanisms of disease initiation and progression of not only Krabbe disease, but other lysosomal storage disorders as well,” he says. “It may also open therapeutic avenues to reduce disease burden.”