News & Events

BCM/NRI scientist receives NIH Director's "Early Independence Award"

Sep. 30, 2011


(HOUSTON) -- A Baylor College of Medicine scientist who works in the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Researcher Institute at Texas Children's Hospital is one of 10 young researchers nationwide to receive a National Institutes of Health Director's Early Independence Award. The award is designed to speed their development as researchers while pursuing their own projects in their own lab.

Dr. Rodney C. Samaco, whose graduate studies took place in the laboratory of Dr. Huda Zoghbi, director of the Neurological Research Institute and a professor of molecular and human genetics, neurology, neuroscience and pediatrics at BCM, completed his doctoral studies last fall at BCM, where he has also continued his postgraduate work. The $1.25 million five-year award will help him pursue work aimed at understanding the genetic and neurobiological basis of the social and behavioral dysfunction associated with autism spectrum disorders.

The laboratory in the Neurological Research Institute and the collaborative attitude in that center, and BCM as a whole, will be an important part of his research. He credits Texas Children's and the College with providing him crucial support during his graduate and postgraduate career.

"This is the best place to accomplish the work I'm proposing," he said.

"Rodney is one of the most creative, motivated, and collaborative students I have had in my laboratory," said Zoghbi, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. "He has doggedly pursued a better understanding of Rett syndrome and opened up new possibilities for preclinical interventional studies. He is the kind of student who makes mentoring a most rewarding experience."

The Early Independence Award was established by Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH director, to combat a recent trend of long-term training periods that increase the time it takes a scientist to establish an independent research career. Collins and the NIH established the award to encourage the "pool of talented young scientists who have the intellect, scientific creativity, drive and maturity to flourish independently without the need for traditional post-doctoral training," according to the announcement of the award.

Samaco's work with Zoghbi focused on Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder that affects mainly young girls, impairing their physical and mental abilities. He has published numerous articles in the medical literature about his work, including some in major journals such as Science, Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Samaco is the son of two immigrants from the Philippines who met and married in the United States. His father was in the military and the family moved to San Diego soon after his birth in San Jose, CA. He pursued his undergraduate studies in genetics at the University of California Davis, where he worked in the laboratory of Dr. Janine LaSalle, who was also interested in neurological disorders, including Rett. There he was part of an NIH-Howard Hughes Medical Institute funded program called the Biology Undergraduate Scholars program. It was then that he decided not to become a physician because he could have more impact on these diseases by working in the laboratory.

As an undergraduate, he came to BCM as part of the SMART (Summer Medical and Research Training) Program, which provides college undergraduates with the opportunity to work in biomedical research laboratories and provides science education for the summer. Samaco worked in the laboratory of Dr. Arthur Beaudet, chair of molecular and human genetics at BCM, under the supervision of Dr. Yong-hui Jiang, now at Duke University School of Medicine.

"Baylor would not even have been on my radar without the SMART program," he said. "The opportunity I had there and the mentoring I received in the laboratory was important for my continued career in science. Now I'm here and I like it."

His experience with Rett Syndrome drew him to BCM, with the aim of working in the lab of Zoghbi, where the gene for the disorder was first identified.

"Most of my scientific mentors have been women," he said. As more women are coming into science and beginning to be promoted "it's finally having an impact on my generation."

"This is an amazing opportunity that is only possible because the NIH has realized that the time from receiving your Ph.D. to starting your own independent research is taking too long," said Samaco. "This grant will fill that gap."

Other award recipients include:

  • Nicole E. Basta, (Ph.D. expected in December), University of Washington School of Public Health, Seattle. Antibody persistence after conjugate meningococcal group A vaccination in Mali.
  • John Calarco, Ph.D., Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Investigating the role of alternative splicing regulatory networks in nervous system development and function.
  • James S. Fraser, Ph.D., University of California, San Francisco. The impact of mutation on the conformations and recognition of ubiquitin.
  • Randal Halfmann, Ph.D., UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. Contributions of protein aggregation to gene regulation and phenotypic diversity.
  • Jeffrey M. Kidd, Ph.D., Stanford University School of Medicine, Calif. Characterizing the global architecture of genomic diversity.
  • Christoph Lepper, Ph.D., Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. Molecular mechanisms of muscle stem cells transitioning into quiescence.
  • Carissa Perez Olsen, Ph.D., Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle. Defining the impact of lipid synthesis and turnover on aging in C. elegans.
  • Harris H. Wang, Ph.D., Wyss Institute/Harvard Medical School, Boston. Functional metagenomic reprogramming of the human microbiome through mobilome engineering.
  • Daniela Witten, Ph.D., University of Washington School of Public Health. High-dimensional unsupervised learning with applications to genomics.

About the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children's Hospital
Recognizing there was no single institution using multidisciplinary research to guide the study of pediatric cognitive development and neurological disorders, Texas Children's Hospital created the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute. Opened in 2010, the institute is the first dedicated facility to use a multidisciplinary research approach to rapidly accelerate the search for treatments for pediatric neurological disorders. The specially-designed facility is the crossroads where more than 170 researchers (over 15 principal investigators and their teams) across disciplines collaborate to bring promising new therapies to those afflicted with neurological diseases.