Ph.D. Student Bistra Iordanova Wins NSF Graduate Research Fellowship
Bistra Iordanova, a graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences, received a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a prestigious award given to only 910 U.S. graduate students in 2007. The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship will provide a stipend, travel allowances and tuition for Iordanova, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences, for the next three years as she completes her research in magnetic resonance (MRI) imaging in the brain.
Iordanova uses MRI to capture gene expression in real time using engineered metalloproteins. Genes coding for these metalloproteins are inserted next to the therapeutic gene of interest and their expression is displayed as dark spots on an MRI scan, leading researchers to pinpoint exactly where and when the gene was expressed. Iordanova states that this kind of research is important in developing newer kinds of gene therapies for diseases such as Parkinson’s. “When you inject genes to save damaged cells, such as in those affected by Parkinson’s disease, a reporter is identified that tells you if all the genes were expressed,” explained Iordanova. “I hope that our novel metalloproteins can become useful reporters in the development of gene therapy.”
Using the state-of-the-art MRI scanners located at the Pittsburgh Center for NMR Research, Iordanova has worked for the past year optimizing pulse sequences to capture in vivo brain images. She credits her interest in MRI research to its ability to be able to see things happening in the brain non-invasively and in real time.
Iordanova is also a member of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC), a joint Carnegie Mellon – University of Pittsburgh research center. Having access to the CNBC’s vast resources, both imaging tools and human experts, will allow her to succeed in a field where, she admits, she has faced plenty of “raised eyebrows” when talking about her interest in a field dominated by men.
In her spare time, Iordanova, who was born in Bulgaria, performs outreach activities as a board member of the Women in Science group, setting a positive example for other female students who are interested in science. This summer, Iordanova plans on introducing MRI to students taking part in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program by developing a neuroimaging tutorial.
"We are very pleased that Bistra has been awarded this fellowship. At the end of her training she will truly be a unique, interdisciplinary scientist," said Associate Professor Eric Ahrens. Iordanova is a member of Ahrens’ laboratory and is completing her thesis project under his guidance.
Also recognized by the NSF was Melissa Witzberger, a second-year Ph.D. student in Associate Professor Jonathan Minden’s laboratory, who received Honorable Mention for her fellowship proposal. Witzberger’s research focuses on understanding ventral furrow formation in Drosophila melanogaster, or the common fruit fly. Flaws in ventral furrow formation often result in developmental defects such as spina bifida.
In addition, four recent undergraduate alumni were awarded Honorable Mention by the NSF for their fellowship proposals. Jared Wenger, a 2006 graduate in biological sciences, and Jamie Conklin, who graduated in 2005 with a B.S. in Biological Sciences and Psychology, are now attending graduate school at Stanford University. Andreas Pfenning, who graduated in 2006 with a B.S. in Computer Science with a minor in biological sciences, is a Computational Biology and Bioinformatics Ph.D. student at Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. Natalie Castellana, who received a B.S. in Computer Sciences and worked in Assistant Professor Russell Schwartz’s laboratory, attends University of California, San Diego, working toward a Ph.D. in Computer Science.