June 8, 2001

Graduate student lands national award

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Molly Weaver received a 2001 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Graduate student lands national award

Molly Weaver was only months away from graduating with a degree in English Literature from Carleton College when she took her first developmental biology course.

“I took the course just to fill a requirement,” she recalled, “but a big light came on and I knew developmental biology was something I wanted to pursue.”

Pursue it, she has. Now a graduate student in the Developmental Biology Program, Weaver recently received a 2001 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

The award honors the late Harold M. Weintraub, Ph.D., a founding member of the Hutchinson Center’s Basic Sciences Division who died from brain cancer in 1995 at age 49.

“Hal Weintraub was revered among molecular biologists,” said Brigid L.M. Hogan, Ph.D., Hortense B. Ingram Professor of Molecular Oncology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. An award that honors graduate students who are conducting high-quality, significant research “is in keeping with his spirit,” she added.

Thirteen graduate student award recipients were selected from an international pool of nominees. Having a Vanderbilt graduate student win the award speaks highly of all the students here, Hogan said. “The Interdisciplinary Graduate Program is very successful,” Hogan said. “We attract excellent students who do very well.”

Weaver is “one of the best of a very good group of students,” said David I. Greenstein, Ph.D., associate professor of Cell Biology and director of Graduate Studies for the department. “Molly has taken a creative approach in her studies, worked very independently, and generated elegant results.”

Weaver, a member of Hogan’s laboratory group, has focused on early lung development. She and other members of the laboratory are working to understand the cellular signals that convert two simple sheets of cells into the complex, branched architecture that characterizes the developed lung.

“We’re using the lung as a model to learn how two specific cell layers ‘talk’ to each other during early organ development,” Weaver said. “We believe that our findings will be applicable to many different organ systems.”

Weaver has used a variety of approaches to characterize the activity of two signaling molecules during lung development. In her favorite experiments, she has grown tiny bits of lung tissue in the laboratory and watched cellular responses as they happen.

“It’s very striking to watch cells as they move toward specific signals,” Weaver said.

Defining the signaling molecules and pathways that control how organs develop is important to efforts to understand how organs fail and how they can be repaired, she said. Scientists hope that these signals will be useful in coaxing stem cells to generate specific tissues and organs.

Recipients of the 2001 Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award participated in a two-day scientific symposium at the Hutchinson Center. The meeting was “a great experience,” Weaver said. “The intent was to bring together students from different fields who wouldn’t ordinarily ever talk to each other, to generate new ideas and connections. That definitely happened.”

Weaver expects to complete her Ph.D. in May 2002 and plans to continue pursuing developmental biology questions as a postdoctoral fellow.