October 10, 2008

Investigator’s novel research lands NIH innovator award

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Melanie Ohi, Ph.D.

Investigator’s novel research lands NIH innovator award

Melanie Ohi, Ph.D., assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, is among this year's recipients of the National Institutes of Health New Innovator award.

Ohi is part of a group of 31 scientists who will each receive $1.5 million in direct costs over five years.

The program is devoted to supporting new investigators with novel research proposals that could have a great impact on biomedical or behavioral science.

“Nothing is more important to me than stimulating and sustaining deep innovation, especially for early career investigators and despite challenging budgetary times,” NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., said in a statement.

“These highly creative researchers are tackling important scientific challenges with bold ideas and inventive technologies that promise to break through barriers and radically shift our understanding.”

Ohi's research focuses on spliceosomes, large macromolecular “machines” that finalize the templates (called mRNA) for building proteins. Spliceosomes act as “editors” on mRNA — they cut pieces out and paste pieces together, a process known as splicing. Although the RNA and protein components of the spliceosome are known, it remains a mystery how this dynamic machine functions, a mystery Ohi is determined to solve.

“I was very, very excited,” said Ohi, about getting the award.

“The grant gives me the freedom to focus on trying to answer some very challenging biological questions.”

Ohi is taking a multidisciplinary approach to probe the structure and function of spliceosomes. She will focus on understanding how the spliceosome assembles, how it catalyzes the splicing reaction (the cutting and pasting), and how it disassembles — ultimately creating a detailed map of spliceosome organization.

“The projects are high-risk, but they have the potential to provide important insight on how the spliceosome functions,” Ohi noted.

Understanding how the spliceosome works “will help researchers develop new strategies for treating both inherited genetic disorders and certain types of cancer.”

Ohi earned her Ph.D. in Cell Biology in 2002 from Vanderbilt, working with Kathleen Gould, Ph.D. She then went on to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School and returned to Vanderbilt as a faculty member in 2007.