August 27, 2004

Vanderbilt graduate awarded international fellowship from National Science Foundation

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Michelle M. Becker, Ph.D.

Vanderbilt graduate awarded international fellowship from National Science Foundation

Michelle M. Becker, Ph.D., a 2002 graduate of Vanderbilt’s department of Microbiology and Immunology, has been awarded a prestigious International Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

She is pursuing postdoctoral training in the laboratory of Didier Poncet, Ph.D. at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientique in Gif-sur-Yvette, France.

“Michelle did a spectacular job in our laboratory as a graduate student,” said Terence S. Dermody, M.D., professor of Pediatrics and Microbiology & Immunology. “We were thrilled with the news about her fellowship. Her intellectual and research contributions as a graduate student, the importance of the work she is doing now, and the strength of her mentor, Didier Poncet, in France, all contributed to her getting this award.”

Becker appreciates the opportunity to continue her training in France.

“I am honored to have the work that I’m doing, and that the lab is doing, recognized in this way,” she said.

Her current research focuses on rotavirus infection. Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe diarrhea among children. About 55,000 children in the United States are hospitalized each year and over 600,000 children die worldwide because of rotavirus infection (viral gastroenteritis), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Becker is exploring the hypothesis that a cellular protein called RoXaN may be subverted during rotavirus infection to enhance viral replication. The hope, she said, is that better understanding of rotavirus biology will lead to vaccines and therapies to counter viral gastroenteritis.

Becker studied a related virus — reovirus — for her dissertation research in Dermody’s lab. There, she focused on the virus itself and how it establishes sites of viral replication within infected host cells.

“I find the research examining the interface of viral and cellular biology fascinating, where small organisms (viruses) — carrying a limited genome — enter a cell and are capable of diverting the cell from carrying out its own genetic program to doing what the virus needs to complete its life cycle,” Becker said.

Becker is one of 34 recipients of the 2004 International Research Fellowships. The program aims to introduce scientists and engineers in the early stages of their careers — no more than three years of experience since earning the doctoral degree — to research opportunities abroad, according to the NSF. By funding these international research experiences, NSF expects to create a diverse, competitive, and globally-engaged U.S. workforce of scientists and engineers.

“Discovery is a global enterprise,” NSF’s acting director Arden L. Bement, Jr. said in a released statement. “For the U.S. to remain in the forefront of world science and technology (S&T), it needs scientists and engineers from all disciplines who can operate and lead international teams and track international discoveries in some of the most challenging research arenas. These fellows, and those who have preceded them, are helping ensure that America continues to be the world’s S&T leader.”

The average award for each fellow in 2004 is $100,000, according to the NSF, and provides research and salary support.