NIH training grants provide more than $1.5 million to support graduate students at UCSC

Graduate students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, are receiving increased support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through training grants to two campus departments. The prestigious NIH training grants provide support for graduate students in specified areas of biomedical research. The agency has awarded a new NIH training grant in bioinformatics to the Department of Biomolecular Engineering and has renewed an existing training grant to the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology (MCD Biology).

"Receiving these grants is considered a sign of having an outstanding graduate program," said Richard Hughey, professor and chair of computer engineering and principal investigator on the bioinformatics training grant.

In addition to providing direct support for graduate students, the grants also provide flexible funding that departments can use to support graduate training programs. The five-year grants amount to $850,000 for MCD biology and $800,000 for biomolecular engineering.

Budget pressures have made it more difficult than ever to win these coveted grants, so UCSC faculty were especially pleased to see the campus's share grow this year. The rising cost of supporting graduate students, combined with a fixed pool of funds, means that the number of students nationwide who can be supported by agencies like NIH is shrinking.

"It is definitely becoming more competitive, and we underwent a very rigorous review of our program before it was renewed," said Douglas Kellogg, professor of MCD biology and principal investigator on the MCD biology training grant.

Hughey noted that the new bioinformatics training grant was awarded despite the fact that the campus's Ph.D. program in bioinformatics had not yet been formally approved when the application was submitted. Even without a formal program, however, UCSC's faculty and graduate students had already established a strong reputation in the field of bioinformatics, which uses information technology and computer science to solve complex problems in biology and biochemistry.

Hughey said the bioinformatics grant will provide full funding for three graduate students the first year, increasing to five students for the remaining four years of the five-year grant. Training for the students will include a rotation program in which they will spend time working in different laboratories with faculty in both biomolecular engineering and MCD biology.

"By coordinating with the MCD biology program, we're trying to eliminate the boundaries between the disciplines. It's especially important for students in bioinformatics to have relationships with people in related programs," Hughey said.

The MCD biology training grant will provide support for four graduate students per year initially, increasing to six students by the end of the five-year grant, Kellogg said. The grant supports students involved in biomedical research in four departments: MCD biology, chemistry and biochemistry, environmental toxicology, and biomolecular engineering. Administered by MCD biology, the awards are made to selected graduate students based on merit.