TNewswise — wo translational biology, medicine, and health (TBMH) graduate students at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute have won National Institutes of Health research fellowships aimed at protecting people with heart problems.

Tristan Raisch, of Los Gatos, California, and Carissa James, of Townville, South Carolina, will each receive National Institutes of Health Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Predoctoral Fellowships.

One of the NIH’s top training awards, the highly selective Kirschstein fellowship is conferred to top U.S. graduate students in health science-related fields. It supports mentored health and biomedical research training, dissertation research, and the graduate program in which the student receives training.

“These awards are an important additional step in Virginia Tech’s advancement in the national biomedical and health sciences educational and training space,” said Michael J. Friedlander, executive director of the research institute and vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech. “As the growth of the Virginia Tech Carilion health sciences enterprise continues on the Roanoke campus and across the entire university, the ability to compete for training and center grants at NIH will be strengthened as more individual graduate students successfully compete for these fellowships.”

The awards are the first NIH Kirschstein individual pre-doctoral awards for students in the TBMH program but represent the third and fourth such awards to graduate students training at the VTCRI.

Former Kirschstein fellow Lara Moody, who continues to collaborate in the VTCRI with Virginia Tech Carilion Behavioral Health Research Professor Warren Bickel, is currently conducting clinical work at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center in North Carolina. The other recent VTCRI Kirschstein fellow is Nina Lauharatanahirun, who earned her doctorate in psychology and completed her dissertation research in the lab of VTCRI associate professor Brooks King-Casas. She is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Under the mentorship of Steven Poelzing, a co-director of the TBMH program, and an associate professor at the research institute in the VTCRI Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine Research and at the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in the College of Engineering, Raisch seeks to resolve a controversy regarding the roles that extracellular spaces next to structures called gap junctions play in conduction of electrical signals across the heart.

Specifically, his project will identify targetable mechanisms to preserve healthful electrical conduction in the heart under conditions of edema (swelling) or ischemia, which is a lack of oxygen that may occur in a heart attack.

Meanwhile, James also studies gap junctions, but in terms of alterations in the assembly of these structures, which allow heart cells to communicate with each other. With mentor Jamie Smyth, an assistant professor in the VTCRI Center for Heart and Regenerative Medicine Research and in the Department of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech's College of Science, James expands understanding about how proteins are synthesized and play a role in healthy cellular communication.

“In addition to recognizing Tristan, Carissa, and their research projects, the award is indicative of the national recognition of Dr. Poelzing, Dr. Smyth, and the entire cardiovascular science group at VTCRI, as well as the quality of the TBMH Ph.D. program,” Friedlander said.

Raisch and James are among three currently active Kirschstein fellows at Virginia Tech, along with Benjamin Okyere, who works in the lab of Michelle Theus, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

Kirschstein was a pathologist and science administrator at the NIH who developed and refined tests to ensure the safety of vaccines for polio and measles. She served as director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and as deputy director and acting director of the NIH at various times from the 1990s through 2002.