News: AAAS News & Notes
25 February 2005
Edited by Edward W. Lempinen
Valadkhan Solves Genetic Puzzle, Wins 2004 Young Scientist Award
Through the eyes of molecular biologist Saba Valadkhan, the spliceosome is a huge, quirky molecular machine functioning as the gatekeeper of human genetic information. With more than 300 parts, and constantly in flux, it had baffled scientists for two decades. And so when Valadkhan saw the first research results suggesting that she'd begun to solve the riddle of the spliceosome, she was a little bit thrilled but largely skeptical.
"That was a very exciting thing," says Valadkhan, at the time a researcher at Columbia University. But, she adds with a laugh: "I think that something we scientists learn very early is to be very, extremely critical of everything that looks too exciting to be true. And I saw it and I'm like, 'This has got to be an artifact.' "
Further research, however, proved that it was not. Now her discovery holds such promise for helping to understand and treat Alzheimer's, cancer and other diseases with a genetic component that Valadkhan has been named to receive the $25,000 Young Scientist Award for 2004, supported by GE Healthcare and Science. The prestigious award was announced 19 February at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.
For Valadkhan, the acknowledgement was the culmination of a journey that has led her from a childhood in Iran to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where she is now an assistant professor in the Center for RNA Molecular Biology.
Valadkhan was born outside of Tehran; her father is an engineer and her mother a high school teacher who urged her children to work toward goals that might benefit all of humanity. Contrary to perceptions prevalent in the West, young women in Iran had access to good education and to good jobs. In medical school, she found that she loved the basic science and the opportunity to help patients. But she was drawn to research for the chance to have a bigger impact on human health.
In Iran, medicine is well funded but science lags far behind, and so Valadkhan sought to continue her education in the United States. Once at Columbia in 1996, she settled into the study of the spliceosome under the supervision of Professor James L. Manley.
The molecular machine works within each cell to copy genetic data and delete introns, or junk DNA. If something is wrong in the genetic material, the spliceosome usually finds it and discards it, she explained recently. "But if it doesn't, the wrong thing just passes through it…and really creates a lot of trouble in the cell and for the organism."
What Valadkhan discovered is that five RNA molecules in the spliceosome play a central role. The discovery is allowing her to work toward development of splicing systems that are simpler and more stable for use in research on genetic and other diseases.
Meanwhile, she feels she is facing a separate test. "If you're a foreigner," she said, "if you don't speak English extremely fluently, you're sort of thought to be challenged, or less smart or less capable, especially also if you're a petite woman, as I am…and at the younger end of the spectrum for being an assistant professor."
Thus far, she's answered that with hard work and a little humor—and she's proven more than capable.
"Saba Valadkhan's accomplishments are an inspiration to her peers, to senior scientists, and to the next generation of investigators alike," said Christoph Hergersberg, global technology leader of biosciences at GE Global Research. "Her work shows that the young scientists drive the progress. GE Healthcare is proud to support this progress through the Young Scientist Award."
[Read an interview with Saba Valadkhan at www.aaas.org/news/releases/2005/0210ys-Valadkhan.shtml]
Science and Health
Words to Trust on HIV/AIDS
Despite broad advances in the fight against AIDS, the disease is still met in many communities with misconceptions and denial. To improve global understanding of the epidemic, AAAS this month began distributing HIV and AIDS: The Science Inside. The book is the fifth in the association's Healthy People series and is being directed especially to people of color in the United States through public libraries.
AIDS remains among the top four causes of death for African Americans between the ages of 20 and 54. A recent study found that African-American women have a rate of new HIV infection 18 times higher than for white women. And a report this month in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes found that, at least partly because of deep mistrust of the government, 53% of African Americans surveyed believe that an AIDS cure is being deliberately withheld from the poor.
"With the new book, we have an opportunity as a scientific society to provide libraries and librarians and other trusted sources with the best science and the best information, which can then be distributed to the community," said Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS.
The Healthy People series is a 5-year project supported by a $1.3-million Science Education Partnership Award from the National Center for Research Resources at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
To order free copies of the books, see www.healthlit.org.
Copyright © 2013. American Association for the
Advancement of Science.
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