Three Princeton researchers win high-risk, high-reward NIH scholarships


Princeton Faculty Members Coleen Murphy, Mohamed Abou Donia and Zemer Gitaï are among 20 researchers nationwide to receive 2021 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Transformative Research Awards.

Coleen Murphy, Mohamed Abou Donia and Zemer Gitai

Murphy is also one of the 10 recipients of the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award the only recipient of the Pioneer Award and the Transformative Research Award this year. These awards are part of the NIH Common Fund High Risk, High Reward Research Program, which supports researchers who conduct highly innovative, high-impact biomedical and behavioral research.

Murphy, professor of molecular biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, received the Pioneer Award for his project,Cracking the Code of Transgenerational Behavioral Inheritance. “

Murphy graduated from the University of Houston with a BS in Biochemistry and Biophysics, received her PhD in Biochemistry from Stanford University, and then did her postdoctoral work at UCSF with Cynthia Kenyon. In their Princeton lab, Murphy’s team developed C. elegans models to study human aging, including cognitive aging and reproductive aging, which allowed them to identify remarkably well-conserved genetic pathways that may prolong each of these processes with age. More recently, Murphy’s team made some surprising discoveries that C. elegans can “read” the small RNAs that bacteria produce and use the information to avoid pathogens, and transmit this learned information both vertically (transgenerationally) and horizontally (to neighboring animals). These results have opened up new avenues of research on memory transfer, transgenerational inheritance and trans-realm communication mediated by small RNAs.

Murphy, Abu Donia and Gitai each received the Transformative Research Award for their joint project, “Small RNAs as new modulators of microbe-host interactions. “

Abu Donia, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology, obtained his B.Sc. in Pharmacy from the Faculty of Pharmacy, Suez Canal University, Egypt in 2004, and his PhD. from the Department of Medicinal Chemistry, School of Pharmacy, University of Utah in 2010. After completing her post-doctoral studies at the University of California-San Francisco, Donia started her independent laboratory in 2014 at Princeton. There, using a combination of metagenomic, biochemical and computational approaches, his group studies the role of the human microbiome in health, disease, and the response to therapeutic interventions. He is the recipient of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation Innovation and Breakthrough Awards, the Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research, the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science, and was named Pew Biomedical Savant.

Gitai, Edwin Grant Conklin professor of biology at Princeton, received his bachelor’s degree from MIT in 1996 and his doctorate from UCSF in 2002. After his postdoctoral work with Lucy Shapiro at Stanford University, he joined the faculty of Princeton University in 2005. His research focuses on the cell biology of bacteria, studying how cells self-organize at different spatial scales, using quantitative, molecular and engineering approaches to understand problems such as formation cell shape, cytoskeletal function, metabolic organization and community structure. Recently, the Gitai laboratory has extended its use of quantitative methods to discover new characteristics of microbe-host interactions and antibiotics with new mechanisms of action. Gitai’s achievements have been recognized with numerous prestigious awards, including the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, the NIH New Innovator Award and the Beckman Young Investigator Award.

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