Michael Hunckler and Anne Marie Sweeney-Jones will use their Nerem Travel Awards to reach opposite corners of the globe in pursuit of lofty, wildly different research goals in a historic year for the 13-year-old program.
Launched in 2005 by friends and colleagues of Bob Nerem, founding director of the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the travel award typically supports travel costs for one graduate student or post-doctoral trainee traveling outside of the U.S. for research. But this year, for the first time, two winners are sharing the award.
Sweeney-Jones, from the lab of Petit Institute researcher Julie Kubanek, will use her portion for underwater research with the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. Meanwhile Hunckler, who works in the Petit Institute lab of Andrés J. García, is using his to visit the University of Toronto, where he’ll work alongside stem cell biologists on his ongoing goal to find a treatment Type 1 diabetes, a disease he and his brother have been battling for years.
“When I was in third grade, my younger brother was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and I vowed that I would help him, in some way, alleviate the daily struggles he faced,” recalls Hunckler, who was diagnosed six years later, during his first week of high school. “I finally was able to appreciate firsthand the burden that diabetes had on my brother’s life.”
The experience reinvigorated his interest in alleviating the consequence of the disease, continuing through his undergraduate studies at the University of Notre Dame and now at Georgia Tech, where he is a third-year BioEngineering PhD student working in the García lab to develop game-changing solutions for treating diabetes.
As lead engineer of the collaboration with the Toronto team, Hunckler hopes to integrate the advanced biomaterial development of the García lab with the stem cell biology techniques of the Nostro lab.
“I find it critically valuable that I understand the stem cell work being done by the Nostro lab, and it will be immensely valuable for the Nostro lab to understand the biomaterials techniques that we are implementing,” says Hunckler. “So, this travel grant will allow me to learn their research, teach our research, and facilitate a fruitful collaboration for the remainder of my PhD and beyond.”
Almost 8,000 miles away in another hemisphere, Sweeney-Jones will be back in somewhat familiar waters. She visited Fiji last year as part of a study abroad program, and had a chance to do some exploring.
“I’ve actually had a chance to dive twice in Fiji, but this will be an amazing opportunity to go back and actually do some field research,” says Sweeney-Jones, a PhD student in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry who will work in Fiji with the lab of University of the South Pacific researcher Kate Soapi.
The Kubanek lab looks at how marine organisms use chemical cues for defense, mating, habitat selection, and food tracking. Sweeney-Jones is interested in studying natural products derived from marine organisms that have potential pharmacological activity.
While in Fiji this summer, “I want to identify compounds that are active against malaria and infectious worms,” she says. “And see what ecological roles these compounds have in their natural environment.”
Previous Nerem Travel Awards have sent trainees from Georgia Tech across the planet, to some of the world’s top research universities and institutions, including the Karolinska Institute (Sweden), the RIKEN Brain Science Institute (Japan), the National University of Singapore, the University of Twente (The Netherlands), Queensland University of Technology (Australia), and the Max Planck Institute (Germany), among others.
From the program’s beginning, Nerem has always stressed the importance of getting out of familiar surroundings to experience research.
“This award has never been about sending a student to a conference,” Nerem says. “This is about going to another laboratory in another place and sharing your research while learning research techniques from other experts.”