BSI-mentored researchers awarded grants

Sana Nasim and Hooi Hooi Ng

Graduate student and PhD candidate, Sana Nasim, and postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Hooi Hooi Ng, mentored by Biomolecular Sciences Institute faculty members Drs. Alexander AgoulnikJoshua Hutcheson and Lidia Kos, have been awarded grants from the Miami Heart Research Institute and the American Heart Association for interdisciplinary research.

Dr. Ng joined FIU as a postdoctoral associate in the in Summer 2017, right after completing her PhD degree at the University of Melbourne in Australia. While working in the laboratory of Dr. Alexander Agoulnik, she began participating in the collaboration between Dr. A. Agoulnik (Human and Molecular Genetics) and Dr. Joshua Hutcheson (Biomedical Engineering).

Dr. Ng commenced her postdoctoral fellowship under the mentorship of Drs. Agoulnik and Hutcheson in the beginning of 2019 when she was awarded a fellowship from the American Heart Association. Her research interest is in cardiovascular disease with a focus on diabetes. She received the award for her research titled “Targeting Relaxin Receptor for the Treatment of Diabetes-induced Cardiovascular Calcification.” Her project aims to investigate the therapeutic action of a small molecule relaxin mimetic for the treatment of diabetes-induced vascular calcification, which builds upon her previous research experience in vascular biology. The American Heart Association postdoctoral fellowship will help Dr. Ng to advance her career in cardiovascular research through interdisciplinary training, prior to embarking on an independent research career.

Diabetes is a known risk factor for vascular calcification, the accumulation of calcium mineral in the arterial wall. It is now apparent that calcification of the vessels is the most significant predictor of coronary heart disease. To date, there are no approved pharmacotherapies for the treatment of vascular calcification. Dr. Ng’s research will provide new mechanistic insights into the potential role of a small molecule to limit the progression of this pathogenic process in diabetes. The outcomes of her research may pave the way for future development of much-needed novel therapies, with the hope of reducing overall cardiovascular morbidity that directly contributes to diabetes-related heart disease.

Sana Nasim joined FIU as a graduate student in the Biomedical Engineering PhD program in Fall 2015 under Dr. Sharan Ramaswamy as her initial advisor. Her undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering with a minor in applied mathematics from the New Jersey Institute of Technology paved the way for advancing her passion for research and asking the unanswered questions.

Nasim recently received a grant award for $60,000 from Miami Heart Research Institute. This award was a thrill to receive because it was the first time she had submitted a grant proposal. The research for this grant will be conducted under the supervision of Dr. Lidia Kos (Biological Sciences) and Dr. Joshua Hutcheson. Her new research funding on “Phenotypic and functional characterization of neural crest derived-aortic valve interstitial cells” seeks to understand the unexplored role of neural crest-derived cells in the patterning and homeostasis of the aortic valve extracellular matrix and its biomechanics implications. Little is known about the regulation of elastin fibers in aortic valves, though elastin abnormalities result in congenital aortic valve defects and elastin degradation initiation in aortic valve disease. This grant will help researchers to expand the understanding of the regulation and formation of elastin. The Miami Heart Research Institute grant will assist Nasim in conducting further interdisciplinary research.  

Nasim expects to complete her PhD in Biomedical Engineering in the spring of 2020. She will continue to advance fundamental knowledge in cardiovascular research through collaborative research in the bioengineering and biomolecular fields. Nasim is motivated to grow as a scientist and as a leader in the field of cardiovascular research. Besides her scientific endeavors, she wants to empower women to pursue higher education and to take initiative in the research realm as well as in our society.

Melinda Hoder, Sana Nasim and Dr. Ng contributed to this story.