University of Vermont

Shen Selected As Pew Biomedical Scholar

Pew Scholar and Assistant Professor of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics Aimee Shen, Ph.D. (Photo by Ed Neuert)
Pew Scholar and Assistant Professor of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics Aimee Shen, Ph.D. (Photo by Ed Neuert)

The Pew Charitable Trusts has announced that Aimee Shen, Ph.D., University of Vermont assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, is among twenty-two of the nation’s most innovative young researchers to be named a 2012 Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences. As a Pew Scholar, she joins a prestigious community that includes Nobel Prize winners, MacArthur Fellows, and recipients of the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award.

Shen is among three UVM College of Medicine faculty members to have received this award, including Ralph Budd, M.D., professor of medicine and director of immunobiology, and Sylvie Doublie, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and molecular genetics.

Launched in 1985, the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences identifies and invests in talented researchers in medicine or biomedical sciences. In that time, over 500 Pew Scholars have received more than $130 million in funding. By backing them early in their careers, this program enables our most promising scientists to take calculated risks and follow unanticipated leads to advance human health. The program is rigorously competitive, and recipients receive $240,000 over four years to pursue their research without restriction. To be considered, applicants from all areas of physical and life sciences related to biomedical study must be nominated by an invited institution and demonstrate both excellence and innovation in their research. This year, 179 institutions were requested to nominate a candidate, and 134 eligible nominations were received.

“During these challenging budgetary times when traditional sources of funding are becoming even harder for scientists to obtain, we are proud to back our country’s most promising scientists,” said Rebecca W. Rimel, president and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts. “This funding comes at points in the Scholars’ professional lives when they often are the most innovative. While this program is a bold investment for us, it has paid incalculable dividends due to our Scholars’ record of producing groundbreaking research.”

Shen, who joined the UVM College of Medicine faculty in 2011, received a B.S. in microbiology from the University of Alberta, and a doctoral degree in microbiology from Harvard University, where she worked with Darren Higgins, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunobiology. She then completed a postdoctoral fellowship with Matthew Bogyo, Ph.D., associate professor of pathology at Stanford University, where she collaborated with Pew Scholar K. Christopher Garcia, Ph.D., professor of molecular and cellular physiology and structural biology.

Shen’s research approach relies on a broad research “toolbox.” She asks the same questions from different perspectives – including biochemistry, bacterial genetics, structural and chemical biology – to gain a better understanding of molecular mechanisms. While a doctoral student, her research focused on the foodborne pathogen Listeria monocytogenes, which has the ability to grow at refrigerator temperatures. Shen, who wanted to learn how temperature is sensed at the molecular level of the bacteria, was able to determine a novel method for regulating the gene expression of the flagella that help these bacteria move. As a postdoctoral fellow, she switched to a new organism and different approach and devised a procedure for isolating bacterial proteins that share a particular activity, providing a new landscape for drug discovery.

“Through collaborating, I’ve become versed in how to apply different ‘tools’ to the questions I’m asking,” says Shen. “At the interface, discoveries happen.”

The new class of Scholars is exploring a range of human health issues from antibiotic-resistant infections to liver disease and cancer. Shen will explore the molecular mechanisms that allow spore-forming bacteria to precipitate a full-blown infection. When nutrition is scarce, some infectious bacteria can form hardy spores that allow them to remain dormant until conditions improve. To emerge from this self-imposed period of hibernation, the bacteria shed their tough outer coat and emerge to resume their infectious lifestyle.  But little is known about the mechanisms that drive this bacterial germination.  For her Pew Scholar research, Shen will combine her post-doctoral research approach for isolating bacterial proteins with microscopy and molecular biology in order to search for the enzymes that spur the coat-shedding behavior in a bacterium called Clostridium difficile. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), C. difficile causes diarrhea linked to 14,000 American deaths each year, and those most at risk are people, especially older adults, who take antibiotics and also get medical care. By determining how and when these proteins act, Shen will advance understanding of the mechanisms that govern microbial germination, which could lead directly to new approaches for combatting gastrointestinal infections.

“Giving young scientists the means and the confidence to pursue outside-the-box research is vital to the advancement of biomedical science,” said Craig C. Mello, Ph.D., a 1995 Pew Scholar and a 2006 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine. “The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences was a critical step in my career, and as Chair of the advisory committee, I am honored to welcome the 2012 awardees into a family of scientists eager to share ideas and to collaborate for years to come.”

The initiative is run by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also directs the Pew Latin American Fellows in the Biomedical Sciences, a program that for 21 years has provided support for young scientists from Latin America to receive postdoctoral training in the United States. Read full biographies and information about the Scholars’ research.

(This article was adapted from a news release produced by Nicolle Grayson of the Pew Charitable Trusts.)