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07-23-2015

Clarkson University Professor Awarded NIH Grant for Biology Research

During her postdoctoral training at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research/MIT, Cintia Hongay became fascinated by a particular enzyme and its role in cell fate decisions in yeast. Now, the Clarkson University assistant professor of biology has been awarded nearly $350,000 by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health to investigate this evolutionarily conserved RNA modification enzyme in fruit flies and zebrafish.

Left to right: Cintia Hongay with interdisciplinary bioscience & biotechnology Ph.D. student Kangning Li and McNair Scholar & biology major Nicole Clement-Gomez '17.Her research project is titled “Elucidating the essential role of the evolutionarily conserved IME4 mRNA methyltransferase in metazoan development.”

Simply put, her exploration involves elucidating the effects of this RNA-modifying enzyme in development, which Hongay showed to be essential for the life cycle in fruit flies, and how this enzyme controls the commitment to different cell differentiation paths. Hongay has studied this gene in yeast, fruit flies, and zebrafish as groundwork to understanding its function in humans.

“It is a very powerful enzyme for development, and it's present in humans and mice, and other organisms,” she says. “I feel validated, as my research is being recognized by my peers and the NIH. I started my work when this enzyme was not very popular. Nowadays, powerful labs are studying this enzyme, so I have very strong competition.”

Her grant, which is scheduled to begin this month, has the potential to enable her to hire a minority graduate student to assist in the project. She is working with Director of the Community of Underrepresented Professional Opportunities Marjorie Warden in publicizing this opportunity that will help diversify the Interdisciplinary Bioscience and Biotechnology Ph.D. program.
 
“It is very important for academia to have more women and minorities represented, and it will be good for Clarkson to have a student gain this experience. A diversity supplement to my grant means that the student awarded will have more time to concentrate on research,” she adds.

Hongay’s approach to deciphering the biological role of this enzyme in metazoan development is multidisciplinary. She is collaborating with colleagues Associate Professor of Biology Ken Wallace, who uses zebrafish as a research model, and Assistant Professor of Chemistry & Biomolecular Science Costel Darie, who has expertise in proteomics. She is also collaborating with Microscopy Specialist Jill Pflugheber at Saint Lawrence University.

Given the evolutionary conservation of IME4, what we learn from fruit flies and zebrafish could inform research in mice and other organisms, and our work can move the field forward much faster,” she adds. “We can understand developmental syndromes due to this enzyme, and since its role in adults seems to be confined to the gonads, it could be developed into a target for a new method of contraception someday.”

Hongay received her bachelor of science degree summa cum laude from Suffolk University and her Ph.D. from Harvard University. She joined the Department of Biology at Clarkson in 2011.

Clarkson University launches leaders into the global economy. One in five alumni already leads as a CEO, VP or equivalent senior executive of a company. Located just outside the Adirondack Park in Potsdam, N.Y., Clarkson is a nationally recognized research university for undergraduates with select graduate programs in signature areas of academic excellence directed toward the world's pressing issues. Through 50 rigorous programs of study in engineering, business, arts, sciences and the health professions, the entire learning-living community spans boundaries across disciplines, nations and cultures to build powers of observation, challenge the status quo, and connect discovery and engineering innovation with enterprise.

Photo caption: Clarkson University Assistant Professor of Biology Cintia Hongay has been awarded nearly $350,000 for her research by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health to investigate an evolutionarily conserved RNA modification enzyme in fruit flies and zebrafish. Above (left to right), Cintia Hongay with interdisciplinary bioscience & biotechnology Ph.D. student Kangning Li and McNair Scholar & biology major Nicole Clement-Gomez '17.

[A photograph for media use is available at http://www.clarkson.edu/news/photos/chongay-2.jpg .]

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

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