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UW-Madison researchers win White House science awards

November 15, 2010 By Chris Barncard

Two University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers are among the country’s most promising young researchers, according to the White House.

Ana Martinez-Donate, population health sciences professor, and Martin Zanni, Meloche-Bascom Professor of Chemistry, have received 2009 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the nation’s highest honor for researchers early in their independent careers.

“I am really proud of this award because it means my work, the technology I’ve developed at UW–Madison, is seen as an important and promising tool for improving human health,” Zanni said.

Martinez-Donate and Zanni are among 20 winners nominated by the National Institutes of Health, and among 85 winners tapped by nine federal agencies as up-and-comers conducting innovative research and providing leadership in education and outreach.

Martinez-Donate, who joined the UW–Madison faculty in 2007, is studying the rate of HIV infection and the factors that contribute to infection risk among Mexican migrants and immigrants.

“Previous research suggests that separation from family members, differences in social norms and other cultural factors like language may increase the risk of infection for this population,” Martinez-Donate said. “But the evidence is still limited and that is what we are trying to study with my NIH grant.”

Zanni’s lab works on methods for studying the movement and development within the human body of complex molecules that contribute to illnesses like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease and cataracts.

“We are looking at a small protein involved in Type 2 diabetes,” Zanni said. “This protein aggregates into toxic clumps in people’s pancreas, and while the clumps are forming, they are so toxic that they kill the pancreas cells that make insulin. But standard techniques just aren’t capable of probing proteins clumping together.”

The award resets the clock on Zanni’s half-finished research grant from the NIH, giving him a fresh five-year timeline and an extra $670,000 for his work. Martinez-Donate hopes to expand her research, which typically involves fieldwork in the Mexican border cities where immigrants gather before entering the United States.

“Everyone wants to know a little more, maybe for different reasons,” she said. “My hope is that my research can inform the development of prevention programs to improve the health of Mexican immigrants here and in Mexico.”

The duo will join the rest of the Early Career Award winners in December for a ceremony with President Barack Obama at the White House.

The Early Career Awards program was established in 1996 to encourage the development of young scientists and engineers. The NIH director selects finalists for the awards, which are passed on to the White House.