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UC Riverside graduate student awarded Guru Gobind Singh Fellowship

RIVERSIDE, Calif. When she feels unmotivated, Divya Sain, a graduate student from India at the University of California, Riverside, remembers "Shane shane parvata langhanam," her father's favorite chant, which translates from Sanskrit into English as "Slowly and steady, even mountains can be conquered."

The latest mountain Sain has conquered is securing the Guru Gobind Singh Fellowship for 2012-2013. The $30,000 award is given to a student of an Indian or Pakistani university who is committed to returning to her country of origin after receiving her doctoral degree at a UC campus.

Sain, who grew up in New Delhi, came to UC Riverside in 2007 to study plant pathology with Jason Stajich, an assistant professor of plant pathology and microbiology. Specifically, Sain studies the fungal cell wall an important feature that distinguishes fungi from the host plants and animals they infect.

"The fungal cell wall is an excellent target for developing antifungal drugs," explained Sain, who expects to graduate with a Ph.D. in genetics, genomics and bioinformatics in August 2013. "Currently, I am identifying and validating the genes responsible for synthesizing as well as maintaining the fungal cell wall. Knowledge about these genes can be used to design antifungal drugs."

Sain foresees her research will be an asset to the antifungal drug development industry in India and hopes to apply her knowledge to actively combat fungal diseases that are rampant in that country. She explained that India, like all major developing countries, is plagued by the menace of fungal infections in plants and humans.

"Each year, a large portion of the crop yield is destroyed because of fungi such as those that cause smut in maize, rust in wheat, blast in rice and wilt in tomato," she said. "Fungicides being used to kill these fungi are not very effective as they also damage the crops. Moreover, the fungi become tolerant to the fungicides after a while. Antifungal drugs that specifically kill the fungi without harming the plants are a better option."

Sain believes her work at UCR will lead to the development of alternative targets for antifungal drugs against fungi, including those that cause athlete's foot, oral thrush or mucormycosis (a fungal infection of the sinuses, brain or lungs) in humans.

"A knowledge-based approach to drug design is more effective and less time-consuming than the random chemical screening that most antifungal drug companies currently employ," she said.

At UCR, Sain mentors two undergraduates in the Stajich Lab. A member of the Rotaract Club (the youth branch of the Rotary Club) and Omicron Delta Kappa, she received the UCR Graduate Division Fellowship in 2008 and a Klotz Memorial Travel Award in 2011.

"Divya has shown incredible drive to master the experimental and computational approaches that enable her research and has applied these to studies in the biology and evolution of fungal cell walls," Stajich said. "She has been an asset to the laboratory in her team approach to performing this research and has been an important model to the students and postdocs who joined the lab after her. Her current work will lead to at least three publications. She is an intelligent and hard working student deserving of the honor and opportunity of the Guru Gobind Singh Fellowship."

The Guru Gobind Singh Fellowship is awarded each year after a UC systemwide competition. In 1988, UC Santa Cruz received a bequest from the late Mr. Karam Singh Maughan to establish an endowment to support graduate fellowships named for Guru Gobind Singh, a Sikh religious leader. Only one student is selected among all the UCs for the fellowship, with preference given to students who hold a master's degree and are at the dissertation stage of their doctoral degree program.

"I am immensely grateful to receive this fellowship," said Sain, who lives in Riverside. "Its timing is perfect as I am on the verge of completing my research projects, and the funds will give me an opportunity to focus on my research."

Her advice to fellow students is to apply for all fellowships for which they are eligible because they "have nothing to lose."

"I see students shying away from applying for fellowships and awards perhaps because the students think they are not 'good enough' or they feel intimidated by the idea that too many people might have applied," she said. "My advice is: Don't think too much, just apply! I encourage the undergraduates I mentor to do the same, and recently one of them applied for a fellowship and got it even though she was unsure of getting it because she had applied just before the deadline."

An avid reader of scientific journals and P.G. Wodehouse novels, Sain received her bachelor's degree in biotechnology from the Uttar Pradesh Technical University, India. While pursuing this degree, she worked as a trainee at various Indian research institutes. Her interest in fungi and the diseases they cause began at some of these research institutes where she worked with plant-infecting fungi.

In her spare time Sain watches animated movies, cooks Indian food and performs community service. She also practices yoga and meditation.

Contact: Iqbal Pittalwala
University of California - Riverside

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