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UC Riverside botanist receives high honor from Howard Hughes Medical Institute

RIVERSIDE, Calif. Xuemei Chen, a professor of plant cell and molecular biology at the University of California, Riverside, has been named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (HHMI-GBMF) Investigator.

Nationwide, only 15 HHMI-GBMF Investigators have been selected from 239 applicants "who have led independent laboratories at one of the approximately 200 U.S. medical schools, universities, and research institutes that are eligible for this competition."

"Traditionally, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has funded a small but very elite group of biomedical scientists," said Thomas O. Baldwin, the dean of the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. "Recently it has realized that research in plants has applications to human health. Dr. Chen's research on small RNA truly fits the model of an HHMI investigator as a world-class scientist. She is such a scientist and will represent UC Riverside well."

Each HHMI-GBMF Investigator will receive substantial research support while remaining affiliated with his/her home institution.

"We selected an outstanding group of plant scientists who will make extraordinary contributions to the field," said Jack E. Dixon, HHMI Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is a new HHMI program to support highly promising scientists from a range of disciplines relevant to plant sciences research.

"Xuemei Chen's appointment as an HHMI-GBMF Investigator is extremely well deserved," said Natasha Raikhel, director of UCR's Institute for Integrative Genome Biology, of which Chen is a member. "This is the first HHMI appointment at UCR and a huge step forward for the campus's national and international reputation in the biological and medical sciences."

The HHMI support will allow Chen to pursue high risk and potentially high impact research that is not currently funded by federal agencies. One such project in her lab aims to investigate the biogenesis, processing and degradation of nuclear, long noncoding RNAs and the impact of these RNAs on gene regulation and genome stability. Another project aims to uncover how microRNAs a group of small RNA molecules that play a crucial role in most plant processes including plant development, stress responses and physiology regulate their target genes.

"I am grateful for the support from HHMI-GBMF that enables the pursuits of these fundamental mechanisms in biology to ultimately benefit not only agriculture but also medicine," Chen said. "I am glad that HHMI-GBMF recognizes the importance of plant research and the use of plant models to derive biological principles that are generally applicable."

Chen grew up in Harbin in the northeastern Heilongjiang province in China, and was one of two high school graduates in the province to be admitted into the Biology Department at Beijing University, where she majored in plant physiology and biochemistry from 1984 to 1988.

Through the China-US Biology Examination and Admission (CUSBEA) program that selected top Chinese students for Ph.D. studies in US institutions, Chen entered the Ph.D. program at Cornell University in 1989. She studied chloroplast gene expression at the Boyce Thompson Institute and obtained her Ph.D. degree in 1995. She then joined the California Institute of Technology as a postdoctoral fellow to study the genetic mechanisms underlying floral patterning.

She started her independent career as an assistant professor at the Waksman Institute, Rutgers University, NJ, in 1999. During the studies of floral patterning genes, she and her group became one of the first discovers of microRNAs in plants and subsequently a major force in dissecting the biogenesis, modification, and degradation of microRNAs. In 2005, she won the Board of Trustees Research Fellowship for Scholarly Excellence at Rutgers University.

Chen moved to UC Riverside in 2005, and was promoted to full professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences in 2009 and an endowed chair professor in 2010.

She is frequently invited to speak at key national and international meetings where her seminal contributions have established her as a recognized leader in both the plant and RNA silencing research communities.

She is the recipient of the prestigious Charles Albert Shull award from the American Society of Plant Biologists and the University Scholar Award from UCR.


Contact: Iqbal Pittalwala
University of California - Riverside

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