Advancing science

Limited time and money are major obstacles for up-and-coming researchers, said Stephanie Herrlinger, a UGA doctoral candidate in neuroscience. But the ARCS Foundation Award that Herrlinger received this fall eased that burden, allowing her to explore her field and concentrate on her research.

ARCS Foundation is a national, volunteer organization of women dedicated to advancing science through scholarship. The Atlanta Chapter, which also awards outstanding students from Emory University, Morehouse College and the Georgia Institute of Technology, began partnering with UGA in 2000 through the Biomedical and Health Sciences Institute.

Since then, 145 awards surpassing $1 million total have been granted to exceptional UGA doctoral students in science and technology disciplines.

“There really isn’t another award like this, and I’m just so excited for some of the things that I’m able to do now,” Herrlinger said of the Global Impacts Award she received, which granted her $25,000 over the next three years.

So far, she has used the money to attend the Society for Neuroscience conference in November, purchase software to organize research data and to enroll in a course on molecular neurodegeneration at the University of Cambridge in England.

Herrlinger is one of 12 UGA graduate students in fields ranging from biochemistry and genetics to ecology and engineering to receive an award this year. She was selected for her leadership skills, academic strength and research on microcephaly, a congenital brain condition that is of high interest in the wake of the Zika virus outbreak.

“I’ve always been really fascinated by the brain — it’s such an interesting organ with such vast complexity,” Herrlinger said. When the question emerged of the Zika virus’s connection to microcephaly in infants born to infected mothers, her experience put her in a prime position to conduct a study.

“By creating a mouse model of brain abnormalities associated with Zika virus infection, she discovered that Zika virus causes extensive brain damage in addition to well-known microcephaly associated with Zika infection,” said Jianfu “Jeff” Chen, assistant professor of genetics and Herrlinger’s adviser. “She is a gifted graduate student with great potential in science.”

A key finding of the study was that the blood-brain barrier, a unique structure that protects the brain and regulates blood flow, was severely damaged by the virus. The study indicates that Zika causes severe brain damage in addition to causing microcephaly.

This year’s ARCS Scholars also include Lydia Anderson, John Avery, Erin Baker, Daniel Becker, Heather Bishop, Chris Cleveland, Kerri Coon, Marcus Goudie, Danielle Lambert, Wided Najahi-Missaoui and Cecilia Sanchez.

“I was incredibly honored and grateful when I found out I was chosen for this award,” Herrlinger said. “It’s really humbling to be put on the same scale as other people I know and look up to who have also received this award.”

— Elizabeth Fite, Office of Research