The 2018 VIPBG Excellence Awards Announced

The Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics pre- and post-doc awards were announced on December 6, 2018. Annually since 2007, one predoctoral and one postdoctoral trainee are selected to receive the awards. The process requires VIPBG faculty members to first nominate exceptional trainees. The final recipients are selected after a faculty discussion and vote. These awards consist of a certificate of recognition in addition to a $500.00 gift.

This year, the awardees include Dana Lapato, who received the Kenneth S. Kendler Award for Excellence in Pre-Doctoral Research, and Chris Chatzinakos, Ph.D., who accepted the Lindon Eaves Post-Doctoral Award. Awards were presented by the recipients’ advisors, Roxann Roberson-Nay, Ph.D. and Silviu-Alin Bacanu, Ph.D., respectively. The awardees discuss their research goals and their sentiments about being formally recognized for their achievements below.

Ms. Lapato’s dissertation research focuses on understanding how maternal depressive symptoms and DNA methylation patterns jointly influence each other during pregnancy. She is also interested in how these factors may affect maternal mood and health in the postpartum. She utilizes multi-omic data to understand how cellular processes and risk for adverse health outcomes are influenced by environmental inputs like stress and trauma and how these relationships change over the life course (e.g., prenatal, early childhood, adolescence). After graduating, Ms. Lapato plans to transition into a postdoctoral position that will provide additional training for her ultimate career goal, a professor directing her own research projects.

Ms. Lapato was grateful for the recognition and reflected on how instrumental other members of VIPBG have been to her successes in graduate school. She shared, “Predoctoral training has been the hardest and most rewarding experience. I can’t even begin to relate how important my advisors and fellow students have been, and this award underscores my appreciation for their investment while also validating my work and choice to leave my job and pursue graduate education.” When Ms. Lapato was asked to provide advice to other students she emphasized the benefits of presenting research frequently. The process of forming presentations and preparing for audience questions has helped her identify knowledge gaps and promoted her own interdisciplinary learning. In particular, Ms. Lapato highlighted the importance of using presentations as an opportunity to interact with other researchers by stating, “These conversations foster creativity and can lead to serendipitous things like learning about new methodologies, research collaborators, and potential work openings.

Dr. Chatzinakos focuses his research on developing software that integrates gene expression information with genomic data. These methods are applied to improve upon the current interpretation of genome-wide association studies. Due to the general application potential of these algorithms, Dr. Chatzinakos studies multiple phenotypes, encompassing a variety of psychiatric traits as well as cancers and other diseases. In the future he would like to extend his work to include other multi-omic information, such as epigenomic data.

Before coming to VIPBG, Dr. Chatzinakos lived in Greece where he received his doctoral degree in statistics and engineering. Although he still relies on his mathematical and programming background, his previous research did not involve a bioinformatics application. As a result, his first six months at VIPBG proved to be a critical adjustment period as he quickly learned more about genetics and adapted to life in America. Particularly because of his evolution during this time, Dr. Chatzinakos expressed that receiving this acknowledgment holds a special significance. He credits his success as a postdoctoral researcher to his determination and hard work, as well as the remarkable guidance provided by his mentor, Dr. Bacanu.

When asked to provide advice for graduate students, Dr. Chatzinakos said he experienced firsthand how researching new fields, while sometimes difficult, proved exceptionally rewarding. Therefore, he stressed students should remain open to branching out into new research experiences after graduating. He also emphasized the importance of remaining receptive to advice and suggests that researchers should continue listening to their mentors and colleagues throughout their careers. One of his favorite inspirational quotes is by Winston Churchill, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.


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