Kerins earns NSF research fellowship

When Michael Kerins, graduate student in the Pharmacology and Toxicology research track, finished his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and moved to Arizona, he never thought he would be receiving a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

The young student always had a deep admiration for science and research, and this year his efforts paid off as he received a grant of $138,000 over three years.

The NSF Graduate Research Program, founded in 1951, recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions.

Kerins, who spends his free time running, reading and watching the Green Bay Packers, gave some insight on his initial reaction to being recognized for his achievement. 

"My first thoughts when I received the award were relief and happiness. Like most grants and fellowship applications, the NSF fellowship requires dozens - maybe more than 100 - hours writing and editing the application. Despite the effort, most applicants often go unfunded. When I received the award, my first though was 'hey, all those hours actually paid off!'"

"Now that I've had time to digest what the award means, I'm humbled to have been selected from a very competitive pool of applicants, and I'm excited for the freedom to pursue my research interests without having to worry about money as much."Transitioning this year from a state where there is an average annual high temperature of 55.4 degrees Fahrenheit to a city that is known for its year-round high temperatures was not easy. However, Kerins is getting the hang of it, enjoying indoor soccer and cold drinks on a hot summer day. Once he found comfort in his new home, he says, he was able to devote all his time to his research, and he hasn't looked back.

Kerins' research focuses mainly on intracellular iron signaling, such as iron-dependent cell death mechanisms and iron-regulated mRNA stability.

Having already conducted extensive research during his time at the UA and having won other awards, such as the YUMA Friends of Arizona Health Sciences Young Investigator Award, the new NSF fellow looks to the future where he believes he will be able to attempt more difficult projects.

"This award, which covers a stipend, tuition, and travel awards for three years, will allow flexibility to try some high-risk projects," Kerins says. "In particular, I have an interest in learning computational biology, in which my adviser, Dr. Aikseng Ooi, is an expert. Considering I don;t have much background in this area, the fellowship will open up time to pursue projects that will allow me to master basic bioinformatics necessary for 21st century biology."

Kerins' success is the result of years of hard work and dedication, and he believes joining Ooi's lab was a great stepping stone in his career which helped him significantly improve his research.

"Since joining his lab, I have made strong progress in my research on iron regulation and signaling, and I am finding the interdisciplinary and complex interactions involved in cellular signaling to be a fascinating subject," says Kerins. "I also secured funding to attend my first major conference as a graduate student in 2016 at an American Association for Cancer Research meeting, and I look forward to presenting an exciting project to fellow biologists. Both high school and undergraduate students have assisted me, and have invaluable at expediting research progress"

In addition to wanting to continuously improve his research, Kerins is keen on helping others achieve their educational ambitions. To this end, he has worked with the Keep Engaging Youth in Science (KEYS) program to provide high school students with valuable research experience.

"Beyond the lab, the UA has offered me many opportunities to grow professionally and pursue public outreach. KEYS enlists willing graduate students to serve as mentors for high school students. I taught my intern basic cell and molecular biology techniques. Her work in just two months generated enough data on post-translational modifications of iron regulatory proteins for her to participate in the program's university-wide poster showcase. She shows great promise in whatever field she chooses, and it was rewarding for me to instill in her an enthusiasm for science."

"I am excited about all the opportunities I have found for professional growth and mentorship at the UA College of Pharmacy."

Story by Miguel Mayagoitia, communications assistant
Photos by Kris Hanning, UAHS BioCommunications

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