Monday, 02 December 2013 11:37

ASCB Kaluza Prize Winner Tina Han Says RNAs Are the Coolest

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Tina Han credit Susan Merrell UCSF smallTina Han won the first ASCB Kaluza Prize.
Photo Credit: Susan Merrell, UCSF
Tina Han, postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), found out that she'd just won $5,000 on Facebook. It wasn't a holiday giveaway or a scam. It was a missed voice mail from ASCB and a friend's quick Facebook message that Han was the winner of ASCB's $5,000 Kaluza Prize supported by Beckman Coulter for outstanding research as a graduate student.

A former classmate at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center fired off the Facebook congratulations and, at first, Han recalls, she had no idea what her classmate was talking about. Then Han realized that she had an unreturned voicemail from ASCB. Thea Clarke, ASCB's Director of Communications, answered in Bethesda, confirming that Han had won the ASCB Kaluza Prize. Han was in mild shock. "I wasn't expecting it at all," she says.

Han won for her breakthrough work on the functional characterization of RNA granules during her graduate work in Steven McKnight's lab at UT Southwestern. Han said she "inadvertently" found a new way to study RNA granule proteins and mRNA lysates. This discovery allowed her to research RNA granule assembly. Her work earned her the 2012 Nominata Award from UT Southwestern and a well-rated paper in F1000Prime. McKnight was the first person Han told about winning the prize. McKnight was thrilled. "Super! Super! Super!" he repeated.

"I spend a lot of time in the lab because that's where I want to be," Han said, "There's an excitement that if you find something, that you're the first one to ever know about it." When she's not in the lab, Han enjoys hiking for the same reason she likes biology, "I like to see nature being awesome," she said.

Han is a Taiwan native, but she grew up in Plano, Texas. Han went to college at the University of California, Berkley, where her many interests left her unsure of what major to choose. Han decided on neurobiology for its mysteries and puzzles. But before attending graduate school, Han worked as a technician in McKnight's lab to make sure she belonged in research. After a few years as a tech she was hooked, and started in the PhD program in 2005. Now, back in San Francisco for her postdoc, she misses the low cost of living in Dallas, but is excited for her future.

"I'm in an ion channel lab now, but I still do work with RNA. I think RNAs are one of the coolest things in the world," she said. When Han is done with her postdoc she plans to be a principal investigator. "I really want to be in a place where I can call the shots and work on things that I want to work on and that excite me," she said.

The ASCB Kaluza Prize judges think that Han is on the right track. The selection committee of ASCB President Don Cleveland, ASCB President-Elect Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, and longtime ASCB member Peter Walter, identified Han as a future leader in cell biology. They said that her research has broad implications for the study of synaptic transmission and neurodegenerative disease, describing her work as presenting a novel way of thinking about cellular organization.

Will the prize winnings cover a vacation to take a break from all of her hard work? No, Han said, "I think I'll just save it."

Christina Szalinski

Christina is a science writer for the American Society for Cell Biology. She earned her Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

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