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Battaglia, a sixth-year student in the Cell Biology and Physiology Program, won the Transition to Aging Research Award for Predoctoral Students, which will fund her research of neurodegeneration for the next five years.

The National Institute of Aging (NIA) has selected graduate student Rachel Battaglia as a recipient of the very competitive Transition to Aging Research Award for Predoctoral Students (F99/K00). The NIA selects only 7-10 award recipients each year.

Battaglia, a student in the Cell Biology and Physiology Program, studies the cytoskeleton, specifically intermediate filaments and their role in rare diseases of the central nervous system. Her post-doctoral work will continue her current research of astrocytes – one of the major glial cell types that are critical for health and development of the central nervous system.

“Upon injury, astrocytes become reactive and change their morphology, gene expression and secretome to respond to insult,” said Battaglia. These reactive astrocytes are a double-edged sword, helping to prevent massive damage in the short-term, but leading to chronic inflammation in the long-term.”

Reactive astrocytes are a common feature of all neurodegenerative diseases and even normal aging. The goal of Battaglia’s current research in the laboratory of Natasha Snider, assistant professor of Cell Biology and Physiology, is to understand their function and the mechanism of how they become reactive in the context of Alexander Disease, and her postdoctoral research will focus on Alzheimer’s Disease. The Transition to Aging Research Award will fund her last year of research at UNC School of Medicine, and will cover four years of postdoctoral work in the Pathology Department at Harvard Medical School, where she will be mentored by Dr. Mel Feany, a world expert in this field.

“The PhD journey is a long grind, but I feel energized to enter this new field, expand my knowledge, and take the next step to in my career. It feels very validating to receive this award and have a clear path forward,” Battaglia said.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have excellent mentors both at UNC and my alma mater, Rutgers, who have always encouraged and counseled me. I really hope I can build a lab space one day that provides the same supportive atmosphere for aspiring scientists.”

Battaglia previously received the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), the country’s oldest fellowship program that directly supports graduate students in various STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.

Learn more about the NIA Transition to Aging Research Award for Predoctoral Students here.