Nursing Students Awarded Prestigious F31 Grants from the National Institutes of Health

Tingting Zhao and Bright Eze are researching the neurobehavioral impacts of pain in infants and chronic pain burdens for Black individuals

Two portraits of nursing students

Ph.D. students and F31 grant recipients Tingting Zhao, left, and Bright Eze (Submitted photos).

UConn School of Nursing Ph.D. students Tingting Zhao and Bright Eze were recently awarded F31 grants from the National Institutes of Health. This prestigious award is granted to pre-doctoral students to facilitate their research as they navigate their dissertation work.

“We are incredibly proud of Bright and Tingting,” School of Nursing Dean Deborah Chyun says. “Not only is an F31 grant amazing in its own right, but it can also help ease the way for researchers to receive other NIH funding in the future. It is a foot in the door.”

Zhao’s research studies the impact of pain and stress experienced during a preterm infant’s early life on their neurobehavioral outcomes later in life. She is focusing specifically on how this impacts the mitochondria, which is the part of the cell responsible for converting food and oxygen into energy necessary for bodily functions.

“I want to identify the noninvasive novel biomarkers related to mitochondrial function and pain and stress in preterm infants,” she says. “I want to involve new technology and knowledge in genomics, and I would like to look at a longitudinal association between mitochondrial function or dysfunction and neurodevelopmental outcomes in preterm infants who experienced pain and stress in early life.”

Eze is researching the disproportionate burdens of chronic pain for Black individuals compared to non-Hispanic whites. Eze says that Black Americans are more likely to report greater pain severity, have higher prevalence of common musculoskeletal conditions, and have a higher sensitivity to pain. Some health scientists argue that long-term exposure to adverse environmental conditions can result in a physiologic pain response called Conserved Transcriptional Response to Adversity (CTRA).

“My aim is to identify differences in psychosocial and neurobiological factors between Black and non-Hispanic white participants with low back pain at acute onset and at six months follow-up,” he says.

Eze also hopes to study participants’ mRNA expression and DNA profiles, as differences in these could indicate a link between an individual’s genetic makeup and low back pain in Black and non-Hispanic whites.

“I learned quickly that it’s important to know how to face failure during the research grant process and to be patient. The application itself is a learning process.” — Tingting Zhao, Ph.D. student

Professors Angela Starkweather, who is the School’s former associate dean for academic affairs, and Xiaomei Cong, who is the School’s associate dean for research, serve as advisors to both Zhao and Eze. Both students agree that they could not have accomplished this work without the support from their advisory team.

“I am so proud of  Tingting and Bright and their mentor teams for receiving the most prestigious pre-doctoral training award from the NIH’s National Institute of Nursing Research,” Cong says. “Both of them are rising stars among future nursing researchers. Their research will explore the most complex mechanisms of pain and stress markers associated with health outcomes across the lifespan. The impact of their research is far-reaching in biobehavioral science and clinical practice of pain and stress management in vulnerable populations.”

The application process for the F31 grant is demanding and rigorous. Both Zhao and Eze had to resubmit their applications twice before receiving their grants.

“I learned quickly that it’s important to know how to face failure during the research grant process and to be patient,” Zhao says. “The application itself is a learning process.”

“Despite being rigorous, the grant process created a unique opportunity for me to collaborate with other researchers in other academic institutions and laboratories,” Eze says. “I’ve learned a lot within and outside of academia.”

Both students lost little time getting to work on their studies. Zhao has randomly chosen her study subjects and has begun collecting data. Eze began work in February and is now sorting through his data and processing samples.

Both say they are grateful for this opportunity.

“I am thankful, but this opportunity comes with a great deal of responsibility,” Zhao says. “I have to make sure that everything goes to plan and that I accomplish all my goals.”

“This grant means everything to me,” Eze says. “I have been waiting for a moment like this since the day I submitted the grant. I cannot wait for the next step in my career as a research scholar.”

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