Distinguished Mentor Awardee Supports Future Scientists

Rajendram Rajnarayanan, PhD

Published May 8, 2014

“Dr. Raj encourages students to see science through various vantage points and find ways to not only sustain their passion for other interests, but comingle their interests with science.”
Bethany Rankin, PhD student
Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology

He is one of three University at Buffalo faculty members who received this award in 2014 for exceptional work with undergraduate students.

The awards were presented April 23 during UB’s 2014 Celebration of Student Academic Excellence.

Enriching, Encouraging Young Researchers

Throughout his career, Rajnarayanan has encouraged students — especially those from underrepresented groups — to pursue their interests in biomedical research and science. He has worked to find enriching experiences for them in research laboratories as well as tangible support for their education and training.

He is helping to lead UB programs that offer mentoring and professional development and foster student success at several levels — from undergraduate through doctoral study.

Rajnarayanan is the associate director of UB’s CLIMB program (Collaborative Learning and Integrated Mentoring in the Biosciences), which includes the undergraduate CLIMB-UP summer research experience.

He also directs undergraduate research and summer programs for the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.

Numerous Efforts Enhance Diversity

In addition, Rajnarayanan helps chair the steering committee for UB’s Institute for Strategic Enhancement of Educational Diversity (iSEED).

He is a co-investigator on the National Institutes of Health-funded project “Enabling Access to Cutting-Edge Biomedical and Behavioral Science.” With this $1.9 million grant, UB aims to increase the number and success of underrepresented doctoral students in biomedical and behavioral science programs.

Through partnerships with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Rajnarayanan also is enhancing efforts to recruit diverse undergraduates to pursue MD degrees at UB.

In 2013, he received the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences’ inaugural faculty Award of Excellence for Promoting Inclusion and Cultural Diversity.

Doctoral Student Praises Mentor’s Influence, Creativity

Bethany Rankin, a doctoral student in the pharmacology and toxicology program, was part of UB’s inaugural 2009 CLIMB-UP class. She has studied under Rajnarayanan as both an undergraduate and graduate student.

“Dr. Raj has played an instrumental role in my development as a well-rounded, innovative scientist,” says Rankin.

“He continually finds ways to engage students with interactive and thought-provoking projects. He encourages them to thoroughly learn scientific concepts, while allowing them the freedom to be creative.”

Once an aspiring cartoonist, Rajnarayanan transfers this early creative talent to his own teaching and research.

“I bear witness each day to the elaborate cartoons he draws of protein-ligand interactions, how he seamlessly incorporates his creativity as a cartoonist at every opportunity,” says Rankin.

“He encourages students to see science through various vantage points and find ways to not only sustain their passion for other interests, but comingle their interests with science,” she says.

As an undergraduate in Rajnarayanan’s lab, Rankin says she learned “a great deal about drug design and development, computational programs, biochemical techniques and chemical synthesis.”

“I was given the opportunity to learn with minimal guidance, and expected to design and carry out experimental protocols based on the knowledge acquired in my coursework,” she says.

Rankin presented her undergraduate research at both the Intercultural Cancer Council and the HBCU Undergraduate Program annual conference, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Drug Discovery Research Involves Undergraduates

In his own lab, Rajnarayanan has trained more than 30 undergraduate students and is currently working with about nine. “Many continue on to graduate school and successful research careers,” he says.

The students learn in an intellectually diverse, multidisciplinary environment, involving researchers in engineering, biological science, chemistry, pharmacology and other areas.

The collaborative interactions students experience contribute to their development, Rajnarayanan says. “Group meetings bring different perspectives to their knowledge.”

Through his research, Rajnarayanan aims to discover new drug targets to fight a variety of diseases, including diabetes and cancer.

His team is currently using state-of-the art bioinformatics and structure-based discovery tools to generate a new breed of small molecular therapeutics to fight breast cancer.

Also a faculty member in the interdisciplinary neuroscience program, Rajnarayanan has received support for major research projects from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Meyerson Awardees Help Scholars Reach Potential

Medical school faculty members have been honored with the Meyerson award four years in a row. Previous honorees are:

Established by UB President Emeritus Martin Meyerson and his wife, Margy Ellen, the award honors outstanding faculty members who help UB undergraduates reach their full potential as young scholars, says A. Scott Weber, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.

“Like the Meyersons, we believe that the best undergraduate creative experiences are collaborative; encourage student autonomy and responsibility; and create strong mentoring relationships with faculty.”