Embryology’s Zehra Nizami Receives Fourth Postdoctoral Innovation and Excellence (PIE) Award

Nizami's career at Carnegie includes outstanding accomplishments in the three areas recognized by the PIE Award—science, education, and community service.

Washington, D.C.—  Zehra Nizami has been a graduate student and postdoc in Joe Gall’s lab at the Department of Embryology. She is the fourth recipient of the Postdoctoral Innovation and Excellence (PIE) Award, which are made through nominations from the department directors and chosen by the Office of the President. Her career at Embryology includes outstanding accomplishments in the three areas recognized by the PIE Award—science, education, and community service.

Nizami is co-discoverer of a new class of RNA molecules in amphibian egg cells called stable intronic sequence (sis) RNA. These sequences were not anticipated. It was believed for 35 years that introns—bits of DNA that interrupt and scramble the sequence encoding a protein—are “junk” DNA and that their RNA products, with only some exceptions, are quickly destroyed in the nucleus during the unscrambling process (known as “splicing”). This discovery required exceptional skill in the latest deep-sequencing methodology (sequencing a genomic region hundreds or even thousands of times) coupled with a thorough understanding of cell biology, in this case the giant egg cell of the frog Xenopus.

Nizami is also known for her outstanding structural analysis of the giant “lampbrush” chromosomes in the oocytes of frogs and salamanders. Lampbrush chromosomes are hundreds of times larger than typical chromosomes, allowing the imaging of individual genes by conventional light optical methods. Nizami has vastly improved this research area by applying super-resolution microscopy and genomics based probing strategies to examine details of the transcription—the first step to turning a gene on—and the splicing of specific genes at the single molecule level. This is a unique approach to chromosome analysis.

In addition, Nizami is involved in two significant collaborations, one on a study of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and another on a super-resolution study of stem cell division in the fruit fly Drosophila.

Nizami is also heavily involved in educational and community service. As a graduate student, she was a pioneering member of the Mentoring to Inspire Diversity in Science (MInDS) initiative at The Johns Hopkins University, where she received her Ph.D. The program promotes diversity in science through mentoring and community service activities, mostly with Baltimore high school students. She also participates in the BioEYES K- 12 science education program headquartered at Embryology. Most recently, Nizami has teamed up with fellow Carnegie scientists , Frederick Tan (Embryology), Alan Boss (DTM), Sergio Dieterich (DTM), and Johanna Teske (Observatories) to develop the Carnegie Massive Open Online Research (CMOOR) platform. This project is supported by the Carnegie Science Venture grant, and aims to engage citizen scientists in analyzing Carnegie datasets, linking Carnegie scientists to each other, and to creative thinkers and students in their communities.

Carnegie president Matthew Scott remarked, “As a molecular biologist myself, I truly appreciate the remarkable accomplishments of Zehra’s science.  She has been exploring fascinating structures that define functional parts of the nucleus, studies that have important implications for gene regulation.  I know that she will go exceptionally far in her career.”

One postdoc is honored every quarter for their extraordinary accomplishments with the Postdoctoral Innovation and Excellence Award. The award recipient is given a prize of $1000, and is the guest of honor at a departmental gathering where all postdocs can enjoy some celebratory pies.