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University of South Florida

MCOM emerging scientists recognized as USF Scholars of Excellence

Three USF Health Morsani College of Medicine doctoral students were among the emerging scientists recognized Nov. 9 at the USF Office of Graduate Studies “Scholars of Excellence 2020” awards ceremony.

Karthick Mayilsamy and Michael Sacco, both doctoral students in the Department of Molecular Medicine, each received a $2,500 Chih Foundation Research & Publication Award. The Chih Foundation award supports exceptional science, engineering, or medicine (PhD, PharmD or MD) students who are conducting transformative research with the potential to advance science and the health of society.

Zeinab Motawe, MD, PhD, of the Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology, who graduated spring 2020 with a PhD degree in medical sciences, received a $1,000 Outstanding Dissertation Award. This award recognizes USF graduates (in the top 2% of their discipline) who have demonstrated exemplary performance and whose thesis or dissertation has significantly affected their research field nationally.

Karthick Mayilsamy

Karthick Mayilsamy

Karthick Mayilsamy’s research focuses on neurodegenerative diseases, in particular understanding the effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI) on the inflammatory signaling pathways connecting the spleen-brain-vision axis. He applied a nanoscale technology platform to develop a new therapeutic strategy for TBI, and this preclinical study was published Oct. 29 in Nanomedicine.  Mayilsamy is also studying the ability of SARS-CoV-2 to infect nerve tissue and designing nano-formulations as potential therapies.

Mayilsamy received a master of science degree in biotechnology from USF in 2018. In 2019 and 2020 he received a Florida High-Tech Corridor Council Matching Grant Award for Excellence in Student Research to support a project looking at the preclinical effectiveness of TN-1008, a small-molecule cancer stem cell inhibitor of a signaling pathway. His faculty co-mentors are Subhra Mohapatra, PhD, professor of molecular medicine, and Distinguished USF Health Professor Shyam Mohapatra, PhD, MBA.

Michael Sacco’s research focuses on studying mechanisms of antibiotic resistance and developing new treatments for gram-negative bacterial infections. Using protein X-ray crystallography and computer modeling analysis, he recently expanded his research to look at how promising antiviral drug candidates (inhibitors) interact with SARS-CoV-2’s main protease. In particular, the Chih Foundation Award recognized Sacco for recently published papers in two high-impact journals: Cell Research (June 15) and Science Advances (Nov. 6). The innovative published research offers insight into designing drugs to block COVID-19 infection.

Michael Sacco

Michael Sacco

Sacco received a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry from Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, in 2016. He received a University Graduate Fellowship from USF for 2016-17. His faculty mentor is Yu Chen, PhD, associate professor of molecular medicine.

Zeinab Motawe’s dissertation “Functional Significance of Endothelial Sigma-1 Receptors in Vascular Reactivity and Barrier Function” was conducted in the laboratory of faculty mentor Jerome Breslin, PhD, professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology.

Dr. Motawe’s research highlighted a novel mechanism for controlling microvascular hyperpermeability – excessive loss of fluid from blood vessels into surrounding tissues that causes tissues and organs to swell. Her preclinical studies included investigating how drugs that activate sigma-1 receptors function inside the endothelial cells that line blood vessels. She found that targeting this receptor is beneficial for endothelium and may offer a promising therapeutic target for diseases where the endothelial barrier malfunctions, such as stroke. Her dissertation research has resulted in a patent application (pending) for use of sigma receptor agonists to reduce microvascular hyperpermeability.

Zeinab Motawe, MD, PhD

Zeinab Motawe, MD, PhD

USF awarded Dr. Motawe an Edith Wright Hartley Graduate Scholarship in 2019.  She received the Outstanding Innovations in Medicine Award at USF Health Research Day 2020.  The Microcirculatory Society selected Motawe for the society’s 2020 August Krogh Young Investigator Award based upon her first-author paper published in the journal Microcirculation; just one trainee a year receives this prestigious national award.

Now a USF postdoctoral scholar, Dr. Motawe recently joined the laboratory of Thomas Taylor-Clark, PhD, professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology, where she studies pathways of esophageal pain.