A nice dilemma to have: Two fellowships for the price of one

Rengasayee “Sai” Veeraraghavan

Rengasayee “Sai” Veeraraghavan, PhD

Conventional wisdom states that, in general, two is better than one. But what if you’re not allowed to have both, even if you can get your hands on them?

That was the dilemma that Rengasayee “Sai” Veeraraghavan, a postdoctoral associate at the Virginia Tech Carilion Resaerch Institute, recently faced when he received news that he had been awarded a fellowship from the American Heart Association. Although he was thrilled by the honor, there was just one problem; Veeraraghavan had already been awarded a fellowship from the Heart Rhythm Society, and he could not accept both.

Faced with a choice between two prestigious fellowships offering similar support, Veeraraghavan decided to accept the award that lasted longer. Because the American Heart Association’s fellowship funds his project for two years instead of one, Veeraraghavan was forced to decline his previous award from the Heart Rhythm Society.

“It’s really a difficult position to be in because I’m thrilled to receive both,” said Veeraraghavan of his situation. “Turning down an honor from an institution I greatly respect is not something I’m happy about having to do, but the Heart Rhythm Society’s fellowship will be able to fund another research fellow.”

Just like his previously awarded fellowship, the grant from the American Heart Association will fund Veeraraghavan’s studies into how electric signals are transmitted between cells in the human heart. According to Veeraraghavan, researchers in the 1990s believed that they had the answer completely figured out. But thanks to the advancements made by Veeraraghavan’s mentors, Steven Poelzing and Robert Gourdie, both at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, scientists are realizing that the heart’s conduction isn’t as simple as once thought. Research indicates that a secondary, indirect system is also involved. This system sends electric signals across the space between heart cells through an ephapse - or “false synapse” – by manipulating nearby ion channels.

“I think that’s why my project is so appealing; research into this secondary cardiac conduction system is an exciting new avenue of inquiry, with potentially important implications,” said Veeraraghavan. “Plus my project includes Steve and Rob, leaders in the field from both the structural and the functional viewpoints of the research, respectively. Having both of them and the tools available in their laboratories are tremendous resources that surely made my proposal more competitive.”

Written by Ken Kingery