Jonathan Rameseder: "Fulbrighter for Life"

Austria's 1st International Fulbright Science & Technology Award Fellow

bridges vol. 26, July 2010 / Feature Articles

By Juliet M. Beverly

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The Fulbright Program is one of the most widely known and prestigious international exchange and scholarship grant programs. In the last decade, the program began carving out a special space for outstanding international students in S&T fields, and thus was born the International Fulbright Science & Technology Award (Fulbright S&T).

The US Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) sponsors Fulbright S&T. The purpose is to provide excellent foreign students with an opportunity to pursue Ph.D. studies at high-level US universities. Fulbright S&T is intended to demonstrate that the United States is committed to welcoming first-rate future researchers and leaders to pursue serious scientific study and research at US institutions. Fellows receive three years of funding from ECA, followed by support from their US host institution until they complete their Ph.D. studies.

Every year, 45 Fulbright S&T fellows are selected from around the globe. Fulbright Science and Technology Grants are available to more than 140 countries worldwide. So far, Fulbright S&T has accepted 155 students from 69 countries.

Jonathan Rameseder

The Fulbright Program between Austria and the United States celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and continues to recognize and support outstanding students and scholars. And, Jonathan Rameseder, the first Austrian Fulbright S&T fellow, is no exception. After receiving the Fulbright S&T award in 2008, he began his graduate studies in computational and systems biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT ), his Fulbright S&T host institution. At MIT, Rameseder is investigating the complex signaling networks that determine the outcome of stem and cancer cells.

bridges talked with Rameseder about his path to MIT and his Fulbright S&T experience thus far:

bridges:    What was your concentration in high school and what made you decide to study bioinformatics at the Upper Austria University of Applied Sciences?

Rameseder:    My concentration in high school was computer science since I was interested in IT, especially video games, early on in my life. However, I had quite a rocky start and even had to repeat the second grade.
Computational Biology and Bioinformatics interested me because there are many unanswered questions in the field. In addition, I was very attracted to the challenge of dealing with the diversity and richness of biological data.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} bridges:    Can you explain the field of bioinformatics and what you focus on in your research?

Rameseder:    The traditional approach to biology is studying plants, animals, and later molecules qualitatively. Most often, biologists try to isolate their object of interest to study every single detail about it. However, they often study it out of context. Later on, new technologies made the acquisition of huge amounts of data feasible. It became more and more obvious that the single elements of biological systems influence each other and only studying them quantitatively on a systems level would provide real insight into how nature works. Therefore, to make sense of all the collected data, we use mathematical models and approaches from computer science: This is called computational biology or bioinformatics.

bridges:     In your freshman year in college you interned at the A*STAR Bioinformatics Institute in Singapore. What was that experience like for you and how was it living in Singapore?

Rameseder:     I am very fascinated by Singapore, especially how the Singaporeans promote science and how efficiently the country is governed. When I applied for an internship at A*STAR, I had just finished my first year of undergraduate studies. Luckily one of the scientists in the Bioinformatics Institute saw potential in my research proposal and I was awarded my very first scientific internship position. Singapore is a great place to live since the standard of living is very high. Also, not only the government but also the people of Singapore seem to have a deep appreciation for science. I enjoyed every day of my stay.

bridges:    In the subsequent years of your college career, you went on to do research and study at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and then the Friedrich Miescher Institute of Biomedical Research (FMI) in Basel, Switzerland. You also studied at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) at Cambridge. How was your professional experience working in Switzerland as compared to the UK?

Rameseder:    Both Switzerland and the UK provide an excellent environment for science. It is difficult to compare the experiences I had in these three institutions, however, because the ETH is an academic center, the FMI an industrial one, and the EBI is a governmental research organization. Especially for computational proteomics, my specific field of research, the ETH is very strong. They have one of the finest mass spectrometry groups in the world. Furthermore, the Swiss infrastructure is excellent and the quality of life is extremely high.

bridges:     You received a EU Leonardo scholarship, an Austrian national scholarship for gifted students, and special support grants from the Upper Austria State Government to support your research abroad. How did it feel to receive the International Fulbright Science & Technology Award after you entered your graduate studies at MIT for computational and systems biology?

Rameseder:    I have to be honest: It felt awesome. This grant is one of the most prestigious international Ph.D. grants in the world, and I just could not believe that I really got the award. Every step of the way I was giving my best but I was also aware that there were so many other excellent candidates. I remember that I was working at the FMI in Basel when the Fulbright Commission informed me about the final decision. I immediately called my family to tell them that I got the grant but it took me some time to really digest the fact. When the awareness set in, it was one of the happiest times in my life.

bridges:     And how does it feel to be the only Austrian to date who has received a Fulbright S&T Award?

Rameseder:    Well, receiving the Fulbright S&T Award feels great! However, I wish some more Austrians would receive it too.

bridges:    What are some of the benefits of receiving the Fulbright S&T Award?

Rameseder:    The Fulbright S&T Award covers full tuition, health insurance, and book and computer allowances for three years. On top of that, it provides a generous stipend, and conference and research allowances.

bridges:    Apart from financial support, how has the Fulbright S&T Award helped you personally?

Rameseder:    I had been invited to attend several Fulbright seminars in different American cities where I have met many other scientists from all over the world. Some of them are among my best friends now.
Furthermore, the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the US Department of State sponsor Fulbrighters and support us with all the questions that we have about academics and legal issues like visa requirements. When I arrived in the US, I was so glad to have the support from the IIE, especially in the beginning.

bridges:    Do you feel you're a part of a strong, valuable network now that you are a Fulbright S&T Award Fellow?

Rameseder:    Absolutely. Not only did I meet many of my close friends at the Fulbright S&T seminars, I also developed a strong academic network. Additionally, I will join the Fulbright Alumni after three years - once you get a Fulbright grant, you are a Fulbrighter for life!

bridges:    What were your first impressions about MIT and living in the US?

Rameseder:    MIT was a little overwhelming in the beginning. The academic standard is extremely high and during the first year I worked really hard to find my specific area of research. After the initial period of adjustment, I have come to realize that the MIT experience is unique and rewarding because I get to work with some of the brightest people in the world.
On the other hand, when I first came to the US I felt very welcomed. After a first period of excitement, the culture shock then began to set in. I had some difficulty getting adjusted to the American way of doing things but boy, did I learn! Now I am so happy that I had all these experiences since I have grown immensely as a person as a result.

bridges:    Please explain what you have been investigating at MIT. What are you hoping to find researching the complex signaling networks that direct DNA damage response?

Rameseder:    Every cell in our body has molecules called proteins that do the necessary work so that we can exist. Proteins communicate with each other by transferring small messages in the form of chemical groups. Often we know who receives the message but we do not know who sent it. I use machine-learning approaches to predict the protein that sends the specific message. Later on, I want to use these techniques to find out how cells react when their genetic information is damaged, for example by radiation.

bridges:    After you've graduated from MIT, what plans are in your future?

Rameseder:    I still have some work to do before graduating, so it is too early to make predictions. Time will tell.


The author, Juliet M. Beverly, is the assistant editor of bridges. She has been a member of the bridges editorial team since January 2007.