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June 2011

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Postdoc to head computational biology group at Indian institute

By Eddy Ball
June 2011

Sailu Yellaboina, Ph.D.

Yellaboina enjoyed his time at work with Jothi, describing him as an "excellent mentor and a exceptional scientist." He also said he visited the NIEHS Fitness Center regularly to unwind and relax as he exercised, and he is proud of the bronze medals he won in fitness and table tennis competition during NIEHS Health and Fitness Week 2011. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Raja Jothi, Ph.D.

Jothi came to NIEHS from another NIH Institute, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, where he was a research fellow. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

For NIEHS Biostatistics Branch Visiting Fellow Sailu Yellaboina, Ph.D., June brings a trip home, a family reunited, and a position as an associate professor on the campus of his alma mater.

Along with his research duties as a member of the Centre for Excellence in Computational Genomics at the C.R. Rao Advanced Institute of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (AIMSCS)(http://www.crraoaimscs.org/) Exit NIEHS, Yellaboina will serve as head of the institute's Bioinformatics and Computational Genomics Group. Founded in 2007 as a leading institute in basic research with grants from the Indian government and individual donors, AIMSCS is located on the campus of the University of Hyderabad in India.

For Yellaboina, NIEHS stands out

Prior to coming to NIEHS, Yellaboina held fellowships at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the National Institute of Aging, where he worked after completion of his doctorate in bioinformatics at the University of Hyderabad. Looking back on his experiences as a trainee at three institutions, Yellaboina said, "NIEHS is the place where I received the training I needed to become an independent investigator."

Although his successful transition from trainee to professor and principal investigator owes a great deal to his own talent and hard work, Yellaboina also credits quality mentoring from NIEHS Principal Investigator Raja Jothi, Ph.D.(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/atniehs/labs/bb/staff/index.cfm) (see text box), as well as the resources offered by the NIEHS Office of Fellows Career Development (OFCD)(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/careers/research/fellows/), as important factors in tipping the job search scales in his favor.

Advice for other trainees

Yellaboina said the grant writing workshop and workshops for improving his English were especially helpful and, in retrospect, wishes he'd been able to work more on his presentation skills, all of which he recommends for other fellows at NIEHS. He noted that his ability to write research proposals landed him four interviews and job offers in India, including the one he decided promised the best scientific environment and professional opportunity.

India has a robust economy, and government support of scientific research and training is strong, Yellaboina said. And he had advice for others who want to pursue careers there. "I highly recommend that Indian postdocs who want to return to India attend the [IndiaBioscience.org] Young Investigator Meeting(http://www.indiabioscience.org/yim2012) Exit NIEHS to learn about opportunities in India."

From farm boy to computational biologist

When he gets established in Hyderabad, Yellaboina will be just 50 miles away from where he was born in the village of Cheetakodur in the town of Jangaon Mandal in the Warangal district of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Remembering his childhood there, he said, "It [Cheetakodur] has a population around 2000, and 99 percent of the families depend on agriculture for a living. Most of the time when I wasn't in school, I also used to work at farming the land."

He could easily have followed tradition and stayed in agriculture in Cheetakodur, but Yellaboina had dreams. He worked hard at Kaktiya University, where he earned his bachelor's degree, and at the University of Hyderabad, where he became the first person from his village to earn a master's degree and a Ph.D.

Yellaboina and the Systems Biology Group

Yellaboina joined the Systems Biology Group in the NIEHS Biostatistics Branch as a postdoctoral fellow in August 2009, working with Jothi, who said of his protégé, "Sailu is an outstanding scientist with a strong character. He has a very positive attitude and truly embraces learning all there is know about molecular and computational biology. He never hesitated to reach out to other scientists at NIEHS, whose expertise, he thought, would help improve the scope of his projects. This work ethic and the career development skills he gained as a trainee have served him well in his job search."

Yellaboina worked with Jothi towards identifying novel regulators required for mouse embryonic stem (ES) cell maintenance. He used Bioinformatics and Genomics approaches to discover several novel regulators of ES cell identity including a gene with an unknown function and a few genes with roles in epigenetic modifications. The NIEHS Systems Biology Group uses interdisciplinary approaches, both experimental and computational, to understand how transcription factors and epigenetic modifications regulate gene expression programs during cellular development and differentiation.

In 2010, Yellaboina won a Fellows Award for Research Excellence (FARE), for his research with Jothi into "Computational Prediction and Experimental Validation of Novel Genes Essential for Embryonic Stem Cell Maintenance and Self-renewal" and gave an invited talk, "Identification of Novel Regulators Required for Embryonic Stem Cell Maintenance," at the NIH Research Festival in October 2010 (see story(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsletter/2010/november/science-niehs.cfm)).

In February 2011, Yellaboina was awarded a travel grant to attend and present his stem cell poster at the IndiaBioscience.org Young Investigators Meeting(http://www.indiabioscience.org/yim2011/location) Exit NIEHS in what is known as the "temple city of India," Bhubaneswar, capital of the state of Orissa. He will present his final talk as a postdoc on "Integrating Genomic Datasets to Understand Mechanisms of Embryonic Stem Cell Maintenance," during a plenary symposium June 7 convened by NIEHS biostatisticians Pierre Bushel, Ph.D., and Leping Li, Ph.D., at the 2011 In Vitro Biology Meeting(http://www.sivb.org/meeting_program.asp) Exit NIEHS in Raleigh.

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