Yehia Mechref has had a big year, being named to a National Institutes of Health study section, becoming a Horn Professor and receiving two new highly competitive NIH grants.
After Yehia Mechref became chairman of the Texas Tech University Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry on June 1, 2017, he kicked off his new role by overseeing a huge boom in the department's research funding. Over the course of the summer, eight faculty members received a total of $5.1 million in grants, including two awards worth more than $1.3 million by Mechref himself.
Apparently he didn't want to let his first year end any less impressively.
In February, Mechref received an invitation to become a standing member of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study section, a group of nationally recognized scientists that makes recommendations on the scientific merits of proposals under consideration for NIH funding.
In March, he was awarded a Horn Professorship, the highest honor Texas Tech can bestow upon one of its faculty members.
In April, Mechref received the university's first NIH Shared Instrumentation Grant, thanks to a collaborative effort with the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC).
And in May, he received one of only three consortium grants from the NIH's National Cancer Institute for his new joint effort to find a predictor for liver cancer.
NIH study section
The NIH has more than 170 standing study sections, and scientists are appointed to them – according to their field of expertise – as either standing members who serve a four-year term or ad hoc members who fill in as needed.
“Usually, prominent scientists are invited to serve on study sections because funding agencies such as the NIH need people who are broad in their scientific knowledge,” explained Mechref, who is also the director of the Texas Tech Center for Biotechnology & Genomics. “To be invited to be a standing member of a study section indicates you have scientific status.”
Mechref already has served in an ad hoc capacity for years. He normally serves on 6-8 different study sections per year, and he's already done three this spring. Although he has been selected to serve as a standing member of the Enabling Bioanalytical and Imaging Technologies (EBIT) study section from July 1, 2018, through June 30, 2022, Mechref plans to serve on other panels as well. In fact, he is scheduled for one in September.
The EBIT study section reviews applications focused on the development and application of new bioanalytical tools and emerging techniques. Emphasis is on research that probes biological systems on a scale including molecular, cellular, tissue and small animal levels.
One of the benefits of being named a standing member of a study section is that scientists are allowed to submit their own proposals on a “continuous submission” basis. But Mechref said he already enjoys this benefit because of the number of times he serves each year as an ad hoc member.
Regardless, the benefits aren't why he does it.
“I'm NIH-funded, and I've been NIH-funded now for more than 10 years,” he said. “The way I look at it, it's my duty to serve, pro bono, to make sure that scientifically meritorious applications are effectively evaluated. Moreover, serving on these study sections allows me the opportunity to know what the funding trends are and to relay that information to faculty across the Texas Tech campus.”
Unlike other funding agencies, where reviewers are tasked with actually allocating funds, NIH study sections are composed of scientists who review proposals in their specific field, then rank the proposal based upon its scientific merits. A council is responsible for making the final funding decisions.
“The duty of the reviewers is to make sure the science being presented is game-changing science,” Mechref said. “If we are, as a nation, to advance in technology, it's dependent upon the funding of cutting-edge, game-changer proposals. Many of the technologies we enjoy and take for granted are the result of funding from different funding agencies. In order to ensure this continues to happen, scientists have to serve.”
The recognition is bestowed upon a faculty member who has attained national and/or international recognition in the areas of research or other creative, scholarly achievement. The nomination process is highly tiered, with several steps that include critical scrutiny by an evaluation committee, letters of support by prominent experts in the same field as the nominee, dossiers demonstrating immense publication and scholarly service and final ratification by the Board of Regents.
Mechref, the 89th Horn Professor since the title's creation in 1967, now joins ranks with the likes of Alton Wade, a geology professor who worked extensively in Antarctic exploration; Elo J. Urbanovsky, a professor of park administration and landscape architecture whose name was later given to Texas Tech's Urbanovsky Park after his work with First Lady Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson on her famous beautification projects; and Kishor Mehta, a professor of civil engineering and member of the National Academy of Inventors, whose work after the 1970 Lubbock tornado transformed the Fujita Scale into the Enhanced Fujita Scale and led to the development of what is today the National Wind Institute.
“It's an honor that I'm humbled to receive,” he said. “To be among those who have already received this honor, and to do it in such a short period of time, is something very special to me.
“In August, I will have been here eight years. It's been a fast track with lots of things happening. If somebody asked me back in 2010 if I would be this successful at Texas Tech, I would have said, ‘I know I'm going to be successful, but how successful and at what rate?' I would have said, ‘I don't know.'”
Mechref says one reason for his success is that he works in the highly specialized areas of glycomics and proteomics, which are simultaneously challenging and rewarding.
His research focuses on the sugars on and in a cell and how they interact with the sugars and proteins of other cells to convey messages.
“My research group is one of the few across the nation working on understanding the roles of sugars associated with lipids and proteins in the development and progression of diseases, as well as changes in physiological processes,” he said. “They're critical in so many different processes. To be able to understand these processes, you have to understand the molecules responsible for them. These are very complex in their nature, but because we have persisted in developing methods in this area, people more and more are realizing the importance of these biomolecules.”
Shared instrumentation grant
Due to the importance of his research, and in his role as director of the Center for Biotechnology & Genomics, Mechref began looking for a way to update the center's technology more than a year ago.
The center currently has a genomic sequencer that was purchased in 2014 with grant funds from the CH Foundation, but Mechref said that, over time, the machine has become outdated and expensive to operate, and as a result, the center was becoming less competitive in its ability to provide such services. But a new genomic sequencer costs about $900,000.
So Mechref got creative.
“The NIH, like the National Science Foundation, has shared instrumentation grants, which allow a recipient to purchase or upgrade a single expensive, specialized, commercially available instrument,” Mechref said. “However, because of the fact that the NIH is special in the projects they fund, when they ask you to include people who will benefit from having this shared instrumentation, they have to be NIH-funded investigators. There is a minimum requirement to be eligible for those grants.”
Looking at the Texas Tech faculty alone, Mechref couldn't find enough NIH-funded faculty members who were interested in using a genomic sequencer in their work. However, if the proposal could include NIH-funded faculty from both Texas Tech and the TTUHSC, there would be more than enough to prove Texas Tech's demand for the instrument.
So Mechref reached out to Afzal Siddiqui, a Grover E. Murray Distinguished Professor in the TTUHSC School of Medicine and the vice president of Institutional Collaborations, to see who from the TTUHSC would be interested in using the genomic sequencer.
When eight TTUHSC faculty members signed on, Mechref breathed a sigh of relief at having overcome the first obstacle.
The next task, however, was to figure out how to apply for funding.
The NIH has two funding mechanisms: they fund 75 proposals at $600,000 or less and only five that are more than $600,000. Knowing he had a much better chance of receiving a grant if he asked for less than $600,000, Mechref needed to solicit $300,000 from somewhere else.
Because the CH Foundation funded the original genomic sequencer, Mechref asked them to help with its replacement. After they agreed to consider it and asked how much he needed, Mechref requested $150,000. They agreed that if he could get the grant from the NIH, they would provide $150,000.
Now only needing $150,000, Mechref went back to Siddiqui and said they still needed more money to be competitive for the NIH grant. In his role as head of the committee that Texas Tech University System Chancellor Robert Duncan formed to enhance synergistic activities between the campuses, Siddiqui committed $100,000 to the project.
After the Texas Tech Office of the Vice President for Research agreed to cover the remaining $50,000, Mechref submitted a proposal to the NIH for just over $593,000.
On April 17, the award was issued.
“It's an important achievement because it shows two campuses can work synergistically,” Mechref said. “It also shows you need to be resourceful in how you approach these submissions. You need to select which mechanism to go after and select how to be competitive.”
Mechref's most recent award is notable not only for its amount but also for the effort behind it.
One type of grant the NIH funds is called a Research Project Cooperative Agreement, informally called a consortium grant, and it provides funding for programs that create a group of researchers all tackling a common problem.
Ten years ago, when Mechref was still at Indiana University, the NIH's National Cancer Institute funded a consortium called the Alliance of Glycobiologists for Cancer Research Translational Tumor Glycomics Laboratories. The group consisted of seven laboratories focused on a common theme, glycobiology in cancer, and Mechref's lab was one of them.
When the grant came up for renewal five years ago, Mechref – by then at Texas Tech – applied but was denied.
When the grant came up for renewal again this year, Mechref teamed up with David Lubman at the University of Michigan to submit a joint proposal on which they are both principal investigators. The project also includes co-principal investigators from other institutions, including the University of Michigan Medical School, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Texas-Southwestern and Indiana University.
“We have samples collected from hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) patients and cirrhosis patients – a liver disease of which 50 percent develops into hepatocellular carcinoma – and the goal is to figure out if we can find a marker that will allow us to predict which cirrhotic patients are likely to develop into HCC,” Mechref said.
“Early detection is always what oncologists look for, but this is not just early detection. We are looking for predictors. We're not looking at patients that have cirrhosis and continuously monitoring them to figure out when they move from being cirrhotic to being hepatocellular carcinoma patients. We are working on finding some signatures, markers that will allow us to say ‘Patient X has the probability of developing from cirrhotic into HCC.'”
The project was funded at just under $2 million for four years, but Mechref said the money is not the important part.
“What's unique is that the National Cancer Institute only funded three groups across the nation this year,” he said. “We were one of those.”
Mechref said he's proud of his accomplishments not only on a personal level but because they also elevate the university's prominence.
“My goal has always been to advance my career and to advance the name of Texas Tech,” he said, “and I think I've been fulfilling that. Since I joined Texas Tech, the name of this institution is continuously represented in every major conference in our field, nationally and internationally.”