By Megan Scavo | November 21, 2019 12:51 pm

Nicholas Castaneda, a Ph.D. student at the UCF Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, is one of 39 young scientists nationwide to receive the Chateaubriand Fellowship, a French grant that supports outstanding American graduate students.

He will head to the University of Bordeaux in December for five months of microscopy study on actin, a family of proteins that play a critical role in how muscles contract and play a pivotal role in diseases such as muscular dystrophy.

Castaneda’s passion for biochemistry and biophysics started at an early age, when he says his father, a botanist, began introducing him to science and the natural world.

“My love for science stemmed first from curiosity in understanding how the world around us operates,” Castaneda said. “It was then fueled by the ability to work with my hands during experiments and the fulfillment I feel when an experiment I have worked so hard on is accomplished in addition to the amount I have learned along the way.”

This passion eventually led him to pursue a career in science. He said he decided to focus on studying actin biophysics for his Ph.D. dissertation because the protein plays such an important role in many biological processes and health conditions.

“I am very proud of what Nicholas has been able to accomplish,” said Dr. Ellen Kang, an assistant professor at the Department of Physics and NanoScience Technology Center (NSTC) who oversees Castaneda’s dissertation. “The Chateaubriand Fellowship will provide Nicholas the opportunity to get hands-on training with highly advanced nanoscale characterization techniques, which will promote our understanding of actin regulation inside cells.”

While in France, Castaneda will collaborate with Dr. Michael Molinari, a professor at the University of Bordeaux. Dr. Molinari’s group is in the CNRS institute of Chemistry and Biology of Membranes and Nanoobjects (CBMN), which aims to develop Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) techniques dedicated to structural characterization of biological systems at nanoscale to better understand and address biological processes and diseases. Dr. Molinari stayed at UCF as a Fullbright Scholar in the groups of Drs. Swadeshmukul Santra and Laurene Tetard at NSTC in 2017-2018.

Castaneda said that the fellowship will allow him to continue pursuing his passion for biochemistry and biophysics and help him reach his long-term career goal of becoming a project manager for a biotechnology company.

“It was an unbelievable feeling to have received the Chateaubriand Fellowship,” Castaneda said. “It gave me a great sense of accomplishment knowing that all the hard work currently involved in my dissertation research is being regarded in such a positive light.”

Dr. Saleh Naser, associate director of graduate affairs at the Burnett School, said the fellowship not only honors Castaneda but will also encourage more UCF research collaborations across the globe. “We are very proud of Nicholas,” he said. “His Chateaubriand Fellowship award reflects on his excellent academic and research accomplishments in our doctoral program and the superb mentorship of our faculty. This will enrich UCF global collaboration initiative and Nick will bring back to his lab specialized skills and new training.”

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