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UTHealth professor awarded CPRIT grant for research training program

Photo of Zhongming Zhao, PhD, MS.
Zhongming Zhao, PhD, MS, received nearly $4 million grant from CPRIT for a research training program. (Photo by UTHealth)

Zhongming Zhao, PhD, MS, with The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), has been awarded nearly $4 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) to provide research training to help with cancer prevention.

Zhao, professor and director of the Center for Precision Health at UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics, will lead a training project titled Biomedical Informatics, Genomics, and Translational Cancer Research training program (BIG-TCR).

“The program will have three different training levels for PhD students, postdoctoral fellows, and undergraduate summer internship participants,” said Zhao, Chair for Precision Health at the school. “The BIG-TCR team is very excited to give dozens of trainees valuable, hands-on skills in informatics, data science, drug discovery, and other technologies.”

The collaborative BIG-TCR training program aims to provide a highly interactive, innovative, and interdisciplinary environment to train future leaders and cancer researchers. The program will do so by leveraging UTHealth’s strong research programs across all six of its schools. The training will include competency-based training requirements and focus in the areas of cancer biology, stem cell biology, pharmacology and drug discovery, genomics and other omics programs, data science, artificial intelligence, clinical informatics, and translational medicine.

The BIG-TCR program will create or provide new didactic course work, formalized laboratory and informatics core rotations, dual mentorship, and a series of career development activities. Trainees will also have exposure to both informatics and wet lab research environments. Early on in their program tenure, trainees will work with mentors to develop an individualized development plan, including course competency, core lab rotations, research project design, travel, grant writing, and long-term career goals.

“Dr. Zhao has a long track record in cancer research and education,” said Jiajie Zhang, PhD, dean and The Glassell Family Foundation Distinguished Chair in Informatics Excellence at the School of Biomedical Informatics. “He will lead his team as they empower the trainees and give them the knowledge to use state-of-the-art informatics, artificial intelligence, and data science technologies. Those skills will help the participants accelerate the advancement of cancer research and translational cancer medicine which benefits the entire health care community.”

Next steps for the BIG-TCR program are to develop and implement the curriculum and program activities. This will include the creation of a new course focused on the fundamentals of artificial intelligence in cancer discovery. Other unique features of the program will include peer mentor opportunities, summer data science competitions, career development workshops, and standardized evaluation tools to measure quality and effectiveness of the programs for the trainees. The program also aims to be inclusive of all individuals regardless of ethnicity or ability.

“Moving forward, I look forward to launching our program and attaining our recruitment goals as we reach out to potential trainees from underrepresented minority groups. Beyond that, we will enhance learning facilities, both physical and distance learning, to meet the unique needs of each participant,” Zhao said.

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