Emily Hendrix, a second-year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at The University of New Mexico, was recently awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRF).

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is designed to ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States and reinforces its diversity. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions.

NSF Fellows are anticipated to become knowledge experts who can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering. These individuals are crucial to maintaining and advancing the nation’s technological infrastructure and national security as well as contributing to the economic well-being of society at large.

Emily Hendrix GRFP
Emily Hendrix received a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

“Receiving the GRFP was a tremendous achievement for myself and my research career,” said Hendrix. “The Fellowship will allow me to continue my outreach efforts to New Mexico high school students and ensure that my research with PICK1 will continue.”

Hendrix’s research aligns with UNM’s Substance Use Disorder Grand Challenge (SUD-GC) and examines the PICK1 protein, which has been implicated in these disorders. Her proposal, Computational tools for exploring the chemical diversity of AApeptides, aims to develop an algorithm capable of structurally matching synthetic peptides to natural peptides which would enable the design of synthetic peptides which could target PICK1.

This PICK1 project aims to offer a fresh approach to tackling opioid-related abuse, including cocaine, and potentially methamphetamine and fentanyl, from a basic science perspective. It aligns with the goals of the Substance Use Disorders Grand Challenge initiative which is developing novel approaches to reduce the prevalence and impact of substance use disorders in New Mexico. 

“The growing rates of substance abuse among teens and young adults is alarming,” said Hendrix, who is studying under  “Despite the traditional medical treatments in place, there is an urgent need for more effective solutions. Research has indicated that a protein known as Protein Interacting with C Kinase-1 (PICK1) is instrumental in cocaine addiction. PICK1 is significantly involved in both the onset and the progression of drug addiction, marking it as a promising target for treating substance abuse disorders.”

By focusing on PICK1 and creating a potent inhibitor, researchers could potentially diminish the addictive power of drugs, reduce drug-seeking behavior, and ultimately provide an effective treatment for addiction. However, current methods have shown limited success, sparking an increased interest in synthetic peptides.

“My aim is to use computers to facilitate the design of synthetic peptides that acts as an inhibitor, targeting PICK1,” said Hendrix. “This could provide a new treatment pathway for those struggling with substance abuse disorders. Looking ahead, I intend to extend my research efforts in this domain, within the pharmaceutical industry. My hope is to continue to find innovative ways to combat the issue of substance abuse disorders.”

As the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the GRFP has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers. The reputation of the GRFP follows recipients and often helps them become life-long leaders that contribute significantly to both scientific innovation and teaching. Past fellows include numerous Nobel Prize winners, former U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, Google founder, Sergey Brin and Freakonomics co-author, Steven Levitt.

Fellows share in the prestige and opportunities that become available when they are selected including a three-year annual stipend of $37,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees (paid to the institution), as well as access to opportunities for professional development available to NSF-supported graduate students.

For more information and to apply, visit NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program.