UCSF Graduate Student Selected for Two Prestigious Research Fellowships

UCSF graduate student Elina Kostyanovskaya was recently selected for two highly competitive graduate research fellowships – the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships Program (NSF GRFP) and the National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) fellowship.

This year, Kostyanovskaya is one of only 21 graduate students nationwide to receive an offer from the NSF GRFP in the field of genetics. NDSEG supports a similarly low number of fellows in Biosciences each year.

A second-year graduate student in the Developmental and Stem Cell Biology Program at UCSF, Kostyanovskaya is conducting research on DNA damage repair in the laboratory of Bjoern Schwer, MD, PhD, Suzanne Marie Haderle and Robert Vincent Haderle Endowed Chair, and Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery.

Elina Kostyanovskaya, graduate student in the Schwer Lab.

Since her time as an undergraduate researcher at the University of Chicago, Kostyanovskaya has always been fascinated by DNA damage repair and epigenetics. “Both have to do with maintaining the genetic code that’s responsible for everything – any function throughout the lifetime of an organism,” said Kostyanovskaya.

In the Schwer Lab, Kostyanovskaya is investigating novel mechanisms for DNA damage repair in neurons. Like other cells, neurons are faced with DNA damage caused by normal cellular processes, oxidative stress, and by exogenous sources such as ionizing radiation. Recent evidence also indicates that neurons frequently undergo DNA double-strand breaks in specific gene regions as a result of neuronal activity.1,2

However, neurons are unable to perform classical or “canonical” homologous recombination repair, a type of error-free DNA damage repair that is common to dividing cells.3 In spite of this, as cells that do not divide and are rarely (if ever) replaced, neurons must maintain proper function – and thus genomic integrity – throughout the organism’s lifespan. 

This fundamental paradox is what drives Kostyanovskaya’s research. As she summarized it, “How do you fix something that doesn’t have access to high-fidelity repair, never divides, doesn’t get replaced, and has to break every time [a neuron is activated]?”

Kostyanovskaya’s research aims to answer this question by investigating non-canonical pathways of DNA damage repair and their role in maintaining the genome of neurons. 

In addition to her research, Kostyanovskaya is also passionate about science policy. As part of the UCSF Science Policy Group, she organizes events to educate and inspire other scientists to more actively communicate with policy makers. “If scientists aren’t giving input for what [federal funding agencies] request, then it’s people who aren’t in the field deciding the direction of research – which is problematic,” she explained. “I think that science policy should be an important part of the next generation of scientists’ careers.”  

Kostyanovskaya is also actively involved in the student-run Gender Equity task force that aims to establish gender equity and foster a safe environment for trainees at UCSF. Most recently, the Gender Equity taskforce organized the UCSF Town Hall on Gender Equity & Inclusion in which they presented UCSF’s community and leadership with research-driven recommendations regarding gender and sexual harassment at UCSF.

Kostyanovskaya was notified of the NDSEG award earlier this year, and recently found out (coincidentally, on her birthday) that she received the NSF GRFP fellowship as well. Although she can only accept one of these research fellowships, receiving offers from both represents a significant achievement.

Kostyanovskaya has accepted the NDSEG fellowship, which comes with nearly $200,000 of research funding and tuition support over three years. Since its inception in 1989, NDSEG has awarded nearly 3,400 fellowships to U.S. citizens and nationals pursuing a doctoral degree in one of fifteen supported disciplines across science, engineering, and mathematics.



  1. Alt, F. W. & Schwer, B. DNA double-strand breaks as drivers of neural genomic change, function, and disease. DNA Repair (Amst.) (2018). doi:10.1016/j.dnarep.2018.08.019 
  2. Madabhushi, R. et al. Activity-Induced DNA Breaks Govern the Expression of Neuronal Early-Response Genes. Cell 161, 1592–1605 (2015). 
  3. Iyama, T. & Wilson, D. M. DNA repair mechanisms in dividing and non-dividing cells. DNA Repair (Amst.) 12, 620–636 (2013).