How do brain circuits control navigation? What gives spider silk proteins their strength? Can CRISPR help scientists design better drugs for treating tuberculosis?
These questions represent a slice of the diverse and compelling science studied by the 15 new Hanna Gray Fellows announced today by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The Institute will invest up to $25 million for their support over eight years. The fellows, all outstanding scientists early in their careers, will have the freedom to follow their curiosity and pursue challenging scientific questions at the forefront of their fields.
The group includes a physician-scientist trying to pin down factors that drive psychiatric illness, a plant biologist untangling the complex interactions between microbes and crops, and a neuroscientist investigating how information flows through vast networks of nerve cells.
“HHMI is committed to supporting people who will solve some of the greatest problems in science,” says Erin O’Shea, the president of HHMI. “To do this, we need people from all backgrounds – the best solutions will be found by a diverse set of people.”
The Hanna Gray Fellows come from gender, racial, ethnic, and other groups underrepresented in the life sciences. These scientists are poised to make significant contributions to science in the years to come, O’Shea says, and are all original thinkers with diverse perspectives. HHMI will support these young scientists at a critical time in their academic careers – when they transition from postdocs to principal investigators and begin to set up labs of their own.
“Being a Hanna Gray fellow is an extraordinary opportunity for me,” says Elsy Buitrago-Delgado, who studies early mammalian development. “I came to the US from Colombia to become a leader in developmental biology. I want to inspire the next generation of Latin American scientists.”
The Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program is named for Hanna Holborn Gray, former chair of the HHMI trustees and former president of the University of Chicago. Under Gray’s leadership, HHMI developed initiatives that foster diversity in science education. HHMI continues to carry forward this work on college and university campuses across the US.
A competition for the next group of Hanna Gray Fellows opens immediately. In 2020, the Institute will again select up to 15 fellows. This grant competition is open to all eligible applicants, and no nomination is required.
About the Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program
The Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program represents HHMI’s commitment to supporting talented early career scientists who have the potential to become leaders in academic research. This program will ultimately invest up to $100 million in up to 60 young scientists. By selecting individuals from groups underrepresented in the life sciences, HHMI seeks to increase diversity among academic faculty. Fellows’ successful careers will inspire future generations of scientists from America’s diverse talent pool.
The Hanna Gray Fellows will:
Follow their curiosity
In keeping with HHMI’s long-standing approach to support “people, not projects,” fellows have the freedom to change their research focus and follow their curiosity for the duration of the award. The competition is open to researchers and physician-scientists dedicated to basic research in all the biomedical and life science disciplines.
Join a vibrant scientific community
The program provides opportunities for career development, including mentoring and networking with others in the HHMI scientific community. Fellows will also attend an HHMI Science meeting each year. This year’s 15 fellows join 30 Hanna Gray Fellows selected in 2017 and 2018, during the program’s first two years.
Receive support during a critical career stage
In this program, fellows will receive funding for their postdoc training and may continue to receive funding during their early career years as independent faculty. In total, fellows may receive up to $1.4 million each and be supported for up to eight years.
Applicants may obtain more information and eligibility requirements at www.hhmi.org/programs/hanna-h-gray-fellows-program. The deadline for applications is January 8, 2020. The selection of fellows will be made by the end of June 2020, and grants can start as early as September 15, 2020.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute plays an important role in advancing scientific research and education in the United States. Its scientists, located across the country and around the world, have made important discoveries that advance both human health and our fundamental understanding of biology. The Institute also aims to transform science education into a creative, interdisciplinary endeavor that reflects the excitement of real research. HHMI’s headquarters are located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC.
2019 Hanna Gray Fellows
Christopher Bartley, MD, PhD
University of California, San Francisco
Mentors: Samuel Pleasure, MD, PhD & Michael Wilson, MD
Our immune systems produce antibodies to protect us from infectious microbes, but sometimes these antibodies can target our own organs. Antibodies that mistakenly attack the brain can trigger psychiatric symptoms. Christopher Bartley suspects that such mistargeted antibodies can help us to understand some psychiatric illnesses. A physician and researcher, Bartley will study samples from hundreds of people with schizophrenia to discover new misdirected antibodies. This work could ultimately lead to new targets for psychiatric drugs.
Neville P. Bethel, PhD
University of Washington
Mentor: David Baker, PhD
Some proteins form gels, some provide molecular transportation, and still others, such as spider silk, are stronger than steel by weight. Neville Bethel wants to understand how microscopic molecules combine to take on such diverse roles. After creating a collection of protein fibers from scratch, Bethel will test them to learn which molecular interactions give rise to which mechanical properties. Then, he’ll create a computational model that can predict those properties from a protein’s structural code.
Elsy Buitrago-Delgado, PhD
California Institute of Technology
Mentor: Long Cai, PhD
Elsy Buitrago-Delgado knows the importance of location in a spatial context. She wants to use new imaging technology to map the spatial distribution of thousands of RNA molecules in mouse embryos during their first few days of development. These molecules contain instructions for making proteins, which, in turn, guide cellular behavior. Buitrago-Delgado hopes to show how RNA quantity and spatial distribution – within and between cells – helps shape the magnificent choreography of embryonic development.
Kevin Cox Jr., PhD
Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Mentor: Blake Meyers, PhD
Kevin Cox Jr. is seeking a cellular-level view of the battles between plants and microbes. He’s analyzing gene activity cell by cell to better understand how plants resist or succumb to microbial invaders. Pinpointing where in the plant specific genes are active can help him determine how plant cells and microbes communicate. Cox hopes that decoding those cellular signals will lead to novel ways of improving crop yields, and ultimately to feeding more people.
Cesar De Leon, PhD
Mentor: Craig Crews, PhD
Cesar De Leon is designing a new class of antibiotics to help cells send invasive bacteria to the cellular garbage disposal. He’s targeting Gram-negative bacteria, which can cause deadly diseases and are impervious to many current antibiotics. De Leon aims to make molecules that boost a natural cellular defense process for breaking down pathogens. He hopes his molecules will selectively flag tricky microbes for faster destruction – without hurting beneficial bacteria.
Emily Dennis, PhD
Mentor: Carlos Brody, PhD
Our understanding of biology and disease depends on model organisms such as rats, mice, and flies. Emily Dennis is investigating important differences between species commonly used in research. She’s studying rats and mice to learn how their brains can solve similar problems and produce comparable behaviors. Dennis’s work will help scientists better translate findings across species. Long-term, her research could improve the study of human diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, in animal models.
Kelsie Eichel, PhD
Mentor: Kang Shen, PhD
Neurons face a traffic control challenge. They’re constantly sending different sets of proteins to different parts of the cell – and delivery mix-ups can be disastrous. Kelsie Eichel is studying how neurons sort and dispatch proteins, and what happens when deliveries get lost along the way. A better grasp of the basics could help scientists understand why such mishaps are common in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Daniel Gonzales, PhD
Mentor: Krishna Jayant, PhD
Daniel Gonzales aims to eavesdrop on the chatter between brain cells. Information flows through the brain via vast networks of nerve cells. Figuring out how signals propagate through these networks is key to understanding how animals sense and respond to the world around them. Gonzales plans to develop an array of nano-sized sensors to record the activity of nerve cell networks at the surface of a mouse’s brain.
Adrian Jinich, PhD
Weill Cornell Medicine
Mentor: Kyu Rhee, PhD
Adrian Jinich wants to wipe out Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Worldwide, these bacteria are the leading cause of death from infectious disease, as they are often resistant to existing treatments. Better drugs require new targets, such as enzymes crucial to the bacteria’s survival that aren’t found in humans. Using the genetic tool CRISPR to turn down the activity of specific genes and see what changes occur, Jinich hopes to identify and characterize hundreds of unknown enzymes, revealing new drug targets.
Caitlin Mallory, PhD
University of California, Berkeley
Mentor: David Foster, PhD
Caitlin Mallory studies the brain systems that control navigation. She investigates specialized cells that help rats map their surroundings and recall that map later. Mallory already knows how to read patterns of brain activity to predict where the critter might be heading next. Now she wants to figure out how brain regions important for navigation work together to create those signals – a wiring diagram of the animal’s internal GPS.
Pablo Martinez, PhD
University of California, Los Angeles
Mentor: Siobhan Braybrook, PhD
In nature, form is linked to function. A leaf’s flat surface, for example, is well suited to capturing sunlight for photosynthesis. Pablo Martinez is untangling the complex mechanisms by which plants take on different shapes. He’s watching developing maize leaves up close, hoping to reveal how plants respond to physical and mechanical strain caused by dividing and expanding cells. Answering this fundamental question will help scientists understand how crops – and potentially even animals and bacteria – grow and develop.
Tessa Montague, PhD
Mentor: Richard Axel, MD
Like octopus and squid, cuttlefish have an amazing ability to change color to camouflage themselves. Tessa Montague is investigating how these chameleons of the sea turn the background colors and patterns their eyes perceive into a matching display on their own skin. By tracing how a cuttlefish’s nerve cells translate visual information into instructions for color-changing structures in their skin, she plans to explore how the brain creates internal images of the outside world.
Angela Phillips, PhD
Mentor: Michael Desai, PhD
Angela Phillips is unraveling the evolutionary arms race between pathogens and the body’s immune system. Antibodies can neutralize pathogens through genetic mutations, but the new mutation’s effectiveness can depend on previous mutations. Working in yeast, Phillips is hunting for patterns in this variability. Her findings will help researchers learn how the immune system produces antibodies against many different pathogens and could provide clues for designing universal vaccines.
Jess Sheu-Gruttadauria, PhD
University of California, San Francisco
Mentor: Ronald Vale, PhD
Jess Sheu-Gruttadauria wants to understand an unusual class of cellular structures – ones that lack confining membranes. These liquid-like organelles may act as an interconnected system, exchanging information via proteins and genetic material. Sheu-Gruttadauria is developing tools that will allow researchers to watch unconfined organelles coordinate their signals in living cells. Misfired signals underlie many neurodegenerative diseases. Decoding the activity and functions of these organelles and their potential role in disease could provide clues to treatment.
Rudy Urbano, PhD
Mentor: John D. MacMicking, PhD
Virulent human pathogens hijack the cell’s movement machinery to travel within cells and spread between cells during infection. Rudy Urbano wants to understand how human cells defend themselves against these microbial tricks. Using advanced imaging and genetic techniques, he’s untangling the mechanisms by which human cells activate proteins to block invaders. This detailed understanding of how cells stymie disease could lead to new strategies for treating infections.