The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) today announced the selection of 15 outstanding early career scientists as HHMI Hanna Gray Fellows. These recent PhD and MD/PhD recipients will continue their training as postdoctoral fellows at 12 institutions in the U.S. They have various research interests, including developing cutting-edge microscopy techniques, engineering new biomaterials, studying parasites and host behavior, and decoding the nerve circuitry underlying the sense of touch.
Each fellow will receive up to $1.4 million in funding over eight years, with mentoring and active involvement in the HHMI community. In this two-phase program, fellows will be supported from early postdoctoral training through several years of a tenure-track faculty position. This year’s fellows join 15 Hanna Gray Fellows selected in 2017, the program’s first year.
HHMI’s Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program seeks to encourage talented early career scientists who have the potential to become leaders in academic research. In particular, this program aims to recruit and retain emerging scientists who are from gender, racial, ethnic, and other groups underrepresented in the life sciences, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“This program will help us retain the most diverse talent in science,” says HHMI President Erin O’Shea. “We feel it’s critically important in academia to have exceptional people from all walks of life, all cultures, and all backgrounds – people who can inspire the next generation of scientists.”
The Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program represents HHMI’s strong commitment to investing in early career scientists who are poised to make significant and important contributions to science in the years to come. This program will support these scientists at critical transitions in their academic careers. In keeping with HHMI’s long-standing approach to support “people, not projects,” fellows will have the flexibility to change their research focus and follow their curiosity for the duration of the award.
A competition for the next group of Hanna Gray Fellows opens immediately. With continued commitment to support and promote diversity in the life sciences, the Institute will again select up to 15 fellows, investing up to $25 million total for their support over eight years. This grant competition is open to all eligible applicants, and no nomination is required. Grants in support of fellows will be awarded only to institutions within the U.S. (including Puerto Rico).
The 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 U.S.
Applicants may obtain more information and eligibility requirements at www.hhmi.org/programs/hanna-h-gray-fellows-program. The deadline for applications is January 9, 2019, at 3:00 p.m. (ET). The selection of fellows will be made by the end of June 2019, and grants can start as early as September 17, 2019, but no later than January 21, 2020.
HHMI plays an important role in advancing scientific research and education in the U.S. 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, D.C.
2018 Hanna Gray Fellows
Jose L. Alejo, PhD
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
Mentor: Kate Adamala, PhD
Jose L. Alejo is investigating one of nature’s most important molecular machines, the ribosome. All living cells use ribosomes to translate the genetic code into proteins. Alejo plans to develop techniques for generating synthetic cells that contain different versions of the ribosome and its molecular partners. He seeks to build a platform for engineering new biomaterials from antibiotics to polymers. Alejo’s work could also shed light on the origin of life on Earth and how life might emerge elsewhere in the universe.
Sara Campbell, PhD
University of California, Berkeley
Mentors: Holger Müller, PhD and Eva Nogales, PhD
Using high-power lasers, Sara Campbell wants to manipulate the beam of electrons used in cutting-edge microscopy techniques. This could help scientists make ultra-precise measurements of various biological molecules and visualize how they interact at the atomic level. Campbell hopes to reveal, for example, how cancer drug candidates bind to and influence cellular machinery. The work could help researchers develop molecular treatments to repair this machinery when something goes awry.
Yiyin Erin Chen, MD, PhD
Mentor: Michael A. Fischbach, PhD
Yiyin Erin Chen doesn’t believe in “good” or “bad” microbes; she considers the context. Chen, a dermatologist and scientist, explores the interplay between our immune system and the microbes that inhabit our skin. Her focus is how a microbe’s context – its genetic makeup and the roster of microbes nearby – influences its potential for maintaining health or causing inflammation. By decoding the mechanisms that govern these interactions, Chen’s work could lead to engineered microbes as a new way to treat skin diseases such as eczema.
Carolyn Elya, PhD
Mentor: Benjamin de Bivort, PhD
Carolyn Elya is studying how microbes hijack insect nervous systems. Insects with certain parasitic fungal infections end their lives like zombies, somehow compelled to climb to a high point before spores explode from their bodies. Elya discovered and developed a model system for laboratory studies of this phenomenon using a fungus that infects fruit flies. Her neural and molecular probing of parasitic mind-control is advancing understanding of how animal brains produce behavior, with potential long-term applications for mental health treatment.
D’Juan Farmer, PhD
University of Southern California
Mentor: Gage Crump, PhD
D’Juan Farmer hopes to establish the origins of vertebrate birth defects. His interest in how organs develop prompted a focus on stem cells – namely, their life span and maintenance. Farmer thinks birth defects like craniosynostosis, when the bones of a baby’s skull fuse prematurely, might result from an inability to maintain stem cells in the long-term. By studying craniosynostosis in zebrafish, he plans to uncover if and how stem cell depletion and dysfunction cause disease.
Melanie McReynolds, PhD
Mentor: Joshua Rabinowitz, MD, PhD
Every living cell relies on the molecule NAD+ to keep itself running. Low levels of NAD+ have been linked to both aging and a wide range of diseases, including type-2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. Using sophisticated tools that can track the molecule’s metabolic origin and fate, Melanie McReynolds aims to figure out how NAD+ is produced and used up. Uncovering what governs NAD+ metabolic flux inside cells may clarify – and eventually counter – diseases and aging.
Shan Meltzer, PhD
Harvard Medical School
Mentor: David Ginty, PhD
Though the sense of touch is vital in daily life, it’s still a mystery how the nerve circuitry underlying this sense develops. Shan Meltzer is revealing how sensory neurons form the exquisite structures and connections that govern these cells’ functions. Using new genetic tools, she plans to find and manipulate the molecules that control touch sensory neuron development in mice. Her research could lead to new therapies for restoring touch in people with nervous system disorders or injuries.
Adriane Otopalik, PhD
Mentor: Oliver Hobert, PhD
Adriane Otopalik is probing how nerve cells communicate. They’re investigating electrical synapses, or gap junctions – protein communication channels that pass ions directly between nerve cells. Otopalik is using the transparent roundworm, C. elegans, and associated genetic and imaging tools to decode these synapses’ molecular underpinnings. The results could reveal how electrical synapses assemble during development, an unsolved mystery in neuroscience. Otopalik hopes to illuminate the diverse roles these synapses play in nervous system function and behavior.
Michelle Richter, PhD
Mentor: David Liu, PhD
Michelle Richter wants to improve the genome editing toolkit that includes CRISPR. These protein tools can add or remove portions of mutated genetic information – and could potentially treat diseases such as cystic fibrosis and cancer. Richter plans to engineer proteins that can switch one class of DNA building block into the other. About 20 percent of genetic diseases are caused by a single one of these switches and are currently untreatable with genome editing.
Thiago Monteiro Araújo dos Santos, PhD
Mentor: Daniel Kahne, PhD
Thiago Monteiro Araújo dos Santos finds the invisible world of microbes captivating. By figuring out how bacteria build their outer walls, he hopes to inhibit the process. Such interference may ultimately lead to new ways to stop deadly infections. Santos aims to uncover how some bacteria’s cellular machinery manufactures and installs stabilizing protein “bricks” into cell walls. Weakening these walls could one day form the basis of new antibiotics, a development that could thwart antimicrobial resistance.
Jarrett Smith, PhD
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research
Mentor: David Bartel, PhD
Jarrett Smith wants to understand how stress impacts cells. In stressed cells, many ingredients for protein synthesis clump into enigmatic structures called stress granules. These granules are thought to slow down cells’ protein-making machinery and may be tied to disease – but their exact role is unknown. Smith plans to identify the molecules that compose stress granules and to investigate their effect on cellular function. The results could clarify granules’ link to cancer, viral infection, and neurodegenerative disease.
Quinton Smith, PhD
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Mentor: Sangeeta Bhatia, MD, PhD
Quinton Smith wants to engineer stem cell-derived “mini livers” in the lab. He plans to recreate the biliary tree, an essential liver structure that secretes digestive enzymes and exports toxins. By incorporating a biliary tree into a mixture of liver-specific cell types, Smith aims to create engineered tissue that grows and responds to regeneration cues in injured mouse livers. He hopes the results will translate into new therapies for humans and offer hope for liver failure patients on the organ donation waiting list.
Jeannette Tenthorey, PhD
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Mentor: Harmit Malik, PhD
Jeannette Tenthorey is investigating how mammals’ immune systems stop bacterial invaders from growing. One family of immune proteins unravels molecular strings that some bacteria use to travel through infected cells. Tenthorey has identified rapidly evolving changes in these immune proteins – a sign that they are mutating to counteract bacterial attempts to evade or destroy them. She plans to determine the specific mutations that help these proteins resist attack. The work could offer new tools for halting bacterial growth.
Matheus Victor, PhD
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Mentor: Li-Huei Tsai, PhD
Scientists often rely on mice to probe neurodegenerative diseases. But the neural rules that hold true in mice don’t always translate to humans. Matheus Victor wants to study the genetic mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease. He’s reprogramming human skin cells in the lab to grow into brain immune cells called microglia. These cells orchestrate inflammatory responses in the brain, a key feature of Alzheimer’s. Victor hopes that the lab-grown microglia will help researchers understand how Alzheimer’s progresses in humans.
Arielle Woznica, PhD
The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
Mentor: Julie Pfeiffer, PhD
Arielle Woznica wants to know what happens when choanoflagellates get sick. These single-celled organisms are the closest living relatives of animals. Discovering viruses that infect choanoflagellates will let Woznica study how they fend off infection. She aims to understand how these organisms – as well as evolutionarily ancient animals including sponges, comb jellies, and sea anemones – sense and respond to viruses. The work could provide insight into the origins and evolution of animal innate immunity, our first-line defense against microbial threats.