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Johns Hopkins Medicine
Media Relations and Public Affairs
Media Contact: Audrey Huang
April 11, 2006

-- Young Investigators’ Day Recognizes “The Future Stars of Research”

Alongside every successful professor is an army of hard-working, dedicated and talented students and fellows.

On April 20, the School of Medicine will recognize 11 students and six fellows for their exceptional research accomplishments during the 29th annual Young Investigators’ Day celebration, a Hopkins tradition.

This year’s program will start at 4 p.m. in the Mountcastle Auditorium, where selected awardees will present their research and all will receive honors. A poster session and reception will follow.

The 17 investigators were selected from a pool of nearly 100 outstanding applicants, according to the chair of this year’s faculty committee, Randall Reed, Ph.D., a professor of molecular biology and genetics in the Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. “It was really hard to come to the final decisions,” he says. “These are the once and future stars at Hopkins.”
“I’ve always dreamed about being a part of this ceremony,” says Sangwon Kim, Ph.D., a fellow in neuroscience, who discovered a connection between two different molecular pathways involved in inflammation while working in the lab of Solomon H. Snyder, M.D., D.Sc., D.Phil., professor and chair of the Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience.

The research projects recognized this year range from the molecular genetics of visual transduction in Drosophila to studies of how a schizophrenia-associated mutation disrupts cerebral cortex development.

“The scope and breadth of the science here at Hopkins is truly mind-boggling,” says Jason Shepherd, a Ph.D. candidate in the Cellular and Molecular Medicine program and one of the four recipients of the Investigators’ Day Paul Ehrlich award. Working jointly with professors of neuroscience Paul Worley, M.D., and Richard Huganir, Ph.D., Shepherd linked a protein called Arc to the control of signaling at nerve endings and showed this relationship to play a role in learning and memory. Using a mouse model, Shepherd removed Arc and found the mice to have only selective memory.

The awards are named after former Hopkins students and well-respected former faculty members. They are accompanied by a cash prize, funded by friends, family and the Johns Hopkins Medical and Surgical Society.

Another recipient of the Ehrlich award, M.D. candidate Brad Barnett, with his advisor Aravind Arepally, encapsulated insulin-producing human islet cells and transplanted the capsules into pigs, with sights on improving a treatment for type 1 diabetes. The existing method of islet transplantation calls for delivering invisible cells through a needle guided by ultrasound into the portal vein, which connects to the liver. By putting islet cells into capsules, Barnett has developed a method that allows doctors to follow the capsules by MRI, so they can make sure the islet cells end up in the right place. Additionally, Barnett’s approach introduces the cells through the femoral vein in the leg, which is more accessible and easier to steer through than the portal vein.

Barnett feels connected with his award’s namesake. “Ehrlich and I share an attitude toward research. As he once said, ‘the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts,’ and given the complexity of this universe and the limits of our senses, we would be foolish to think we are capable of anything more than intelligent tinkering.”

Jordan Steinberg, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience, feels a special connection to the Nupur Dinesh Thekdi award he received. The award was established in honor of an M.D./Ph.D student a few years ago. “I was in my second year of the program when Nupur died in a tragic accident,” says Steinberg. “He was a very accomplished student and scientist and I am honored to receive the award in his name. I thank his family for having endowed the award so that others can continue in his path.” Steinberg’s research discovered how a protein called PICK1 can control neuron function in a type of motor learning called the vestibulo-ocular reflex. By generating a collection of mouse mutants, Steinberg and his adviser, Richard Huganir, were able to definitively show how PICK1 controls receptors on the surface of Purkinje neurons.

“The Young Investigators’ Awards are really about recognition as much as competition,” says Reed. “We try to recognize those who have done particularly excellent work and made unique and individual contributions to the research.”

“From day one, my advisor Shan Sockanathan gave me free reign to pursue my ideas, although many of them led nowhere,” says Meenakshi Rao, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience and recipient of the Michael A. Shanoff award. Rao’s research discovered a protein called GDE2 that is controlled by retinoic acid, a metabolite of vitamin A. GDE2 appears necessary for motor neuron differentiation in the spine and is a pioneer member of a new class of proteins that may be involved in a new type of signaling pathway.

Daniel Bendor, a Ph.D. candidate in the Biomedical Engineering program, received the David I. Macht Research Award for his project “The Neuronal Representation of Pitch in Primate Auditory Cortex.” With mentor Xiaoqin Wang, Bendor, whose research was published last August in Nature, did what others were unable to do previously: map the region of the brain in monkeys involved in hearing the pitch of a sound.

The pitch of a sound corresponds to its vibration. When you pluck a string, the whole thing vibrates. But it also vibrates in halves, quarters and smaller intervals. Each of these smaller intervals corresponds to a harmonic. Pitch neurons respond to multiharmonic sounds but not when any of the harmonics are played alone.

“We seem to have found the same region of the brain that humans use for pitch perception,” says Bendor, a fifth-year student who hopes to graduate next year. In humans, pitch is important for understanding speech and appreciating music. Animals use pitch to identify and discriminate vocalizations – for communication.

Bendor took electrical readings of single neurons in the brain to map out which cells are responsible for hearing pitch. Those neurons are only active when certain sounds are played. By comparing the electrical behaviors of different neurons in response to different sounds, Bendor was able to pick out the pitch-responsive neurons.

A musician and composer in his spare time, Bendor says, “This award is a great honor, and I’m also fortunate in that my research overlapped with my hobby.”

Crista Brawley, a Ph.D. candidate in the Cellular and Molecular Medicine program, received the Martin and Carol Macht Award for her project “Stem Cell Niche Repopulation In Vivo Via Dedifferentiation.” Brawley was able to manipulate a signaling pathway in specific cells of Drosophila to coax them into reverting back into stem cells.

Although it is well accepted that stem cells can repopulate injured tissue, where those stem cells come from and how repopulation is controlled is not well understood. One idea that had never been proven was that of dedifferentiation, where cells that have taken on a certain identity like muscle or skin somehow lose that identity and revert back to a stem cell state.

“The word dedifferentiation was the scary part,” says Brawley, whose work was published in Science. “Most stem cell biologists avoid this word because it is so hard to prove.”

The sperm of fruitflies develop from a population of stem cells called germline stem cells. Every time a germline stem cell divides, one daughter cell becomes a future sperm while the other daughter cell stays behind as a germline stem cell to maintain the stem cell population so that more sperm can be made. Fruitflies mutant for a gene called STAT are unable to maintain a population of germline stem cells; when the germline stem cells in STAT mutant flies divide, both daughter cells become sperm, leaving no stem cells behind. When Brawley reintroduced STAT back into the mutant flies, she noticed the reappearance of germline stem cells. But her adviser, Erika Matunis, was skeptical.

“It took some convincing, as Erika didn’t believe me at first,” says Brawley. “I repeated those initial experiments many times.”

But when Brawley streamlined her experimental approach and showed, by adding STAT, that the developing sperm could indeed revert back to a stem cell state, Matunis was sold. “She was stunned,” says Brawley. “But I trusted my gut that I had something novel, I only had to convince my advisor of the same.”

“This is a reward for all the hard work and long days and years I’ve put into work at Hopkins,” says Brawley. “The award solidifies for me that I have made the correct choice in choosing a career in science.”

Ronald Cohn, M.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, received the Helen B. Taussig award for his project “TGF Beta-Induced Failure of Muscle Regeneration in Multiple Myopathic States.” Cohn, with his advisor Hal Dietz, found that too high levels of the growth factor TGF-ÿ leads to an inability to repair muscle in mouse models for two diseases, Marfan syndrome and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.  Skeletal muscle has the unique ability to repair itself through regeneration after injury. However, if muscle regeneration doesn’t happen, muscle mass and strength are lost.

“We can prevent failed muscle regeneration in mouse models for both diseases by blocking TGF-ÿ signaling with a known drug,” says Cohn. Marfan syndrome is a connective tissue disorder associated with aortic aneurisms and skeletal abnormalities. Duchenne muscular dystrophy is the most common inherited form of muscular dystrophies in children.

By looking at genes known to be turned on by TGF-ÿ signaling, Cohn showed first that TGF-ÿ signaling is indeed the cause of muscle loss in animals with Marfan as well as animals with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. By blocking TGF-ÿ signaling, Cohn showed that muscle loss could be prevented in those same animals.

“I feel deeply honored to have been chosen to receive the Helen B. Taussig award among so many excellent young scientists here at Hopkins,” says Cohn. Taussig made many ground-breaking contributions to medicine within the field of pediatric cardiology and also by supporting a wide range of social causes, including her successful campaign in the 1960s to ban the use of thalidomide by pregnant women. “I have a special interest in compassionate care, and I hope the karma associated with her accomplishments will positively impact my future career as a physician scientist,” Cohn says.


4 p.m.  Welcome
Edward D. Miller, M.D.
Dean of the Medical Faculty
CEO, Johns Hopkins Medicine


4:05 p.m. 

The Michael A. Shanoff Research Award
Transmembrane protein GDE2 directs spinal motor neuron differentiation in vivo
Meenakshi Rao
Candidate for the Degrees of Doctor of Medicine and Doctor of Philosophy, Neuroscience Graduate Program
Sponsor: Shanthini Sockanathan

The David Israel Macht Research Award
The neuronal representation of pitch in primate auditory cortex
Daniel Bendor
Candidate for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Biomedical Engineering Graduate Program
Sponsor:  Xiaoqin Wang

The Martin and Carol Macht Research Award
Stem cell niche repopulation in vivo via dedifferentiation
Crista Brawley
Candidate for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology Graduate Program
Sponsor:  Erika Matunis

The Paul Ehrlich Research Award
Arc regulates synaptic scaling of AMPA receptor
Jason Shepherd
Candidate for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Cellular and Molecular Medicine Graduate Program
Sponsors: Paul Worley and Richard Huganir


4:45 p.m. 

The Paul Ehrlich Research Awards
Identification of a novel hedgehog receptor from a systematic survey of the Drosophila genome
Shenqin Yao
Candidate for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy; Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology Graduate Program
Sponsor: Philip Beachy

Molecular genetics of Drosophila visual transduction
Tao Wang
Candidate for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Biological Chemistry Graduate Program
Sponsor: Craig Montell

MR-guided transplantation of magnetocapsules immunoprotecting pancreatic islets
Brad P. Barnett
Candidate for the Degree Doctor of Medicine
Sponsor: Aravind Arepally

The Hans Joaquim Prochaska Research Award
Chemical rescue of a mutant enzyme in living cells
Yingfeng Qiao
Candidate for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences Graduate Program
Sponsor: Philip A. Cole

The Mette Strand Research Award
Parietal eye phototransduction components: insight into vertebrate photoreceptor evolution
Chih-Ying Su
Candidate for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Neuroscience Graduate Program
Sponsor: King-Wai Yau

The Alicia Showalter Reynolds Research Award
Catalysis in translation elongation and termination
Elaine M. Youngman
Candidate for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology Graduate Program
Sponsor: Rachel Green

The Nupur Dinesh Thekdi Research Award
Cellular and molecular mechanisms of long-term synaptic depression in the cerebellum
Jordan Philip Steinberg
Candidate for the Degrees of Doctor of Medicine and Doctor of Philosophy, Neuroscience Graduate Program
Sponsor: Richard Huganir


5 p.m.  
The Helen B. Taussig Research Award
TGFÿ-induced failure of muscle regeneration in multiple myopathic states
Ronald D. Cohn, M.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow, McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine
Sponsor: Harry C. Dietz

The A. McGehee Harvey Research Award
Synergistic inflammatory mechanisms with therapeutic relevance
Sangwon Kim, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Neuroscience
Sponsor: Solomon Snyder


5:20 p.m. 
The W. Barry Wood, Jr. Research Award
Schizophrenia-associated DISC1 mutation perturbs cerebral cortex development
Atsushi Kamiya, M.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Sponsor:  Akira Sawa

The Daniel Nathans Research Award
hAT element transposition
Liqin Zhou, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
Sponsor: Nancy L. Craig

The Alfred Blalock Research Award
Genetic and functional analysis of the PIK3CA oncogene in human cancers
Yardena Samuels, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Oncology – Cancer Biology
Sponsor: Victor Velculescu

The Albert Lehninger Research Award
Genetic selection of forward transport signals directing cell surface expression
Sojin Shikano, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Neuroscience
Sponsor:  Min Li

5:30 p.m. 
Poster Presentation and Reception