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Young Investigators Honored

School of medicine’s 36th annual celebration

Young Investigator Awardees
Richard Huganir (left) with graduate student
Julia Bachman and David Ginty (right) with
graduate student Yin Liu.

April 2013—It’s that time of year when Johns Hopkins honors exceptional trainees at the 36th annual Young Investigators’ Day celebration. This year’s crop of awardees, 13 graduate students and six postdocs,  presented their data as a talk or a poster. Each award is named for a notable researcher, many former graduate students or faculty members of Johns Hopkins. The event was held on April 18 at 4 p.m. in the Mountcastle Auditorium in the Preclinical Teaching Building at the East Baltimore campus.

Young Investigators’ Day celebrates the achievement and hard work of not only the award winners, but of all Johns Hopkins’ research trainees.

“It’s a huge encouragement for junior graduate students just starting their scientific careers,” says Wei Shen, a recent graduate and winner of a Paul Ehrlich Award, named for the German Nobel laureate and immunologist. “I still vividly remember the excitement when I first attended the ceremony and saw the senior students receiving awards.”

Shen works with Craig Montell at the Center for Sensory Biology, studying how fruit flies sense environmental temperature. Shen found out that the protein rhodopsin, known for detecting light, can also sense fluctuations in temperature. He will soon start a postdoc position at Rockefeller University in New York.

“It can be easy to get caught up in your own work,” says Mark Sausen, another award winner. “But seeing all the different types of research presented at Young Investigators’ Day, both basic and clinical, can help put everything into context.”

Sausen was absorbed in sequencing the DNA in blood plasma from cancer patients to look for genetic abnormalities in hopes of developing a noninvasive way to detect cancer. For this research in Victor Velculescu’s lab at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, Sausen received the Hans J. Prochaska Award. Since defending his dissertation in January, he accepted an associate scientist position at Personal Genome Diagnostics, a biotech co-founded by his graduate mentor, Velculescu.
For some of the winners, their award’s namesake is particularly significant.

“I feel humbled to follow in the footsteps of such a great scientist,” says Takafumi Miyamoto of his Albert Lehninger Award, named after the professor of biological chemistry who uncovered many molecular details of cell metabolism. “It is a highlight of my professional career to be recognized among my esteemed colleagues.”

Synthetic biologist Miyamoto developed a new system that enables precise molecular control over cell behavior. This work was completed in Takanari Inoue’s lab, where Miyamoto finished his dissertation research. He has since transitioned to a postdoc position.

Sharrol Bachas says that his Michael A. Shanoff Award is one of the greatest awards that a student at Johns Hopkins can receive.
“Knowing that a majority of past recipients of the award have become faculty at top institutions, some here at Hopkins, has motivated me to continue on the path to becoming a professor,” he says.

In Herschel Wade’s lab, Bachas studies the structure of drug transporters that pump toxic chemicals out of cells; such transporters can help microbes to resist antibiotics and cancer cells to develop drug resistance. He plans to finish up this project this fall.

Julia Bachman received the Alicia Showalter Reynolds Award for her work overturning a major hypothesis on how memories are maintained.

“One of my best friends, a former classmate, received this same award two years ago,” she says. “I remember how excited and happy I was for her, and now I am honored to be in her company.”

Bachman completed her dissertation research in Richard Huganir’s lab and is currently deciding where to go for a postdoc position.

Many awardees cite generous support from their mentors as the key to their success in the lab.

Hongjun Song is a great mentor, and over the years under his guidance I have learned to be patient and to persevere on my project. I’ve also developed a sense of what hunches to follow to get fascinating results,” says postdoc Juan Song. “These are critical steps to prepare myself for the next stage, working as an independent researcher.”

Juan Song found that a certain type of neuron in the brain helps control whether stem cells in the hippocampus proliferate, a discovery that earned her the Alfred Blalock Award, named for the famous heart surgeon that performed the first “blue baby” operation.

“This award really belongs as much to my fantastic mentor, Joshua Mendell, as it does to me,” says Raghu Chivukula. Chivukula received a Michael A. Shanoff Award, which Mendell also received in 2003. “Josh is an exceptional and dedicated investigator whose relentless enthusiasm for science helped me thrive despite the setbacks and frustrations typical of graduate school,” Chivukula adds.

Chivukula discovered the function of a microRNA that is important for repairing the colon in mice. In May, he will graduate with both his M.D. and his Ph.D. In July, he begins surgical residency training at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“I think it is a combination of opportunity, guidance and support from my adviser, and my own persistence that led to my success,” says Nwe-Nwe Aye-Han, a graduate student in Jin Zhang’s lab. She won the Bae Gyo Jung Award for her work studying protein kinase A, a cell signaling molecule. Aye-Han will graduate soon.

The key to Yin Liu’s research success was pure serendipity. Her project took off from a wave of unexpected data. “It wasn’t the original direction we were heading and I hesitated about whether I should pursue the results,” says Liu. “My mentor, David Ginty, really encouraged me to follow the direction the research was going.”

Liu discovered sex-based differences in how sensory neurons develop and connect with one another in the mammary gland; she was awarded the Mette Strand Award for her findings. She will graduate soon and take a postdoc position in Stanford.

To Peng Jin, the collaborative environment at Hopkins is the driving force behind his achievement.

“To me, the Hopkins community is like a big family,” says Jin, a Paul Ehrlich Award winner. “I can seek help for anything simply by sending out a group email or walking into a nearby lab. It’s a very comfortable environment to carry out research.”

Jin completed his graduate studies in Elizabeth Chen’s lab studying how cells fuse together during fruit fly muscle development. He is staying in the Chen lab until he finds a postdoc position.

Sungjin Park says that in addition to his mentor and lab mates, his wife Kyoungsook, who is also a postdoc at Hopkins, is his greatest motivator to succeed in the lab.

“She understands the hardship and frustration we face as scientists and knows the joy when we finally obtain small pieces of new data,” says the recipient of the Daniel Nathans Award, named for Nobel laureate and former Johns Hopkins professor. “Her encouragement and support make it possible to go through the hard times.”

In Shanthini Sockanathan’s lab, Park studies how enzymes that cut the cord of proteins tethered to the cell’s outer membrane can regulate neuron development.

Other trainees attribute their achievement to the pure excitement of their research projects.

Yali Zhang, also in Craig Montell’s lab, received the David I. Macht Award for his research on fruit fly taste sensation. He studies how genes and the environment act to control an animal's food preferences. The secret to his success, he says, is simply that “it’s fun to study how animals taste food.” Zhang discovered a new mechanism of salty taste sensation in flies that may be used by other animals, including mammals. Zhang plans to graduate soon.

Under the mentorship of Peter Johnston and Chao-Wei Hwang, second-year medical student Tamara Ashvetiya won a Paul Ehrlich Award for her work developing an implantable bioreactor to repair damaged heart tissue. The device contains stem cells that release small molecules that promote new blood vessel growth, bringing more blood and oxygen to the damaged heart.

“The knowledge that my work could lead to the discovery of something brand new is both inspiring and motivational,” says Ashvetiya. “It is rewarding to have my hard work recognized, and it ignites an even stronger dedication to pursue my research.”
She says she is considering applying to internal medicine programs with cardiology as her specialty after she graduates in a couple of years.

“A combination of freedom to pursue interesting ideas, great mentoring and a stimulating scientific environment contributed to my success in the lab,” says postdoc Martin Riccomagno, an A. McGehee Harvey awardee, named after a former chairman of the Department of Medicine.

In Alex Kolodkin’s lab, Riccomagno discovered two separate mechanisms during development that affect the projections from neurons—axons—that send signals to neighboring cells in the brain. One process controls where the axons migrate in the brain and the other trims the axons’ excessive appendages.

For many trainees, winning a Young Investigator Award is one of many memorable experiences at Johns Hopkins.

 “My first paper, and the basis of my dissertation, was selected as one of the top 10 influential papers in the field of regulatory genomics last year,” says Dongwon Lee, who used a mathematical formula to predict which parts of the genome may have important biological functions.

He developed this method in Michael Beers’ lab, and it earned him the Nupur Dinesh Thekdi Award. Lee plans to graduate soon.
Benjamin Lin’s best experience at Johns Hopkins was meeting his future wife. He plans on getting married and finishing his dissertation research this summer.

“I think of my Paul Ehrlich Award as a nice ending to my graduate studies and a stepping stone to future opportunities,” he says. Lin’s two advisers, Andre Levchenko and Takanari Inoue, guided him as he developed a technique that uses intracellular molecules to direct mammalian cell migration. He doesn’t have definite plans after graduation, but he is open to both academia and industry positions.

Postdoc Youngjin Lee received the W. Barry Wood Jr. Award for his research achievements. Lee’s mentor, Jeffrey Rothstein, is director of the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research, and Lee says one of his most memorable experiences at Hopkins was participating in the annual Packard Fiesta 5K run to support ALS research at the Packard Center. Lee’s project revealed a mechanism for how nerves die off in neurodegenerative diseases like ALS. He also showed that myelin, the insulating sheath that coats appendages of neurons, may be responsible for delivering energy to the neurons.

“This award supports my passion and endeavors in the study of glial biology and diseases as a career path,” says Lee. He aspires to be an independent principal investigator.

Award winner Minae Niwa will likely never forget the day she learned her paper had been accepted at Science: that also happened to be the day her first baby was born. The research from her Science paper led to her Helen B. Taussig Award. A postdoc in Akira Sawa’s lab in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Niwa studies how social isolation during adolescence in mice can induce hormones to turn genes on or off in certain neurons, which may have implications in understanding human mental illness.

Brian Herb was a high school science teacher for several years before he decided to go back to graduate school.

“The transition from teaching science to making discoveries has been incredible,” he says. Herb studies how animals with the same genetic background can become very distinct individuals due to epigenetics. With honeybees, for example, genetically identical sisters become queens, nurses and foragers depending on early environmental cues. He received the Martin and Carol Macht Award for his research project in Andrew Feinberg’s lab at the Center for Epigenetics in the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences, and plans to finish his Ph.D. research soon and find a postdoc position in evolutionary biology.

—Vanessa McMains