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Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Honors 18 Young Investigators - 04/03/2008

Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Honors 18 Young Investigators

Release Date: April 3, 2008

The 31st annual Young Investigators’ Day celebration at Johns Hopkins will highlight discoveries from how cells sense oxygen to how nerve cells grow and develop. Twelve students and six fellows will receive awards, and all young investigators at the School of Medicine will be celebrated.

“Yet again, all the applicants are outstanding,” says Randall Reed, professor of molecular biology and genetics and chair of the selection committee. “The job of the committee gets harder and harder every year.”

The Young Investigators’ Day program will start at 4 p.m. on Thursday, April 10, in the School of Medicine’s Mountcastle Auditorium, East Baltimore campus, where selected awardees will present their research and all will receive honors. A poster session and reception will follow.

The path to success—how did they get here?

For some, success resulted from the collaborative atmosphere throughout, and beyond, Johns Hopkins.

For two awardees, success came from real teamwork. Postdoctoral fellows Ping Gao, recipient of the W. Barry Wood Jr. Award, and Huafeng Zhang, recipient of the Albert Lehninger Award, have published two papers together through their collaboration over the years. Together they discovered how antioxidants might be used to prevent the growth of a specific tumor type, one that relies on the HIF-1 protein for survival. They also have uncovered the mechanism of the Warburg effect, where cancer cells use a low-yield process to generate energy for survival. “We really have enjoyed working together through the projects,” says Gao, “it’s one of the major benefits of doing science here at Hopkins.”

David Israel Macht Award recipient Nicolas Tritsch, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Program in Neuroscience, discovered how electrical activity is generated in auditory neurons before the onset of hearing. He credits his success to his adviser, Dwight Bergles, “for his undivided attention, his genuine interest and his constant stream of ingenious ideas, and from open collaborations and scientific discussions with many faculty members at Hopkins. None of this would have been possible without the collegiality that exists here,” he says.

Ling Wang, a doctoral candidate in Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences and recipient of the Hans Joaquim Prochaska Award, says he believes his project was successful because of a good working team. “My adviser, Philip Cole, guided me through critical points, and we had great collaborators at the Wistar Institute,” he says. Wang solved the high-resolution X-ray crystal structure of the p300/CBP protein, an important co-activator of gene function implicated in cancer and other diseases.

Alfred Blalock Research Award recipient Abde Abukhdeir also credits a team effort. “The guidance of my mentor, Ben Ho Park, and the insurmountable level of teamwork we have in our group significantly contributed to my project’s success,” says Abukhdeir, a postdoctoral fellow whose work led to the identification of small molecules that can overcome Tamoxifen resistance in estrogen-positive breast cancers.

For Phil Gray, an MD candidate and recipient of one of four Paul Erlich Awards, success came from a multi-institutional, multi-investigator effort that included some input from his fiancee, who introduced him to his research mentors at Harvard Medical School, where he took a break from Hopkins and found that the molecular chaperone cdc37 behaves differently than its HSP90 relatives and might make an attractive therapeutic target for cooling cancer growth. “I appreciate the collaboration and support Hopkins offered in enabling me to pursue a project elsewhere, and am indebted to my mentors here, Theodore DeWeese, Donald Coffey, Patrick Walsh and William Nelson,” Gray says.

Inspiring mentors with endless and contagious enthusiasm led other young investigators to their success.

“Mario Amzel’s words kept me highly motivated from the beginning of my high-risk, high-reward project,” says Chuan-Hsiang Huang, a doctoral candidate in the Immunology Graduate Program and recipient of the Mette Strand Research Award. Huang solved the structure of a PI3K-alpha heterodimeric complex, a protein frequently mutated in human cancers whose structure many others have failed at solving.

Bridget Todd Hughes, a doctoral candidate in the Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology Graduate Program and recipient of the Alicia Showalter Reynolds Award, says, “I had the unique experience of being one of the first two students to join Peter Espenshade’s lab, and we had the opportunity to work very closely with Peter, whose encouragement, support and terrific advice were instrumental in keeping this project on track.” Hughes has discovered how yeast cells sense oxygen concentration, a mechanism that may be shared across many organisms and uses a new class of oxygen sensors.

Hun-way Hwang, a doctoral candidate in Human Genetics and Molecular Biology and recipient of a Paul Erlich Award, says of his adviser, Joshua Mendell (recipient of the Michael A. Shanoff Award in 2003), “What I admire most is his great enthusiasm for science, which is highly infectious. So many times after talking to Josh, I immediately felt like going back to the bench to work for another eight hours.” Hwang’s work uncovered a microRNA that is actively imported into the nucleus, a first, suggesting that microRNAs may be doing something in the nucleus unrelated to their known roles in translational regulation.

Xin Duan, a doctoral candidate in Neuroscience and recipient of the Nupur Dinesh Thekdi Award, showed at the cellular level how the schizophrenia susceptibility gene DISC1 can modulate the development of newborn neurons as they integrate into the neuronal network. “My superb adviser, Hongjun Song, deserves the credit for his guidance, patience and encouragement,” he says. Labmate Shaoyu Ge, a postdoctoral fellow, is this year’s recipient of the A. McGehee Harvey Award, for discovering a critical period in a new adult neuron’s life where the cell exhibits the same ability to learn as an infant’s neurons.

And for all awardees, success came from good old-fashioned hard work.

When asked what contributed to his project’s success, Elias Issa, a doctoral candidate in Biomedical Engineering and recipient of a Paul Erlich Award, had a one-word answer, “Persistence.” Issa found that the activity in auditory neurons during sleep cannot support the same sound processing as wakeful neuronal activity. “We know so little about what the brain does during sleep,” he says. “Hearing is a great way to probe neural activity since the ears are always open.”

Although 18 individuals are being recognized, the Young Investigators Day event is meant to celebrate all of the school’s students, postdocs and fellows. “The trainees at Hopkins are the driving force here,” says Chi V. Dang, vice dean for research in the School of Medicine. “We would be lost without them. We train them, and in return they teach us wonderful new things all the time.”

And this year’s award recipients are generous in sharing the glory.

“I know several students who have done great work but because of time conflicts with graduation cannot apply for Young Investigators’ Day,” says Yefei Han, a doctoral candidate in the Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology Graduate Program, adding that he hopes that those and others can be recognized as well. Han is recipient of the Bae Gyo Jung Award for finding that HIV-1 genomes are integrated into active genes in resting T cells, challenging the prevailing theory that HIV latency is due to viral integration into inactive regions of the genome.

“I am deeply honored to receive an award, given the high quality research performed by my peers,” says physician Benjamin Brooke, a postdoctoral fellow and recipient of the Helen Taussig Award for showing for the first time that treating Marfan syndrome patients with angiotensin II receptor blocker can stop aneurysm growth and prevent other life-threatening complications of the disorder.

Says MD/PhD candidate Andre Sdrulla, who discovered that shrinkage and loss of so-called dendritic spines of nerve cells does not affect the strength of communication between neurons, “There is so much exciting research taking place here, it’s too bad there are not more awards to go around.” Sdrulla is recipient of a Paul Erlich Award.

Also being honored at Thursday’s event are Laura Wood, MD/PhD candidate in Cellular and Molecular Medicine, recipient of the Michael A. Shanoff Award for studying the genomic landscapes of cancers; Qiaojie Xiong, PhD candidate in Cellular and Molecular Physiology, recipient of the Martin and Carol Macht Research Award for studying the activation of voltage-gated potassium channels by chemical openers; and Michael J. Wolfgang, postdoctoral fellow in Biological Chemistry, recipient of the Daniel Nathans Award for his work on characterizing carnitine palmitoyltransferase-1c as a neuron-specific target of malonyl-CoA.

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