Four Scientists Win Inaugural Englund Emerging Scholars Award, Named for Renowned Johns Hopkins Biochemist


Englund Emerging Scholars from left to right: Isaac Cervantes-Sandoval, Lindsey Richelle Fernandez Backman, Elizabeth Johnson and Valerie Tornini.

Four scientists were named Paul T. Englund Emerging Scholars, recognizing their achievements in research on biochemical, biophysical and cellular mechanisms at the molecular level and their impact on creating a diverse and inclusive future of science. The award will be given annually by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Department of Biological Chemistry and is named for the late, renowned biochemist Paul Englund, Ph.D.

Englund Emerging Scholars receive an honorarium and an invitation to present their research to other Johns Hopkins scientists during a seminar. Awardees are selected by a panel of faculty members in Johns Hopkins’ biological chemistry department. Postdoctoral fellows and early career assistant professors at any accredited research institution or university are eligible to apply.

“Our aim is to encourage and facilitate the development of these exceptional awardees, and provide research trainees at all levels from groups historically excluded from STEM with the opportunity to see themselves reflected in scientific excellence and leadership,” says Mollie Meffert, M.D., Ph.D., M.S., vice director and associate professor in the biological chemistry department and director of the Englund Emerging Scholars Program. “Increasing the diversity of viewpoints represented in our seminar series enhances creativity and innovation in our scientific environment.”

Englund was part of the biological chemistry department at Johns Hopkins for more than 40 years. He was known for his research on trypanosomes — parasitic organisms that cause African sleeping sickness, a disease spread by the Tsetse fly. He was highly regarded as an inspiring and supportive mentor to scores of students and scientists.

“Paul transmitted his passion and gift for science in his devotion to mentoring students and postdocs,” says Christine Schneyer Englund, M.D., M.H.S., adjunct professor in the endocrinology division at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “He was incredibly proud of the work they did in his lab, and of their independent work after leaving his lab. He would have been so very honored and pleased with the Englund Emerging Scholars Program.”

This year’s awardees are:

Isaac Cervantes-Sandoval, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of biology at Georgetown University who uses fruit fly models to study how memories are encoded in the brain and how they are forgotten. Specifically, Cervantes-Sandoval looks at the way scaffold proteins, which link proteins together, may contribute to memory processes. He is a member of the Georgetown University Initiative for Maximizing Student Development, which is aimed at training diverse, multidisciplinary graduate students.

Lindsey Richelle Fernandez Backman, Ph.D., is the Valhalla Fellow at the Whitehead Institute. She studies how pathogens that live in oxygen free environments are able to thrive under conditions of oxidative stress — an imbalance between free radicals, which are unstable molecules made by cells as a natural byproduct of metabolism, and the antioxidant molecules that stabilize free radicals. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Backman has mentored students historically excluded from STEM. She also won an MIT Department of Chemistry Mentorship Spotlight Award. A member of the department’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, Backman began the Chemistry DINES (Diversity, Inclusion, Networking, Equity and Support) program for chemistry students and postdoctoral fellows from historically excluded backgrounds.

Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the nutritional sciences division at Cornell University. She studies how diet influences the production of chemical signals by the gut microbiome and how these signals can influence human health. Johnson was named one of Cell Mentor’s 1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists in America, and she is a Pew Biomedical Scholar and a Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Global Scholar in the humans and microbiome program.

Valerie Tornini, Ph.D., is an associate research scientist in the genetics department at the Yale School of Medicine. A National Institutes of Health Pathway to Independence Awardee who was previously supported by a Hartwell Foundation fellowship, Tornini studies how newly identified tiny proteins influence development in vertebrates. In addition to developmental biology, Tornini has trained in bioethics and inclusive teaching — a method to cultivate learning among a diversity of student backgrounds and needs. She has also worked to advance equitable and inclusive scientific communities, including with the Leading Edge and Intersections Science Fellows symposiums and the Científico Latino national networks.

Four finalists were also named:

Sabrina Absalon, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the Indiana University School of Medicine

Courtney Ellison, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Georgia

Anupama Hemalatha, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the genetics department at Yale University

Florentine Rutaganira, Ph.D., assistant professor of biochemistry and developmental biology at Stanford University