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Meet the 2018 Award Winners

Kaushal Asrani

The Paul Ehrlich Research Awards

Project Details

The mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1) is critical for both normal development and tumorigenesis, and is an attractive therapeutic target. In the Lotan lab we use biochemistry, imaging, microarrays and proteomics of the neonatal mouse skin to characterize the functions of mTORC1 in epithelial biology. In a recent study, we observed that mTORC1 loss was associated with a lethal skin barrier defect with blistering and impaired intercellular adhesion. These effects were due to upregulated Rho kinase (ROCK) signaling and a resulting failure to form desmosomes; structures that are critical to skin integrity. Our work provides a physiological basis for side effects such as delayed wound healing and skin eruptions that are frequently associated with mTORC1 inhibitors, and also highlights the TGFβ-ROCK pathway as a potentially druggable target, downstream of mTORC1 loss.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Johns Hopkins Medicine has long held a tradition of pioneering advances and discoveries in the biomedical field. My doctoral studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore primed me to further my research interests and pursue my postdoctoral work at Johns Hopkins. With its state-of-the-art infrastructure, extraordinary talent pool and collaborative ethos, I am grateful to be a part of the biomedical revolution that takes place here each day.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

I feel elated and humbled to be a recipient of this award; I cherish the fact that it legitimizes my work and provides impetus to my professional development. It is a tremendous motivator for future scientific achievements.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

I am incredibly thankful for the guidance and support of my mentor, Dr. Tamara Lotan. Since the primary focus of our lab is prostate cancer, studying a different model system was challenging and risky. She enabled me to pursue my intellectual curiosity with utmost freedom (within the confines of our funding!), while simultaneously encouraging me to cultivate a goal-oriented focus. Her dedication to her numerous professional responsibilities has strongly influenced my work ethic and has been instrumental in motivating me to successfully complete my projects. Additionally, I would also like to thank Dr. Pierre Coulombe and Dr. Luis Garza and their lab members for critical insights on my projects during our dermatology-focused group sessions.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles students and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

These awards are a tremendous initiative to highlight and honor the work of young scientists while simultaneously motivating them to aspire even higher.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

I have really enjoyed my stay at Johns Hopkins so far. I have met some truly wonderful people, and have had the opportunity to collaborate in an amazing environment. The abundance of learning opportunities and the humility of the professors imparting knowledge never ceases to amaze me! Moreover, Johns Hopkins has a very inclusive culture that makes for a very enjoyable experience.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

Later this year, I will be transitioning to a research associate position in our department, where I plan to continue working on existing and new projects. I am also preparing to pursue medical residency training sometime in the future.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

I love traveling, hiking and playing competitive tennis when possible.


Joshua Casaos

The Paul Ehrlich Research Award

Project Details

My work has been carried out in the Brem lab, also known as the Hunterian Neurosurgical Research Laboratory. Our work focuses on studying alternative and innovative therapeutics for adult and pediatric brain tumors. Specifically, our work has demonstrated that the antiviral drug ribavirin is effective as a potential therapeutic against the pediatric brain tumor atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor (AT/RT). We have used preclinical in vitro and in vivo models to show that ribavirin has antitumoral efficacy as monotherapy and potential sensitizes AT/RT to currently used radiotherapy and chemotherapy. These are exciting findings, as children with AT/RTs are typically under the age of 3 years old, radiation therapy is not an option due to the developing nervous system and there is no standard chemotherapy regimen for these children.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose Johns Hopkins because of the people. My initial interactions at Johns Hopkins brought me across students, faculty members and potential mentors who were passionate not only about the work that they do, whether in the hospital or in the laboratory, but about working with and training students and mentees across all disciplines and training levels.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

Receiving this award is an honor for our team and can be attributed to the mentorship, teamwork and dedication of our group. Anyone who works in basic science can tell you how many ups and downs and late nights can be involved. This allows us to appreciate the days when things go well that much more. Paul Ehrlich studied chemotherapy and coined the concept of a magic bullet: therapy that selectively targets disease-causing organisms while sparing the bystander normal body. This is a concept that we utilize every day in our lab, studying compounds that target tumor cells while minimally affecting our bodies’ normal cells.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

Our success is due to the guidance of phenomenal mentors including Dr. Henry Brem, Betty Tyler, and Nicolas Skuli. They provide sound scientific reasoning and mentorship, while also giving us with the tools and opportunity to grow as independent scientists. They are leaders in their field and are nonetheless fully invested in students and always available when needed.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

I believe that Young Investigators’ Day gives scientists in their earlier career the opportunity to be rewarded for their research and contributions to science while providing a platform to share their work. It is a chance to see some of the amazing work being done right here at Johns Hopkins.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

My best experiences as a medical student at Johns Hopkins entail the privilege of learning medicine by working with and caring for patients who entrust their care in our hands. Additionally, I have had the opportunity to learn from physician scientists who demonstrate dedication first and foremost to the delivery of exceptional patient centered care, while also working in the laboratory to tackle the diseases encountered in the clinic and OR to advance patient care.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

This summer I will be completing a HHMI Medical Student Fellowship research year and will be returning to my 4th year of medical school. I will be applying to neurological surgery residency this fall and hope to graduate medical school and begin residency next year.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

I was born and raised in Heyburn, Idaho, a small rural farming community in south central Idaho. My niche for the outdoors stems from this, and this is where I learned to ski and mountain bike! I enjoy visiting my family, including the growing number of nephews and nieces whenever I can. In my spare time I enjoy playing basketball, biking, and cooking. 


Chris Cho

The Michael A. Shanoff Research Award

Project Details

As an M.D./Ph.D. student, I have had the great opportunity to pursue my graduate studies in the laboratory of Dr. Jeremy Nathans. Our lab studies how blood vessels develop in the central nervous system. We have shown that two cell-surface proteins, Reck and Gpr124, are required for neurovascular development by activating signals associated with a protein called Wnt7a/7b (ligand) in endothelial cells. Furthermore, we demonstrate that Reck and Gpr124 operate by assembling into a multiprotein complex with Wnt7a/7b and another protein called Frizzled (receptor).

In humans, there are 19 Wnts and 10 Frizzleds, but the extent of Wnt-Frizzled specificity and the biological roles that such specificity might play have largely remained open questions. Our work supports a novel paradigm for Wnt specificity and signifies the exciting possibility that receptor co-factors like Reck and Gpr124 exist for the other 17 Wnt ligands. Identifying these factors will be an important future direction for the field.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Aside from the clinical and scientific excellence at Johns Hopkins, I was most impressed by the exceptional collegiality and infectious energy demonstrated by the students, staff members and faculty members. There is a willingness to work together and excitement to conduct cutting-edge research. I was drawn to Johns Hopkins for these reasons.

My older brother also matched at Johns Hopkins for his residency in anesthesiology at the same time I was deciding among M.D./Ph.D. programs. Wanting to be closer to my family also played an important part in my decision.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

While I do not have any personal connection with the Michael A. Shanoff Award, I am aware of the former recipients of this prestigious award. To be included in the company of such successful and talented scientists is truly an honor.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

Two people immediately come to mind. First is my thesis adviser, Dr. Jeremy Nathans. From the onset of my graduate training, he challenged me to think deeply and work rigorously. He taught me to carve out hypotheses and to learn how to “kill” them—that is, to do the one experiment that would prove your favorite hypothesis wrong. He encouraged me to be clever and curious. And,he showed all of this by example, every single day, in his office or at his bench. The second person is Philip Smallwood, a senior technician in the lab and a dear friend. In addition to all of his technical support over the years, he has reminded me that scientific work ultimately stems from people and to never forget the importance of that humanity. Both of these individuals were a huge part of my success.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

The celebration of young talent is quite exceptional in the way it can trickle down and excite other younger individuals. I remember sitting in the audience as a first-year medical student in 2014, listening to the Young Investigators’ Day presentations and being so impressed by the quality, breadth and significance of the work conducted by the awardees. Specifically, Eliah Shamir—a former M.D./Ph.D. trainee, the winner of the Martin and Carol Macht Award, and my then-student role model—comes to mind. I hope that our scientific contributions will similarly inspire the younger trainees and encourage them to push the boundaries of their respective fields.

What has been your best or most memorable experience while at Hopkins?

I can’t place a single experience, but what comes to mind are the late nights studying with my graduate school friends at coffee shops, crowding around a computer with my lab mates while analyzing the latest exciting data, and celebrating our personal and professional milestones along the way.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I plan to defend my Ph.D. thesis in July 2018 and return to medical school in the fall.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

Outside of lab, I am a dancer with Charm City Ballet, a Baltimore County-based performance company. I have been featured in A Christmas Carol (2015–2017) as Young Scrooge and Ignorance, Beauty and the Beast (2016) as the Beast, and Aladdin (2017) as Aladdin. Currently, I am preparing for the role of Prince Eric in our upcoming performance of The Little Mermaid (June 9 and 10, 2018). You can check us out at www.charmcityballet.com.


Shiv Gandhi

The Nupur Dinesh Thekdi Research Award

Project Details

I work in the laboratory of Sinisa Urban, where we study the rhomboid family of enzymes. I determined how a malaria rhomboid enzyme recognizes its substrates and exploited that understanding to design a chemical inhibitor for this enzyme. This inhibitor, termed RiBn (for rhomboid-inhibiting boronate), blocked the invasion of parasites into red blood cells and cured cultures of malaria. This work demonstrated that the malaria rhomboid enzyme is both necessary for the pathogenesis of disease and therapeutically targetable.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

As an aspiring physician-scientist, I wanted to attend an institution filled with examples of clinicians who are also outstanding investigators. Not only did Johns Hopkins have more clinician-researchers than any other institution I was looking at, but the people here were also incredibly smart and humble.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

I view this award as the capstone to a long but very rewarding journey at Johns Hopkins. Having arrived as an undergraduate, the institution has allowed me to grow both personally and professionally. I am proud to end this journey on this note.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

From the start of my project, my mentor encouraged me to take risks and gave me both the space to make mistakes but also the guidance to steer me in the right direction. Without this mindset, my project would not have been nearly as successful.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles students and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

It is nice to see the hard work of so many students and fellows recognized. We are the future of science, but we often work in the shadows (both metaphorically and literally!).

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

By far, my most memorable experience was the birth of our son, Aarav, at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. We are the proud parents of a Johns Hopkins baby!

What are your plans over the next year or so? Graduating, looking for faculty positions, etc.?

I will be going to Yale for a Physician-Scientist Research Pathway residency and fellowship.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

In my spare time, I do freelance photography work for the university, a skill that has been quite useful with our son.


Justin Glenn

The Albert Lehninger Award

Project Details

We discovered the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which the underlying autoimmune response targeting the central nervous system can worsen influenza virus-specific morbidity and mortality by developing a mouse model with both morbidities. These findings are of particular importance to the field of neuroinflammatory autoimmune disease because people with multiple sclerosis (MS) in general exhibit a shorter life span and increased morbidity and mortality in reaction to multiple environmental reagents, including respiratory viral infections, such as influenza virus, compared to those without MS. People with MS are four times more likely to die from influenza viral infection than those without the condition. Thus, discovering the mechanisms behind this lethal phenomenon may lead to better therapeutic strategies to increase the life span of those with MS. This research was done in the lab of Dr. Katharine Whartenby in the Department of Neurology.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose Johns Hopkins to do this work because of the strength of its neurology and immunology departments, the excellent caliber and high standards of its research, and the collaborative spirit of the labs.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

Personally, receiving this award is a testament of my commitment to doing my very best work at Johns Hopkins, and it means the world to me that Johns Hopkins recognizes our work. Professionally, this award is a higher indication of my merit to the scientific and biomedical communities. I am humbled to receive an award that honors a pioneering leader in biochemistry, Albert Lehninger, who was a faculty member at Johns Hopkins. The principles of his founding work in bioenergetics and biochemistry underpin the functions of the cells that I study in the lab.

What contributed to your project's success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

Hard work, perseverance, collaborative spirit and great communication with my PI and lab members contributed to the project’s success.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

I believe Young Investigators’ Day is an amazing opportunity to highlight and pay homage to the intelligence and hard work of individuals in the lab who dedicate so much to worthy research causes but may not obtain as much recognition as principal investigators. It is also a great avenue to showcase emerging leaders who will help shape biomedical research at large.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

My best and most memorable experience here at Johns Hopkins was when I figured out a crucial molecular mechanism to my thesis research project here as a graduate student.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I am in the process of transitioning to independence in academia.


Leah Greenspan

The David Yue Research Award

Project Details

I did my research in the laboratory of Erika Matunis. This lab studies stem cell regulation using the fruit fly, Drosophila, testis stem cell niche as a model organism. I discovered that loss of the tumor suppressor gene retinoblastoma in niche cells, the cells that support and help maintain the stem cells, can cause niche cell proliferation, conversion of niche cells to stem cells and formation of ectopic niches. This finding is important because it shows that modulation of niche cells, not only the stem cells they support, can be important for tissue regeneration but can also lead to cancerous phenotypes when dysregulated.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose Johns Hopkins for my graduate school because I felt it was the best environment for me to learn and thrive as a scientist. The renowned faculty and collaborative atmosphere have provided me the intellectual stimulation and support necessary to be successful.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

Although I have no personal connection with the particular award I received, it is definitely an honor to be selected as a Young Investigator award recipient. Personally, it is an affirmation that all the late nights and weekends spent in lab were worthwhile. Professionally, it demonstrates that my research is well-regarded by the Johns Hopkins faculty, and it further drives me to pursue a research career.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

My project’s success stems from my pure drive to uncover the answers to the hypotheses I am testing. I am constantly coming up with new questions and experiments to try. This is mostly thanks to discussions with my amazing lab mates and my mentor, Erika Matunis, who inspire my best ideas.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

It is amazing that Johns Hopkins has a day to recognize and celebrate the roles students and fellows play in the research here. A lab can only be as successful as the people who work in it. This day helps us remember that we are part of something bigger, a scientific community that together strives to make a lasting impact on society through research and discovery.

What has been your best or most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

One of my most memorable moments at Johns Hopkins was the first time I looked through the microscope and saw the dramatic phenotype that results from knocking down the protein I study (retinoblastoma). It was a week before my first thesis committee meeting, and I knew I discovered something interesting that would drive the rest of my thesis research.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I plan on graduating this summer and am currently interviewing for postdoctoral positions.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

I love challenging myself, whether it is professionally or personally. I especially love a good physical challenge, such as completing a half-marathon, rappelling down waterfalls in Nepal or hiking the snowy hills of Yosemite National Park.


David Herzfeld

The Paul Ehrlich Research Award

Project Details

My goal is to understand how the neurons of the cerebellum, a region of the brain crucial for motor control and motor learning, contribute to the execution of voluntary eye movements. The cerebellum is a motor learning machine, correcting for movement errors, a process termed adaptation. In our work, we identified the neural substrates responsible for learning to correct eye movement errors. Understanding this adaptation process is critical for informing rehabilitation strategies for individuals with neurological damage or disease. This work was performed in the Laboratory for Computational Motor Control, under the direction of Dr. Reza Shadmehr, professor of biomedical engineering. In addition, much of the credit for this work goes to our close collaborators, Drs. Yoshiko Kojima and Robijanto Soetedjo from the University of Washington National Primate Center.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Department of Biomedical Engineering in particular have been my home for more than seven years. I completed my Ph.D. with Dr. Reza Shadmehr in the Laboratory for Computational Motor Control. Dr. Shadmehr and I have uncovered a number of very interesting contributions of the cerebellum to the control of movements across multiple movement domains, including reaching and eye movements. I remained at Johns Hopkins, in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, to perform a short postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Shadmehr. My goal during this postdoc was to continue our investigation of the cerebellum’s role in correcting for movement errors.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

Receiving the Paul Ehrlich Award is truly humbling. Dr. Ehrlich is a legend in microbiology and medicine, and is truly a scientific role model. Receiving the Ehrlich Award is an inspiration. There are few individuals who have contributed so greatly to our understanding of disease. My career goal is to help individuals with neurological disorders and disease. Hopefully, I can live up to the excellent role model in Dr. Ehrlich. 

What contributed to your project's success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

All scientific projects are a collaborative effort. This work is certainly no exception; much of the project’s success is due to the amazing contributions of my mentor, Dr. Reza Shadmehr, as well as our collaborators, Drs. Yoshiko Kojima and Robijanto Soetedjo at the University of Washington National Primate Center. Each person brings unique skills to the table, with the goal of understanding a complex problem.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

I am truly thankful that the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has instituted such a wonderful celebration of the accomplishments of graduate student and postdocs. Science is difficult. Many, or most of the time, experiments fail. Sometimes, I feel that it is hard for graduate students/postdocs to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Young Investigators’ Day provides an excellent venue to support the hard work and countless hours spent in the pursuit of scientific truth for many of these individuals.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

I recently moved from Johns Hopkins to Duke University. On my last day, my mentor for the last seven years, Dr. Reza Shadmehr, threw a party for me, inviting many other principal investigators and graduate students who I had worked with during my tenure at Johns Hopkins. The whole experience was incredibly moving—not only that my mentor had planned this for me, but that people were so excited to wish me well on the next stage of my scientific journey.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I recently moved from Johns Hopkins to Duke University to pursue a second postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Dr. Stephen Lisberger. My overall goal is to peruse an NIH K99/R00 grant, which will provide some initial funds for an independent laboratory position.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

I don’t know if it makes me unique, but I recently got engaged to my wonderful girlfriend. She is an M.D./Ph.D. student at Princeton and Rutgers universities. I couldn’t be more excited to marry this wonderful woman who has been such an integral part of my life.


Corrine Kliment

The Physician Scientist Research Award

Project Details

​I completed my research in the laboratory of Dr. Doug Robinson in cell biology. My goal for my pulmonary fellowship training was to identify pathways that, for the first time, halt or reverse the damage seen in chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD) using basic science techniques and a model organism. As a lung disease, COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., with cigarette smoking being a major risk factor. My work in the laboratory of Doug Robinson has led to the identification of new pathways in lung biology and laid the groundwork for my future early career investigations. Utilizing a discovery platform that extends from a model organism, Dictyostelium, which is a type of amoeba, to mouse and human models, we identified a protein called adenine nucleotide translocase (ANT) as protective against cigarette smoke. ANT transports a compound called adenosine triphosphate in mitochondria, the cell’s powerhouse. Surprisingly, we found it localizes to cilia, which are tiny, hairlike growths on cells, in the human airway, where it enhances airway hydration and protects ciliary function in the context of cigarette smoke. This provides a potential pathway for small molecule or gene therapies for COPD.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Johns Hopkins provides a rich environment with a well-rounded, supportive and enduring network of colleagues and collaborators that allows for amazing research advances. I have found that these activities and interactions are critical for my transition to research independence and have been invaluable in helping me reach my career vision of patient-focused research by advances in basic science.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

It is an honor to receive this award recognition at a time in a physician-scientist's career that can be one of the most difficult but also the most rewarding and exciting.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

I entered my postdoctoral research with the goal of gaining new skills in model organisms and cell biology that would complement my previous graduate research experience. One of the major factors impacting the success of my project was my mentoring team. A strong mentoring relationship is invaluable and made me a more well-rounded scientist, speaker and manager.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

Young Investigators’ Day is a time to celebrate and support the next generation of scientists. It is truly amazing to see the breadth of cutting-edge research that is going on at Johns Hopkins at all levels, including the collaborations that form across departments, divisions and schools. This day highlights the unique strengths and creative work that is being done.

What has been your best or most memorable experience while at Hopkins?

Some of the most memorable and humbling experiences for me at Johns Hopkins have been transitioning in one day from caring to a critically ill patient in the ICU to finishing an experiment in the lab. Johns Hopkins truly fosters bench-to-bedside work. My patient interactions motivate me scientifically to explore new questions and work that may someday improve outcomes for our patients.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

​I am finishing my final clinical rotations in pulmonary and critical care medicine and will move on to my first faculty position as a physician-scientist.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

As a mom of two kids, one of which is a newborn, I love spending my time making memories with them, including sharing my love of cooking and music. During college, medical school and residency, I was involved in a capella and other singing groups.


Xia Lei

The Helen B. Taussig Research Award

Project Details

Many secreted proteins circulating in the blood are responsible for the altered metabolic parameters in patients with obesity and diabetes. In Dr. Wong’s lab, we study a novel family of secreted proteins called CTRPs, many of which appear to be metabolically relevant. My project provided the first genetic and physiological evidence that one of these proteins, known as CTRP6, functions as a secreted metabolic/immune regulator linking obesity to adipose tissue inflammation and insulin resistance. The results are promising and can potentially guide researchers in the development of new therapeutic targets for the treatment of obesity and diabetes.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Johns Hopkins was my dream school for postdoc training when I was a graduate student in China. It is well-known for its leading biomedical research. When I finally got here, the great academic atmosphere really attracted me. Great faculty, plenty of opportunities for collaboration, numerous seminars and workshops, and extensive discussion with peers all helped me to grow in my research field. This excellent environment filled my postdoc life with challenges and excitement.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

I am truly honored to receive this award. It means a lot to me, especially now, near the end of my postdoc training, as it makes me feel that my research in these several years is valued and recognized. I feel so inspired and more confident to take the next steps to become an independent investigator. This award will be a reminder for me to learn from Dr. Taussig and continuously contribute my career to medical research.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

My project would not be successful without Dr. Wong’s guidance and my lab members’ support. I also got support from a two-year postdoctoral fellowship from the American Heart Association. During this project, I was trained with independent thinking, careful observation and proficient animal-handling techniques, especially hydrodynamic tail vein injection.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles students and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

Young Investigators’ Day offers a great opportunity for students and postdocs to get their work evaluated by a committee. The awards will give tremendous encouragement to young investigators in their future careers.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

Our lab shares a large laboratory space as well as many instruments with several other labs, which is so convenient for lab-to-lab communication. We also have joint lipid lab meetings, which provide an opportunity for thought exchange among several labs with common research interests in lipid metabolism. In the lab, people are really friendly and always help each other, especially when we do metabolic tests for our mice. In addition to enjoyable research, I met my husband here.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I will apply for a faculty position this fall, and I plan to establish my own lab and continue my research on glucose and lipid metabolism, as well as pathophysiology of obesity and diabetes.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

I enjoy playing badminton with my husband and our friends. I also really like gardening—it is so joyful to watch the growth of every amazing life from seed to plant.


Haiyun Liu

The A. McGehee Harvey Research Award

Project Details

Atopic dermatitis (AD), or eczema, is an inflammatory skin disease that affects 20 percent of children and about 5 percent of adults. Staphylococcus aureus colonization during AD contributes to skin inflammation, but the underlying mechanisms are unclear. We demonstrate that S. aureus-driven skin inflammation is mediated by bacterial toxin PMSα and the protein produced in our skin called IL-36. We found that normal mice develop scaly and inflamed skin after S. aureus colonization, but the genetically engineered mice lacking IL-36 activity had almost no skin inflammation. Therefore, IL-36 could be a potential biologic treatment target for AD. This research was done at Dr. Lloyd Miller’s lab in the Department of Dermatology.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Johns Hopkins has tremendous resources for research with cutting-edge technology and a wide range of collaborations. It is a great environment for postdoctoral training.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

It is a great honor to receive the A. McGehee Harvey Award, which recognizes our research accomplishment. This rewarding experience will encourage me to pursue my future career in biomedical science.

What contributed to your project's success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

The major contributor to the success of this project is my mentor, Dr. Lloyd Miller, who has been extremely supportive every step of the way during the course of this project. Also, it wouldn’t have been possible without the help from my lab members. Their intellectual input and technical support are the driving force for the success of this project.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

Young Investigators’ Day not only encourages scientific communications among young researchers at Johns Hopkins but also recognizes their accomplishments. It is a great way to nurture the future generation of scientists in their path to a successful career.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

Working in Lloyd’s lab has been my most memorable experience at Johns Hopkins. The lab culture is very collaborative and fun, which helps the research to be done in an efficient way without too much stress.​

What are your plans over the next year or so?

My plan is to finish up my current project and look for industry positions.​

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

My son was born while I was working at Johns Hopkins. He is 5 months old now and starting to develop eczema, with very dry, scaling and itchy skin. Currently, treatments are mainly limited to topical corticosteroids, which only temporarily manage the symptoms. This makes me appreciate the importance of our research: trying to find a more specific target and long-lasting treatment for eczema.


Rengyun Liu

The Paul Ehrlich Research Award

Project Details

As a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Mingzhao Xing, I have been working on deciphering how genetic alterations contribute to thyroid tumorigenesis. We found that the genetic duet of BRAF and TERT promoter mutations identified the highest mortality risk in patients with papillary thyroid cancer and represented a robust molecular prognostic profile for this cancer. We explored the underlying molecular mechanism by focusing on the activation of mutant TERT by the BRAF V600E/MAP kinase pathway. We have demonstrated that in this process FOS, through acting as a novel transcriptional factor of GABPB promoter, increases the expression of GABPB, which in turn binds and activates the mutant TERT promoter. This functionally bridges the two oncogenes in cooperatively promoting oncogenesis, providing important cancer biological and clinical implications.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose Johns Hopkins for two reasons: One, Johns Hopkins is a well-known research institution; Two, my adviser, Dr. Xing, is a leading scientist in the field of thyroid cancer.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

Receiving this award is a wonderful honor for me, which means a lot to me both personally and professionally. I am extremely encouraged and motivated by this award to continue my vigorous effort to pursue a scientific career.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

My strong interest in pursuing science and persistent curiosity in exploring natural phenomena are a constant driving force for my motivation of effort in my research work. I am extremely grateful for the guidance and mentoring of my adviser, Dr. Xing, who teaches me to think critically and independently, gives me freedom to pursue my curiosity and provides me with strong support. I also benefit greatly from the wonderful relationship among all the lab members; their constant friendship, advice and support are indispensable to my success here in the lab. 

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles students and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

It provides a great opportunity for young investigators to share their works with the Johns Hopkins community and to interact with each other, ultimately encouraging all the young investigators to pursue their dream of a scientific career.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

It is the wonderful relationship among the people around me and the friendship I received from them that will particularly last in my memory.

What are your plans over the next year or so? 

Having been trained here for nearly five years, I am now looking for a faculty position in a scientific research setting.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

I love to play guitar and watch NBA and soccer games. Now, the happiest thing I am enjoying is playing with my lovely 2-year-old daughter.


Jingchuan Luo

The Hans Joaquim Prochaska Research Award

Project Details

Extant species have wildly different chromosome numbers, even among taxa with relatively similar genome size (e.g., insects). Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, while chimpanzee and other apes have 24. One human chromosome is a fusion product of the ancestral state. The jack jumper ant has the smallest chromosome number possible, with only one pair of chromosomes. This raises the interesting question: How well can a species tolerate a change in “n” without significant changes to genome content? Yeast is easy to engineer, and its 16 chromosomes have been fused before, but only up to 12. We have pushed the limits of chromosome fusion from 12 to two in Saccharomyces cerevisiae using CRISPR-Cas9. Surprisingly, the strain with only two chromosomes grows without major defects compared to wild type. In heterotypic crosses (n=8 X n=16), sporulation was arrested, with drastically reduced full tetrad formation detected and under 1% spore viability. These results indicate that as few as eight chromosome-chromosome fusion events suffice to isolate strains reproductively. The set of strains with varying chromosome number described here may be useful to tackle various and distinct biological questions; for example, aspects of recombination during meiosis, replication origin timing, or the role of yeast 3-D nuclear structure in transcriptional regulation or recombination donor preference, to name a few. I did the fusion chromosome project in the lab of Dr. Jef Boeke.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is an internationally recognized research institute, having made major biological and medical research discoveries. The Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology Graduate Program was the best fit for my research interests and my skill set, providing training of a multidisciplinary approach to science.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

When I was in my junior year of graduate school, I enjoyed listening to talks and posters presented at Young Investigators’ Day. The winners have done excellent work at Johns Hopkins, and I admire them as my peer role models. By receiving this award, I feel honored to be among them. In addition, my work is being recognized, which gives me a lot of motivation moving forward in my career.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)? 

Many factors contributed to my project’s success. The first and most important one is guidance from my mentor, Jef Boeke. His enthusiasm and good sense for science, as well as patience and support of his students, inspired and guided me through my graduate studies.Equally appreciated, he always gives me opportunities to learn and grow, such as giving talks. In addition, the input of my committee members was vital. This project started because of an interesting question raised by one of my committee members, Brendan Cormack. Without that question, we may have not been working on this right now. Finally, Jef’s lab is full of people tackling big ideas using a multidisciplinary approach—nowhere else could this research happen.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

I think it’s a very exciting and meaningful event, where students and fellows have this opportunity to get together to share their latest scientific discoveries and celebrate cool findings. I feel like the best moment in science is when you can finally share your results with others.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

Early in my graduate work, I had a tough situation of having to switch labs and then moving to New York with Jef. Thanks go to my committee members at that time and my program director, Carolyn, for helping me and encouraging me to chase my dreams. I definitely made the right decision. Not only this, but during my time at Johns Hopkins, I always felt supported by the program.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I’m graduating this year. I will wrap up my other projects in the Boeke lab and look for a postdoctoral position.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

In my spare time, I do Chinese painting. My dream is one day to publish my scientific work in a good journal with my Chinese painting as the cover. I also like traveling and living in different cities, to experience being a local rather than a tourist. 


Firas Mawase

The Alfred Blalock Research Award

Project Details

Stroke is one of the most common causes of physical disability worldwide, and the majority of people with stroke experience impairment of movement. Lesions to the motor areas in the brain following a stroke cause deficits in generating isolated finger movements, thus limiting basic daily functions. Unfortunately, conventional rehabilitation strategies fail to improve hand dexterity in the chronic stage of the stroke. In our study, we developed a novel motor skill training protocol and showed that individualized and intense motor skill training improves finger dexterity and basic hand functions, and reduces abnormal finger flexion synergy in people with chronic stroke. I am doing my research in the Human Brain Physiology and Stimulation Lab directed by Dr. Pablo Celnik at the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I was interested in understanding how the brain recovers after injuries as well as in developing better, easier and quicker solutions for the recovery process. I found that Johns Hopkins is unique because it is home to experts in clinical practice and research, and it integrates clinical practice and research, making it an ideal location to tackle challenging clinical problems with cutting-edge approaches.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

I feel extremely honored to have received this significant award. This award has encouraged me to continue to pursue scientifically founded and clinically relevant research projects. I believe in the core values of the Young Investigators’ award because giving it to the fellows has a profound impact on them and also has the potential to impact society through his or her current and future work. I don’t have connection with the award I received.

What contributed to your project's success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

My persistence, interest in stroke recovery, analytic and clinical skills, and, most importantly, the great opportunity to work with my talented mentor and colleagues all contributed to the success of my research.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

The Young Investigators’ Day provides a very important stage for supporting personal and professional development. This day harnesses the interpersonal and teamwork research skills, and further ignites an ambition for leadership and scholarship among the recipients.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

Working with people with stroke who have different backgrounds, abilities and challenges has been immensely rewarding. Also, collaborating with talented colleagues has been an extremely memorable experience at Johns Hopkins.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I am expecting to open my own lab as a principal investigator in a department of biomedical engineering in Israel, my home country, starting on fall 2018.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

I enjoy the time with my two little kids. Despite their young ages, they have taught me lessons in responsibilities, efficiency and persistence. In my free time, I enjoy playing soccer, running and cooking.


Yuchuan Miao

The Michael A. Shanoff Research Award

Project Details

We study cell migration, a process that plays fundamental roles in normal physiology and disease conditions such as cancer metastasis. We are particularly interested in waves of cytoskeleton and signaling molecules observed near the surface of cells, and my project focused on how they are generated and what roles they play in cell migration. We developed tools to fine-tune wave propagation, and found that properties of these waves determine the types of protrusions that cells use to move around. With different types of protrusions, cells display distinct modes of motility. Our research provides causal evidence to support the idea that waves drive cell migration and shines light on why various cells move in different ways.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Johns Hopkins is a world-renowned institution on biomedical research; working here was always my dream.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

I am very humbled to receive the Michael A. Shanoff Award. This honor brings me tremendous encouragement for my future pursuit of academic careers.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

I am thankful for all the guidance and freedom my mentors gave me. Help from colleagues and hard work also lead to the findings in my project.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles students and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

Students and fellows contribute greatly to the excellence in research at Johns Hopkins and Young Investigators’ Day serves as a recognition and encouragement to them all.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

Running to catch the last JHMI shuttle was my daily exercise.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I plan to graduate soon and move on for postdoctoral research.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

I enjoy cycling, swimming, traveling, singing and learning languages. I believe that colorful activities outside labs are essential to one’s health and success.


Hideki Nakamura

The W. Barry Wood, Jr. Research Award

Project Details

Cells are the smallest unit of life that make up our body. However, a single cell is not just a single compartment; it is further divided into even smaller subcompartments, each of which is specialized in a certain biological function that enables the cell to maintain life. Among these various subcompartments, dropletlike organelles (also referred to as biomolecular condensates in recent reports) have been drawing more and more attention. They are rather newly discovered, the most dynamic class of subcellular compartments, whose behavior resembles that of liquid droplets or hydrogels. Without the surrounding lipid bilayer membrane, they can be assembled and disassembled within a relatively short period of time. These dynamic features are thought to be critical for the organelles for proper spatiotemporal regulation in a wide variety of biological contexts, including gene expression and stress response in many pathophysiologies. However, the mechanism of assembly and disassembly of the dropletlike organelles is unknown, in part due to the lack of techniques that can perturb the processes. Therefore, I developed a technique, iPOLYMER, that can manipulate the assembly of dropletlike organelles in living cells by chemicals or light irradiation. For this purpose, I used techniques in the synthetic biology field to induce sol-gel phase transition, one of the physicochemical mechanisms that have been related to the assembly of dropletlike organelles. Using iPOLYMER, I succeeded in synthetically mimicking stress granules, a well-known example of a dropletlike organelle, in living cells. These results suggested that sol-gel phase transition can be the underlying mechanism that regulates the assembly of the organelles. Furthermore, the results clearly demonstrated that iPOLYMER is a promising tool to elucidate the regulation of the dropletlike organelle assembly. Development of iPOLYMER can thus open up a new era in the research on dropletlike organelles, providing profound insights into both physiological and pathophysiological processes.

The research was done in the Takanari Inoue lab (Department of Cell Biology, Center for Cell Dynamics).

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

In my previous lab, I was a collaborator with my current lab (Takanari Inoue). As a collaborator, I could feel the energy and open-mindedness of the labs at Johns Hopkins, which attracted me most when I was planning the next step in my career.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

The award means a lot to me both personally and professionally. Personally, being awarded, I finally feel as if I’m becoming more well-adjusted to the research culture in the U.S., away from my homeland, Japan. The transition has been largely painless due to the people around me, especially my family, my principal investigator (Takanari Inoue) and all the lab members. Despite this, the decision to move abroad to pursue a postdoc is one of the more significant decisions I have personally had to make. Although the award, in name, is for research, it also marks an important milestone for me in my own personal journey. On the professional front, the award is an enthusiastic support for my own approach to biology. I have been in the field of synthetic biology, which aims to synthetically manipulate various biological processes by developing various rationally designed tools. Although not widely accepted at the moment, the award is an important symbol of encouragement that synthetic biology, although relatively young, is a promising field.

What contributed to your project's success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

First of all, excellent work by Albert A. Lee, a visiting student who performed many of the experiments that established the story of the current research, laid the foundation for success. Without his enthusiasm and hard work, on top of all the support from other lab members, it would have been almost impossible for me to get this research done.

From my side, my academic background probably helped me a lot. I majored in nonlinear physics as a student, and then moved to biological research after getting my Ph.D. Since then, I belonged to several labs with different disciplines, such as molecular biology, biochemistry, fluorescence imaging, electrophysiology and synthetic biology. The experiences in those various research fields helped me get through all the difficulties, directly and indirectly.

Last, but not least, patient and insightful mentoring by my principal investigator, Takanari Inoue, guided me through this academic journey. I have been impressed by his vision and logical way of thinking all through the research, and I think I learned so much through my discussions with him.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

I think Young Investigators’ Day provides many students and fellows with a good motivation, and I am no exception. Also, it gave me an opportunity to reconsider the broader appeal of my research, which is a point of view often overlooked.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

I have been enjoying the time I spend in the lab, doing experiments, having discussions and chatting with my lab mates. Although we have had many fun activities outside the lab, that would be the best experience for me.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I am now trying to get another project to be published. In parallel, I have started searching for faculty positions.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

I like reading books and watching sports. I also enjoy scuba diving, but I haven’t had many chances to dive recently. I often dream to do some research on muscle physiology during the exercise or on physiology during diving someday so that my hobbies can be beneficial for my professional career.


Oluwaseun Ogunbona

The Alicia Showalter Reynolds Research Award

Project Details

Mitochondria are the cell’s powerhouses that provide the vast majority of all energy needed to run cellular activities. The energy comes in the form of a compound called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is made by a process referred to as oxidative phosphorylation. Oxidative phosphorylation is critical to tissues in the body that have a high energy demand and require the action of a transport protein, the adenosine diphosphate (ADP)/ATP carrier, which is what I study. This protein carries both ATP and ADP across the inner mitochondrial membrane in opposite directions to each other (ATP out of and ADP into the mitochondria), and the absence of this function is enough to stop ATP production by the mitochondrion. Proteins of the mitochondria and other cellular compartments are made either from cytoplasmic translation (majority of the proteins in the cell) or mitochondrial translation (few mitochondrial proteins). My research started with the aim of understanding how a mutation in the human ADP/ATP carrier caused a disease in a patient who presented with cardiomyopathy and myopathy (heart muscle and skeletal muscle dysfunction, respectively). Using a series of genetic and biochemical studies in yeast, we discovered that the activity of the ADP/ATP carrier is important for optimal mitochondrial translation.

In the field of mitochondrial biology, this discovery is an important one. For more than two decades, the reason why mutations in the ADP/ATP carrier protein cause defective oxidative phosphorylation have been elusive. Our intriguing finding established a novel link between energy regulation and the synthesis of proteins in the mitochondrion. This research was done in the lab of Dr. Steven Claypool in the Department of Physiology.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

In the final year of medical school, I decided that my next career move will be to do a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences, preferably cell physiology, in a reputable foreign institution. Because of this, I applied to five programs in three top-class United States universities. Having to make a choice among many good options can be difficult, but fortunately, I got accepted into the Cellular and Molecular Physiology Program at Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins has outstanding faculty members who are doing cutting-edge science. The opportunity to collaborate and share resources with many other departments is an advantage.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

Immediately after I got the email message that I am one of the winners of the Young Investigators’ award, I wanted to know about the life of Alicia Showalter Reynolds, for whom this award is named. I discovered that she was last seen alive on March 2, 1996, exactly 22 years from the day I was reading this information. The investigation is still ongoing to identify her killer. I could only imagine what a great loss the then 25-year-old Johns Hopkins pharmacology graduate student, with a great and promising career as a scientist, was to family, friends and the world. It is even more saddening that the case is still considered open and justice has not been served. As a young scientist, receiving this award is a motivation to continue to do everything I can to make the world a better place for all. Whether it is at the bench doing experiments, at the bedside being involved with patient management or in society providing representation and advocacy, I hope it can truly be said of me that I am doing my best to ensure that everyone, irrespective of race, gender, accent, tribe, color, creed, disability, place of origin, socioeconomic or political status, is treated justly and equitably.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

Based on my assessment, I will say that my project’s success is based on the combination of many factors. Foremost is the guidance I received from my mentor, Dr. Steven Claypool. It would have been next to impossible to complete my project in the time frame if not for all the help I received from him. I also have the opportunity of being surrounded with many people to motivate and advise me every time it seems I have hit the rocks in my project. Finally, I had a clear goal for graduate school, and this is to make a significant contribution, however little, to advance the knowledge and understanding of the molecular basis of diseases. Therefore, though it seemed the process of learning techniques and solving the research question was slow and tortuous, I was very patient, and my interest and passion for a career in academic medicine sustained me through.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

I first found out about Young Investigators’ Day in my early days at Johns Hopkins. My interest in applying for the award, which was very high initially, began to diminish over time as I worked on my project, since it looked like the rapid progress I anticipated was not forthcoming. I think the Young Investigators’ Day program is an emphatic statement by the leaders at Johns Hopkins that students and fellows really matter and deserve recognition for their excellent work. It is a good thing to be celebrated, especially when it is truly deserving, and I know every trainee at Johns Hopkins will get some sort of motivation from the program.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

When I first came from Nigeria to the United States, I was very happy, and this was one of the best moments of my life. However, everywhere and everything was so different and sometimes confusing that, at some point, I began to wonder if this was due to the cultural shock or that I was not as smart as the people who gave me the opportunity and believed in me thought. In hindsight, I can see how much transformation has occurred, and my life has changed tremendously. The days of humble beginnings are truly memorable.

What are your plans over the next year or so? Graduating, looking for faculty positions, etc.?

I am graduating soon. In line with my career aim to be a physician-scientist, I will be starting clinical residency training on July 1 at my No. 1 choice program, which is the pathology residency research track at Emory University, a physician-scientist training program. In this program, I will focus on acquiring pathology clinical training, completing a fellowship and doing postdoctoral research for a couple of years, with the aim of securing a career transition research grant.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

Everyone is unique, and I think my successes and failures as an individual make me who I am and different from others. While it is impossible to give a synopsis of my life here, I hope that this piece is interesting enough to inspire someone reading it that they are capable of achieving their childhood dreams. Unknown to many people, I have been hearing-impaired from childhood and did not come to full knowledge and acceptance of this until I came to the United States after medical school training in Nigeria. I am grateful to everyone at Johns Hopkins for accommodating me in every possible way and to my department for paying for my first set of hearing aids. Finally, as a young boy, I loved playing soccer more than reading (yes!), and my team spirit probably developed from this hobby. Since I arrived Johns Hopkins, I have played in many indoor soccer tournaments at the Denton A. Cooley Center, and our team was the champion at least once and a finalist many times.


Debangshu Samanta

The Daniel Nathans Research Award

Project Details

One research interest of the Semenza lab is to unravel how the HIF-1 gene plays an important role in critical aspects of cancer biology, including tumor angiogenesis, regulation of glucose and energy metabolism, invasion, metastasis and resistance to chemotherapy.

Triple-negative breast cancers (TNBCs) are defined by the lack of expression in genes, including estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2. Chemotherapy is the primary established systemic treatment for TNBC, both in the early and advanced stages, with a durable response rate of less than 20 percent. Thus, it is critical to understand the properties of TNBC cells that survive chemotherapy in order to reduce patient mortality. Through my research, I identified how the hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs) orchestrate both the intrinsic and acquired resistance in TNBC.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Johns Hopkins is a world-renowned research institute, a trailblazer of biomedical research. I also consulted with the faculties at Vanderbilt. The consensus was the environment at Johns Hopkins was very supportive and collaborative. Finally, it gave me the privilege to work with a world-renowned scientist, Dr. Gregg Semenza.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

I am very honored and humbled to receive this award. Personally, this award gives me the confidence to strive to solve challenging problems in cancer biology. Professionally, this award means that biomedical experts have recognized my research contributions.

What contributed to your project's success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

I have been incredibly fortunate to have Dr. Semenza as an adviser. He has given me the intellectual freedom to pursue the questions and ideas that I find most interesting but also provided me clear guidance when I needed it. The collaborative environment at Johns Hopkins also contributed to my project’s success. As a postdoc, I have collaborated with five different labs at Johns Hopkins. Finally, the unique privilege at Johns Hopkins to walk into neighboring labs and ask for reagents, permission to use their equipment or get advice is amazing and critical to getting things done on time.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

The Young Investigators’ Day is an excellent celebration adopted by Johns Hopkins leadership to recognize the contribution made by the young scientists. The Young Investigators’ Day award has now become one of the major accomplishments I have made here.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

My best experience while at Johns Hopkins was learning different things, which ranged from learning new biology, to establishing and managing collaborations, to mentoring junior scientists.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I plan to start my own lab. I will be applying next fall.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

My parents migrated from the tiny island country of Malta to New York City with many dreams and ambitions but little money or education. More than anything, they wanted their children to have the best schooling possible, to give us the opportunities they never had. Their lessons not only formed the foundation of my effectiveness at the bench and in the classroom; they ignited my desire to make the world a better place, a desire I ultimately came to see as linked with my love of neuroscience.


Kyle Severson

The Bae Gyo Jung Research Award

Project Details

Touch is an intrinsically active sense. As humans primarily use our hands to actively gather tactile information, mice use their whiskers to explore their environment. Leveraging the mouse whisker system as a model for active touch, we focused on understanding the mechanical sensitivity of a type of touch receptor called the Merkel cell-neurite complex. Employing optogenetics, electrophysiology and mechanical models, we found that these touch receptor neurons reliably encode features of both object touch and whisker position.

This remarkable mechanical sensitivity supports the Merkel cell-neurite complex’s hypothesized role in perception of object shape. Furthermore, this work adds evidence that we should model touch and proprioception, the sense of body position, within a unified mechanical framework. These models could be particularly important for our basic understanding of touch perception, as well as engineering touch and proprioceptive feedback in prosthetics and robotics.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose to do my thesis work at Johns Hopkins because of the rich collaboration among many successful faculty members, fellows and students. Researchers at all stages of their careers work together as peers to answer interesting scientific questions. Furthermore, the Department of Neuroscience is like a family who is always there to support you, whether or not you think you need it.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

This award is recognition of the hard work I put into my research. Future mentors will see that Johns Hopkins faculty highlighted my scientific contributions. I am honored to be among my friends and other outstanding colleagues who were also lucky enough to win an award at Young Investigators’ Day.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

I was incredibly fortunate to work under the mentorship of Dan O’Connor. He trained me to always collect high quality data, even when experiments were particularly demanding. I was also fortunate to work alongside many talented graduate students and postdocs in my lab area and across Johns Hopkins. Duo Xu worked exceptionally hard on the computational aspects of my project. I also owe special thanks to Ling Bai in David Ginty’s lab, whose genetics expertise added considerable value to this project.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles students and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

This award is a testament to Johns Hopkins’ appreciation for students and postdocs. Trainees are the lifeblood of research universities. I believe that our fresh eyes and stubborn determination are critical to drive new discoveries.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

My most memorable experiences were dinners with fellow foodies in my program. We have enjoyed cooking dishes together and eating at restaurants in Baltimore, D.C., and at the Society for Neuroscience meetings.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

Over the following year, I plan to graduate and start a postdoc. I hope to continue researching questions related to touch perception. With the time I have left at Johns Hopkins, I intend to finish a couple exciting projects and pass on this line of work to the next generation of students and postdocs in the O’Connor lab.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

In my free time, I enjoy playing soccer with my teammates in the Baltimore recreational leagues.


Kousik Sundararajan

The Mette Strand Research Award

Project Details

Understanding and manipulating bacterial growth is important for medical and pharmaceutical advances. How a bacterial cell divides is a complex biological process driven by the coordinated efforts of more than two dozen proteins. The most essential and conserved of these proteins is FtsZ, which forms a ringlike scaffold called a Z-ring. The Z-ring serves as a platform for the recruitment and organization of the division machinery. I discovered that the structure of the Z-ring and the assembly properties of FtsZ directly regulate cell division proteins. I also discovered and characterized a previously unknown link between FtsZ and the action of cell wall enzymes required for cell division—these enzymes are targets of penicillinlike antibiotics. In addition to providing mechanistic insights into the essential process of bacterial cell division, my project identifies molecular targets for manipulating bacterial cell growth. The cell-free reconstitution method that I developed to study FtsZ can be applied to study other multiprotein machineries that are essential for processes not just in bacteria but also more complex organisms, including humans.

I did my research in Dr. Erin Goley’s lab, in the Department of Biological Chemistry. I also performed a significant portion of my experiments in Dr. Kiyoshi Mizuuchi’s lab at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Johns Hopkins has a nurturing environment and graduate student-friendly lab atmosphere. Coming from an engineering background (B.Tech in Biotechnology) from the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, India, I wanted to apply my training to understanding fundamental processes in biology and prepare for a career in academia. The appreciation for basic science research, fine balance of independence, and constant availability of mentorship, supportive peers and a large alumni network made Johns Hopkins an obvious first choice for my graduate training.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

This award would be one of the first recognitions for my graduate research outside my field of work. It encourages me to keep exploring my scientific curiosities and validates my scientific achievements. I see receiving this award as a sign of doing good science.

As an international graduate student, I have limited opportunities for awards and other recognition of my research. Receiving a highly competitive and reputed award that recognizes a handful of projects across all doctoral and postdoctoral research goes a long way to present me as a competent candidate in my future applications for grants and job prospects in academia.

What contributed to your project's success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

My Ph.D. adviser, Dr. Erin Goley, has been a constant source of inspiration, encouragement and guidance. Her confidence in my ability to learn and master new techniques motivated me throughout my graduate career to overcome hardships in the lab. In addition to her mentorship, useful discussions with my lab mates and the opportunities to collaborate with Dr. Jie Xiao’s lab at Johns Hopkins and Dr. Kiyoshi Mizuuchi’s lab at the National Institutes of Health helped me develop innovative approaches with a quantitative perspective to bacterial cell biology that were instrumental to my project’s success.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

Research in academia is predominantly collaborative. Recognition for the contributions of individual early-career scientists, such as students and postdoctoral fellows, is often diluted. Young Investigators’ Day, in my opinion, is a great opportunity for early-career scientists across disciplines to be acknowledged for their individual contributions to their fields and science in general. It is also a rare platform that recognizes international students and fellows. The talks and poster presentations would serve to extend the impacts of the research performed by early-career scientists beyond their department and across Johns Hopkins.

What has been your best or most memorable experience while at Hopkins?

Learning to do electron microscopy in the Johns Hopkins microscopy core facility with my lab mate Selam Woldemeskel is one of my most memorable experiences at Johns Hopkins. After spending a few hours trying to find correctly stained regions, we were both excited to find organized grayscale patterns under the microscope—only to soon realize that what we thought was FtsZ protein polymers were actually paper fibers from the blotting paper we used! Nevertheless, we were very proud to have imaged something at all in our first trial. We persisted and eventually succeeded in acquiring some of the best resolved images of FtsZ polymers in the field.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I plan to graduate in the end of April 2018. I have a postdoctoral fellow position lined up in Dr. Aaron Straight’s lab at Stanford University, where I plan to study the mechanisms underlying chromosome organization using cell-free reconstitution approaches.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

I love making science-related illustrations, for work, science communication and for fun. I have also converted many of my microscope images of bacteria and bacterial proteins into eye-catching artwork.


Collin Tokheim

The Martin and Carol Macht Research Award

Project Details

Cancer is fundamentally a disease of the genome. Numerous mutations accumulate in tumors, but only a few specific mutations actually “drive” the growth of cancer cells. We took a data science perspective to distinguish these key mutations by analyzing thousands of human cancer samples across 33 different types of cancer. Through developing novel statistical models that interpret the pattern of mutations observed in cancer, we found new genes and mutations associated with cancer. We found that although particular cancer-associated mutations may occur rarely in patients’ cancers, the overall prevalence of rare cancer-associated mutations suggest they have a critical, underappreciated role in cancer. This may have future implications for precision oncology, where interpretation of a cancer genome will need to be increasingly personalized, since key mutations in a patient’s cancer may have not been previously observed. This work was done in the Rachel Karchin lab (departments of Biomedical Engineering and Oncology and the Institute for Computational Medicine).

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

My primary research interests were at the intersection of cancer research and data science. I felt biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins allowed me the unique opportunity to do exactly that.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

It’s a great honor to receive the Martin and Carol Macht Award. Often, research can partly be an individual journey into the less charted areas of science, so to be recognized by senior scientists at Johns Hopkins is especially meaningful. It represents years of hard work and perseverance. 

What contributed to your project's success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

Every great project starts with a great problem. For this, I have to thank Rachel Karchin for her research guidance. I also cannot leave out that having a research fellowship (F31 from NIH/NCI) allowed me the freedom to tackle difficult problems.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

This award embodies the principle that the future of science starts today by recognizing research from those just beginning their careers. I also hope it encourages others to ponder big questions.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

My best experiences have been with my fellow lab members, who have made lab quite fun.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I will be finishing the process of graduating soon and likely will remain in the lab for a few months while I search for postdoctoral positions.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

I’ve bicycled across my home state of Iowa seven times! Hopefully, more states to come. 


Yuxuan Wang

The David Israel Macht Research Award

Project Details

My work in Dr. Bert Vogelstein’s lab focused on the early detection of cancer, a leading cause of deaths worldwide with incidence projected to rise dramatically over the upcoming decades. Most cancer deaths result from tumors that have spread to distant sites. Thus, early detection would allow for the timely initiation of treatment while the tumor is still localized and offers tremendous potential for reducing mortality. We developed sensitive, sequencing-based assays to detect tumor-specific mutations as biomarkers for early disease. These assays have been successfully applied to diagnose various cancer types, such as ovarian and endometrial cancers, in easily collected bodily fluids, such as Pap smear fluid and plasma.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I wanted to train at the forefront of both translational research and clinical medicine in preparation for my career as a physician scientist. Johns Hopkins was clearly my top choice after my interview visit. It struck me with its collaborative environment and unparalleled opportunities for making impactful discoveries.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

It is an incredible honor to receive the David I. Macht Award. The award provides the encouragement and confidence I need to continue tackling challenging questions. I hope to someday make scientific discoveries that would change the practice of medicine — just as Dr. Macht did during his lifetime.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

I was very fortunate to have worked with an amazing team of collaborators around the world.  Each of their important contributions ultimately made this project possible. I especially owe my thanks to my adviser, Dr. Bert Vogelstein, whose scientific rigor, patience and encouragement were the driving forces behind my success. I also have my family to thank for their unconditional love and support, which helped sustain me through every obstacle.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles students and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

To me, Young Investigators’ Day exemplifies not only our institution’s dedication to scientific and translational research, but also its tremendous support of young trainees, like myself, who are early in their careers.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

My most memorable experiences were the annual M.D./Ph.D. retreats. I got to spend the weekend with friends who I have bonded with over the past few years in the program and hear about some of the most exciting research at Johns Hopkins.

What are your plans over the next year or so? Graduating, looking for faculty positions, etc.?

I will be doing a residency at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in internal medicine, followed by a fellowship in oncology.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

I have been teaching group fitness classes at the Johns Hopkins Ralph S. O’Connor Recreation Center since 2009. Teaching these classes every week provides a complete mental break from work and school — it is my best stress relief. 


Shira Ziegler

The Paul Talalay Research Award

Project Details

In Hal Dietz’s laboratory, I focused my doctoral research on pseudoxanthoma elasticum (PXE) — a rare genetic disorder of ectopic calcification, characterized by calcification in the skin, eyes and blood vessels. We discovered that defects in extracellular adenosine triphosphate metabolism drive ectopic calcification in PXE and identified a therapeutic intervention that successfully treated the disease both in vitro and in a PXE mouse model. We believe these findings will not only help patients with this rare disorder, but also inform our approaches to treating more common conditions, such as aortic valve calcification and chronic kidney disease-associated vascular calcification.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose Johns Hopkins for its unwavering commitment to training physician-scientists. I was inspired by the faculty and students and wanted to be part of a community focused on patient-driven research.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

Dr. Paul Talalay was the founder and first director of the Johns Hopkins M.D./Ph.D. program. I admire his continued dedication to the M.D./Ph.D. program — he still attends our retreats! I am honored to receive the award bearing his name.

What contributed to your project’s success (special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)?

My research was motivated by our patients. During graduate school, I had the opportunity to see patients with PXE and other rare disorders of ectopic calcification. We learned from each other; they taught me about manifestations of their disease and I shared with them our advances in the laboratory. Working on a human disease and interacting with patients provides immeasurable insight and perspective and helps move basic discoveries into the clinic.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles students and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?

Young Investigators’ Day is a special opportunity to learn about the breadth of innovative research at Johns Hopkins. Independent research is challenging; it requires vision, persistence and careful, often tedious work — it is important to celebrate graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and their accomplishments.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

Minutes after passing my graduate school qualifying exam, a postdoctoral fellow in the Dietz laboratory convinced me to go sailing. I had never been before! We headed to the docks, rigged a boat and we were off — speeding on the waves of Chesapeake Bay! Over the next couple of months, he taught me how to skipper, and now I take other laboratory members and friends out sailing.

What are your plans over the next year or so? 

I will continue my training at Johns Hopkins, completing a residency in the Harriet Lane combined pediatrics and medical genetics program. I am deeply committed to translational research and fluidity between the clinic and the laboratory. Dual pediatrics and genetics training will allow me to better care for patients, identify relevant research questions and hopefully translate new findings into effective therapies.

Tell us something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

I enjoy exploring, hiking and backpacking through the national parks with my family — favorites include Shenandoah, Acadia and Yosemite.

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