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Meet the 2021 Award Winners

Aitana Azurmendi

P. Aitana Azurmendi

Postbaccalaureate Award

Please describe your research discovery.

I am a student in the Johns Hopkins Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP), working in Sandra Gabelli’s lab in the biophysics and biophysical chemistry department. My work is focused on tailoring g bisphosphonate inhibitors of farnesyl diphosphate synthase (FPPS) as lead compounds for new drugs that target leishmaniasis. I have determined the crystal structure of Leishmania major FPPS in complex with a series of nitrogen-containing bisphosphonates. We have measured their binding kinetics and performed cell assays to discern the features that are ideal for inhibition in vitro and in cells. This is important as, currently, there are no vaccines or drugs to prevent infection, and current treatments have high toxicity and generate drug resistance. Bisphosphonates represent a safer, compelling alternative for the treatment for leishmaniasis as they are currently being used for treatment of osteoporosis. We also hope to utilize these inhibitors against other parasitic diseases such as Chagas disease.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I spent several summers during undergraduate in Dr. Gabelli’s lab. I chose Hopkins because of the mentorship bond I had with Dr. Gabelli. I wanted to experience and expand on my structural biology knowledge beyond the limitations from working in the summer. I knew that at Johns Hopkins, I would be surrounded by groundbreaking research and have numerous opportunities to personally witness the progression of science and innovation.

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

I feel honored to receive the first Postbaccalaureate Award among the numerous talented postbaccalaureates here at Johns Hopkins. This accomplishment rewards the effort I have put into my project and motivates me to continue my work with the highest quality.

What contributed to your project's success?

My mentor and PI, Dr. Gabelli, who has provided encouragement and pushes everyone in the lab into numerous projects and learning endless new skills. I also have been personally mentored by several postdocs in our lab: Katie Wright, Michelle Miller and Sweta Maheshwari. All three have taught me and helped me grow, and I will forever be grateful to them. I have also learned from my experience at PREP and my interactions with my committee members, Shibin Zhou, Jennifer Kavran and Katie Wright, and program director, Kathy Wilson. They have helped me expand and polish my presenting and writing skills. Last, but certainly not least, my family is a constant stream of support and encouragement.

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 highlights the work of researchers at Hopkins at all stages, and gives inspiration and encouragement to attendees. Through YID, we can appreciate the work of our peers and celebrate them. I think this provides a closer sense of community at Hopkins, which I really appreciate.

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

My most memorable experience was getting stuck in the elevator during my first summer at Hopkins. My best experience has been the labwide picnic held each summer. I hope to experience another one before my time here ends.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I look forward to continuing on in my current position and publishing my work in the near future.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I enjoy traveling, hiking and eating new foods. During the pandemic, I have only been able to indulge in the latter, but I hope to take part in my other two interests in the coming months.


Anabel Gonzalez Gil

Anabel Gonzalez-Gil, Ph.D.

A. McGehee Harvey Award

Please describe your research discovery.

Inflammation is the body’s response to clear out pathogens upon infection or initiate tissue repair upon injury. It is a strictly regulated process that follows three general stages: initiation, execution and resolution. While essential to homeostasis, inflammation must be strictly regulated to avoid excessive tissue damage. My work focuses on a fairly recently appreciated family of molecules involved in resolution of inflammation. Siglecs (sialic acid binding immunoglobulin-like LECtins) are cell surface proteins, members of the immunoglobulin-like gene superfamily that bind sialic acid-containing glycans (sialoglycans). Selective expression of Siglecs on subsets of inflammatory cells and their potential to mediate inhibitory signaling through their ITIM motifs makes them appealing therapeutic targets to suppress ongoing inflammation and limit inflammatory tissue damage. Among the inhibitory siglecs is Siglec-8. Siglec-8 is selectively expressed on allergic inflammatory cells (eosinophils and mast cells) in the periphery and microglia in the brain. Crosslinking Siglec-8 by antibody or glycan ligands induces eosinophil apoptosis, inhibits release of inflammatory mediators by mast cells, and is proposed to inhibit microglial phagocytosis. Productive Siglec signaling requires the Siglec and its sialoglycan target (ligand) in tissues. My research spearheaded the discovery of endogenous Siglec-8 sialoglycan ligands on human airways and brain. Since Siglec-8 is uniquely human, I purified Siglec-8 ligands from human trachea, nasal lavage from patients with inflamed and non-inflamed airways, and brain cortex from non-demented and Alzheimer’s disease donors. I discovered that Siglec-8 ligands in all tissues are sialylated keratan sulfates with a characteristic glycan structure having a sialic acid adjacent to a sulfated galactose. This structure is appended to different proteins depending on the tissue. In each case, Siglec-8 ligand expression is upregulated under inflammatory conditions, suggesting tissue-level regulation of ongoing inflammation. Further studies will determine the role of regulated Siglec sialoglycan ligand expression in mediating microglial activity in dementia and allergic inflammatory cells in eosinophilic diseases. This work was done in the lab of Ronald L. Schnaar, Ph.D., in the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences, where we seek to further understand the role of glycans and glycan-binding proteins in diseases affecting humans.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose Johns Hopkins University not only because it is among the top research universities worldwide, but also because I was lured by the collaborative environment and welcoming culture in the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences. Also, the school of medicine has a diverse group of labs studying the role of glycans and glycan-binding proteins in disease and disease progression.

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

Personally, I feel honored to receive this award, especially because I know that my research was chosen out of an “exceptionally large number of excellent applications.” Professionally, I love the opportunity to bring awareness to the importance of glycans and glycan-binding proteins in almost every aspect of biology. In addition, receiving the A. McGehee Harvey Award makes this award even more meaningful to me because Dr. Harvey was an excellent biomedical scientist who focused on human diseases and believed patients themselves were the best teachers of biomedical knowledge. My research focuses on studying human diseases using human tissue because the glycan-binding protein I study has rapidly evolved, and there is no defined ortholog in mouse.

What contributed to your project's success?

Above all, I am grateful for the opportunity I was given to direct and manage my current projects. My project’s success is dependent on many factors. First of all, my grit and desire to fulfill the goals set out for the project have definitely driven its success. As with any research project, there have been many challenges to overcome, but I have persevered. Second, my mentors Ronald L. Schnaar and Jean Kim, have provided their guidance, expertise and time to help me push this project forward. Third, it would have been nearly impossible to cover so much ground and advance the project this far without the help of many collaborators. Kazuhiro Aoki and Michael Tiemeyer from Complex Carbohydrate Research Center in Athens, Georgia, as well as Zaikuan J. Yu and Benjamin Orsburn in Namandjé Bumpus’ lab here at Hopkins in the Department of Pharmacology, who analyzed samples by mass spectrometry. Bruce Bochner at Northwestern University and his lab members performed eosinophil apoptosis assay. James Paulson and Corwin Nycholat at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla provided synthetic glycans for competition assays. Steve Fernandes optimized many of the protocols used in the Schnaar lab, which I have used for my project. Schnaar lab members have also provided support and feedback essential to the project’s progress. In summary, my project’s success is the result of invaluable collaborations that have been key to obtain data that would otherwise be hard or impossible to obtain on my own.

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?

I think it is great to highlight the work of students and fellows at Hopkins. Principal investigators get a lot of opportunities to share their research, but students and fellows do not. Young Investigators’ Day is a great way to give that opportunity to students and fellows.

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

I have enjoyed being able to talk to other Hopkins scientists and trainees whenever I have come across experimental setbacks. It is very comforting knowing that if something goes wrong, an experiment does not work, I can always ask others for their help. For example, when I was having a hard time preparing samples for mass spectrometry analysis, Zaikuan and Benjamin helped me refine the protocol to get purified sample ready for analysis.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I am planning to apply for grants this year, and looking for a faculty position in the near future.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I was born in Cuba and emigrated to the U.S. as a teen. Soon thereafter, my interest in science blossomed when I helped my aunt learn chemistry. I consider myself very modest and shy, answering these questions and talking about myself is quite scary to me. However, I would like to take the opportunity to inspire someone else. We should not let fear stop us from pursuing our goals and dreams. If we persevere, we can and will overcome anything that life throws at us.


Thanh Hoang

Thanh Hoang, Ph.D.

Helen B. Taussig Award

Please describe your research discovery.

Retinal degeneration is the key pathological feature of many blinding diseases such as macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa and glaucoma. While current therapies can slow the progression of vision loss, there is no effective treatment to restore lost retinal neurons. One of the most promising potential therapies is to reprogram Müller glia that are already resident in the retina to replace retinal neurons lost to diseases. Müller glia from non-mammalian vertebrates, such as zebrafish, can be reprogrammed by injury into Müller glia-derived progenitor cells, which can regenerate diverse neuronal cell types, even into adulthood. In contrast, mammalian Müller glia, including humans, do not spontaneously regenerate neurons following injury. As a postdoctoral fellow in Seth Blackshaw’s lab, I performed comparative analysis of Müller glial response to injury across multiple species, zebrafish, chick and mice. We found that, in zebrafish and chick, genes selectively expressed in reactive Müller glia promoted the reprogramming of Müller glia into retinal neurons. In contrast, in mice, a dedicated gene regulatory network repressed the reprogramming of Müller glia. Disruption of nuclear factor I (NFI) transcription factors induces Müller glia to proliferate and generate neurons in adult mice following injury. These findings may aid in designing therapies to restore retinal neurons lost to degenerative diseases.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Johns Hopkins offers an extraordinary environment and resources to do research. I knew Dr. Blackshaw through scientific conferences during my Ph.D. training, and I was really impressed by his top-notch research at Johns Hopkins. I am very proud to be a part of this supportive scientific community.

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 to be a recipient of the award named after Helen Brooke Taussig. She is a powerful role model for the education and advancement of women in science.

What contributed to your project's success?

There are two important factors: mentorship from my adviser and collaboration. First and foremost, Dr. Blackshaw has been providing inspiring mentorship and guidance for my projects. I am also very fortunate to collaborate with brilliant colleagues from multiple labs across several universities.

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 brings scientists together to share their research works and ideas. It is very important to recognize the contributions and achievements of junior investigators, who will be the next generation of scientific leaders.

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

My most memorable experiences are having two wonderful boys delivered here at The Johns Hopkins Hospital during my postdoc training. We cannot thank enough the doctors, nurses and staff.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

My plan is to finish up some ongoing projects and to look for a faculty position. I hope that I will be able to establish my own lab in the near future.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

Being a nature lover, I like outdoor activities, particularly bass fishing. Fishing is an art of patience, composure and timing, which in part resembles doing scientific research.


Thomas Kim

Thomas Kim, Ph.D.

Paul Ehrlich Award

Please describe your research discovery.

The hypothalamus is composed of a diverse array of neuronal and glial cell types, many of which are organized into spatially discrete clusters known as nuclei. The hypothalamus is essential for regulating a broad range of homeostatic physiological processes. Progress in this area has been hampered, however, by the fact that hypothalamic cell types thus far have remained quite poorly characterized. Still, less is known about how hypothalamic cell types acquire their identities during development.

In the lab of Professor Seth Blackshaw, I have utilized rapidly advancing single-cell RNA-Sequencing (scRNA-Seq) technology to analyze the hypothalamus development at cellular resolution and profile changes in gene expression across all developmental stages. I integrate our findings of genes that control hypothalamic regionalization and neurogenesis and findings of gene regulatory networks that control cell identity to generate a Hypothalamic Developmental Database (HyDD). Our HyDD reference atlas is used to address various aspects of developmental biology: 1) comprehensive analysis of complex mutant phenotypes and 2) development of hypothalamic neuronal subpopulations.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose to do my postdoctoral training here at Johns Hopkins because of its excellent reputation as a research institution and very collaborative environment. My research interests aligned well with Professor Blackshaw’s research theme as well.

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 true testimony of the research project my students and I worked so hard on and are very proud of. It is an extreme honor receiving the award named after Paul Ehrlich, who did pioneering groundbreaking research on immunology and chemotherapy.

What contributed to your project's success?

First, excellent guidance by Professor Blackshaw. We have similar research interests and saw a huge opportunity with recently advancing technology to address our research questions.

Second, excellent support from my students: sheer brilliance and great work ethics. I can’t thank my students enough.

Third, collaborative research environment at Johns Hopkins.

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?

The true testimony of everyone’s hard work. I think awards this year are extra special because of the difficulties everyone faced due to COVID-19.

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

When we generated the first successful scRNA-Seq dataset of the developing hypothalamus. Professor Blackshaw and I saw new phases of developmental neuroscience.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I am looking for a faculty position, and I hope to wrap up and publish the rest of the research projects.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I’m from New Zealand. I don’t think there are that many kiwis at Johns Hopkins. I am also a self-proclaimed foodie and enjoy cooking and baking.


Robert Kruse

Robert Kruse, MD, Ph.D.

Physician Scientist Award

Please describe your research discovery.

Gene therapy represents the potential to cure many monogenic diseases, including those of the liver. Adeno-associated virus (AAV) vectors have been used exclusively toward gene therapy of the liver in recent clinical trials, but AAV vectors present numerous disadvantages. Because of antibody responses toward the virus capsid, AAV vectors can’t be redosed. Furthermore, high doses of AAV can yield acute liver injury, and T-cell responses against the capsid can later eliminate gene-modified cells. Viral vectors also have enormous costs, limiting the application of gene therapy to more common diseases.

To solve these issues, I worked with endoscopist Vivek Kumbhari to improve on a method of delivering naked plasmid DNA directly into the liver through the biliary system. Plasmid DNA could enter directly into hepatocytes through pores in the cell membrane when applied at high fluid pressures. Testing was performed in a human-sized pig model with clinical equipment in order to ensure translatability into patient testing. Crucially, I found that the percentage of liver cells expressing the delivered gene exceeded 20%, comparable to the best reported data of AAV in nonhuman primates. Pigs displayed no signs of liver injury, and were able to express transgene for several weeks post-injection. We believe this approach could pave the way for nonviral gene therapy to treat a variety of liver conditions.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Johns Hopkins has the number one residency program in pathology with an amazing group of talented residents and great faculty teachers. Hopkins is also the number one ranked program in numerous other specialties, and the hospital is routinely ranked in the top three in the country. The opportunity to work with the best trainees from around the country at a world-renowned hospital was very attractive. It is a pleasure to experience the most clinically complex cases, while also being at one of the top research institutions in the world.

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

A physician-scientist occupies a unique role across patient care and basic science. Having completed M.D. and Ph.D. degrees before coming to Hopkins, recognition for the Physician Scientist Award validates the training and hard work in my career so far, as I continue to grow into an independent investigator. At an institution like Johns Hopkins with so many truly talented physician-scientists, receiving this award is even more special.

What contributed to your project's success?

The project’s success was driven by an interdisciplinary team comprising different medical specialties (pathology, medicine, endoscopy, surgery) and science backgrounds (gene therapy, stem cells). Moreover, tremendous hustle, long hours, resourcefulness and a collaborative environment at Hopkins helped to complete the 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, trainees and fellows are the backbone of all academic scientific research. I feel a lot of camaraderie when I walk the lab hallways and animal facilities late at night and on weekends and see my fellow brethren working long hours toward achieving scientific breakthroughs to realize their dreams. It’s a huge amount of sacrifice, so I appreciate Hopkins recognizing everyone for their extraordinary efforts.

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

I wrote a nomination letter for an outstanding nurse who had been at Hopkins for over 35 years to be honored as a Service Star. She was utterly surprised and humbled to win the award, but all her nursing peers in the unit couldn’t have been more excited for her to finally be recognized. I got to attend the breakfast in her honor and sit at a table with the hospital president.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

Next year, I will be doing a transfusion medicine fellowship at Harvard Medical School. I will also be looking for faculty positions this coming fall in hopes of launching a physician-scientist career, running a lab while managing patient duties.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I love sports, and have appeared as a cheering fan on TV during College Gameday and the NCAA tournament. I’ve also had the chance to meet sports legends like Yao Ming, Roger Clemens and Tony Hawk in person. I worked as a sports reporter for my college newspaper and interviewed with ESPN for a job, but I ultimately decided to continue with my passion for science and medicine.


Grant Kusick

Grant F. Kusick

Paul Talalay Award

Please describe your research discovery.

I did my research in the lab of Shigeki Watanabe. I study synaptic transmission: how neurons in the brain transfer information between each other by releasing neurotransmitter. Our approach to studying this in the Watanabe lab is unique: We stimulate neurons then freeze them at a specific moment in time so we can examine the structure of the synapse at that exact moment using high-resolution electron microscopy. Using this approach, we discovered that, within 15 milliseconds of neurons being stimulated, synaptic vesicles “dock” themselves into position to be ready to release neurotransmitter. This is a means for synapses to maintain and adjust themselves that hadn’t been considered before, and how this happens and what it does have become a whole line of inquiry for many labs in the past few years, including ours. We think these tiny movements of vesicles help support information processing in the brain.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

The Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology (BCMB) program especially, and Hopkins in general, surprised me by what a welcoming place it was. Over the years, it has only become even clearer to me that the warmth and camaraderie here is unique among places of its kind.

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

Considering all the incredible scientists I know who have been featured on Young Investigators’ Day, I feel lucky to be added to the list.

What contributed to your project's success?

Since my first day as a rotation student in the lab, I have been using a (then) brand-new technique, “zap-and-freeze,” that hasn’t stopped feeding us new discoveries. I owe that to the spirit for developing new techniques and hard work from Shigeki and everybody else that made this new approach a reality. The whole second half of my thesis has also been partly in collaboration with Ed Chapman and Jason Vevea at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it wouldn’t be possible without them (they’re also great guys!).

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?

I think students and postdocs here are supported and their contributions valued more than is often the case. I think having something like Young Investigators’ Day is a symbol of that.

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

The most fun moment was the night of the first BCMB retreat I went to, seeing grad students and faculty at a party having fun together. My favorite science moments were each time I got a major new result that moved the project forward (our data take a long time to collect, and I yelled and hopped up and down each time). 

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I plan to graduate by the end of next year and begin an academic postdoc after that. I will also be taking the physiology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory as part of the transition to the next stage of my career.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I decided I wanted to do biology research as a junior in college, and none of my other interests or career ideas were in the sciences: writing, languages (I was a Spanish double major), theatre (I did acting), and music (I played the guitar). I had to decide between starting in the lab and going to Argentina. I chose the lab.


Xiao Jun Li

Xiao-Jun Li, Ph.D.

W. Barry Wood Jr. Award

Please describe your research discovery.

I am working on hair cell regeneration in murine cochlea. I discovered the mechanism of how supporting cells be reprogrammed and differentiated to hair cells. I also discovered some new progenitor genes in hair cell regeneration.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Johns Hopkins is worldwide famous for its medical school. And there are a lot of famous scientists at Johns Hopkins. I am sure there will be more opportunities at Johns Hopkins.

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

It is my great honor to be chosen for the W. Barry Wood Jr. Award. This is a milestone in my research career as a postdoc.

What contributed to your project's success?

I think the most important is interest. I really like working on hair cell regeneration.

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’s a good opportunity for young scientists to share their research experience and fantastic work with the new Ph.D. and master’s students.

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

For my project, I need to do cochlear surface preparation, which is very difficult. At the beginning, I often asked my mentor, Angelika Doetzlhofer, to help me. She is like a friend, and she was very patient when helping me for the dissection. Sometimes it took her several hours to do the dissection, and she also came on the weekend to help me for the experiment.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

 I am planning to continue working on research.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I like music and swimming.


Yang Liu

Yang Liu, Ph.D.

Paul Ehrlich Award

 
 
 

Sarah Maguire

Sarah Emily Maguire, Ph.D.

Daniel Nathans Award

Please describe your research discovery.

While working in Christopher Potter’s lab in the Department of Neuroscience, I discovered a novel regulatory mechanism that controls the expression of chemosensory genes, “odorant receptors,” on the mosquito’s nose. Odorant receptor regulation is an unexplored but important topic in vector biology because the precise control of this gene family influences a mosquito’s ability to locate and bite humans.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Dr. Potter is widely known as an excellent mentor and behavioral geneticist. When I learned back in 2016 that he developed a set of genetic tools to study olfaction in the malaria mosquito, I couldn’t resist applying to his lab.

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

My research would not be possible without the success of Daniel Nathans (the name of my award), who in 1978 received the Nobel Prize for demonstrating the utility of restriction enzymes in genetic experiments. To study the basic biology of olfaction in mosquitoes, I have used restriction enzymes to create several “transgenic” mosquito lines, or animal lineages that contain foreign pieces of DNA that can manipulate olfactory neuron physiology, trace the anatomy of olfactory circuits, and so forth.

What contributed to your project's success?

My project would not be possible without the hard work and special insight of my two very brilliant collaborators: Ali Afify (postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Potter and recipient of the 2020 Alfred Blalock award), and Loyal Goff, assistant professor of genetic medicine.

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?

What a great tradition Hopkins has established! Students and fellows are the engines powering research projects, and it’s great that Hopkins has created a venue to recognize and encourage their achievements.

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

In 2019, I was awarded a research fellowship from the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies to evaluate olfactory-based vector control strategies. This fellowship gave me the opportunity to work closely and network with parasite and vector researchers at Hopkins and across the world.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

Over the next year, I’d like to write up my final research papers and set sails for the next stage of my career!

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I am passionate about supporting women scientists. While at Hopkins, I co-founded WARP (Women in Academic Research Pathways), an informal forum for women to discuss work-life issues in STEM. I also continue to mentor women at the bench (and now remotely) and have trained about 10 high school, undergraduate and graduate scientists.


Romain Nardou

Romain Nardou, Ph.D.

Paul Ehrlich Award

Please describe your research discovery.

The ability to adapt to a changing environment is constrained across development, with children and adolescents being generally more adaptable compared with adults and the elderly. This observation is captured by the concept of a “critical period.” Cognitive neuroscientists have long speculated on the existence of a critical period for social behavior in humans. My studies conducted in the Dölen Lab are the first to identify and characterize such a critical period. We demonstrate that: 1) animals are maximally sensitive to social reward learning cues during adolescence, 2) this sensitivity declines in adulthood, and 3) these adaptations correspond to a maturational downregulation of oxytocin-mediated synaptic plasticity in the nucleus accumbens, a key brain region of the reward system. Another important discovery is that the atypical psychedelic drug MDMA is able to reopen the social reward learning critical period in adulthood. Clinically, MDMA has been successfully used in treating people with post-traumatic stress disorder, and our studies provide a possible mechanism for its remarkable therapeutic properties. Opening the critical window for social reward behavior has significant implications for understanding the pathogenesis of neurodevelopmental diseases characterized by social impairments, as well as disorders that respond to social influence or are the result of social injury.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Johns Hopkins has an incredible history of scientific and clinical excellence and world-renowned groundbreaking research. The Department of Neuroscience, in particular, has a really strong and collaborative community that I wanted to join.

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 be chosen to receive the Paul Ehrlich Award. This award means a lot personally and professionally, as I see it as a recognition of my work and the dedication that I put into my research. It really motivates me to continue my investigation on scientific problems that interest me in the field of neuroscience, and to move on to the next step of my scientific career.

What contributed to your project's success?

There are many factors that contribute to my project’s success. My mentor, Gül Dölen, believed in the project and gave me key guidance at crucial moments. I have also been lucky enough to work with many talented lab members (special thanks to another postdoc in the lab, Eastman Lewis) but also collaborators who gave me excellent ideas and support across the years. I also feel that my perseverance, especially when I was struggling with the project, helped me with this success. Finally, I want to thank my supportive wife, who always had faith in me during the difficult times and gave me the motivation to complete the 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?

It is great that Hopkins recognizes and celebrates the important role that students and fellows play in the advancement of scientific research. The award not only values our efforts but also builds confidence in our work necessary for the next step in our scientific careers. Concerning the day itself, it will be really interesting to learn about the work of other awardees from very different fields of research.

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

My most memorable experience was when my paper was accepted for publication. After more than a year of reviewing, I felt a combination of achievement, relief and happiness.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I would like to stay in academia. I plan to apply to an independent faculty position this year to run my own research lab studying the neuronal mechanisms underlying the development, organization and modulation of social interaction across an organism’s lifespan.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I am French; I grew up in the South of France between la Provence and les Alpes, and did all my studies at a university located in the national park of Les Calanques near the Mediterranean Sea in Marseille. During my Ph.D., early in the morning I used to run in the Calanques, swim in the sea and run back to the lab to start my experiments. It really helped me de-stress and focus for the day. In my free time, I used to rock climb, but nowadays I really enjoy spending time with my wife and two lovely children.


Michael Noe

Michaël Noë, M.D., Ph.D.

Albert Lehninger Award

Please describe your research discovery.

The work describes how early pancreatic precursor lesions (intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms, or IPMNs) evolve, gather more and more mutations, and become pancreatic cancers. We demonstrated that certain lesions, often found in association with pancreatic cancers, are indeed the precursor to invasive disease. We also showed that mutations in genes associated with the TGF-beta pathway like SMAD4 and TGFBR2 were often mutated at the moment the precursor lesions transformed into cancer. This observation may impact how patients with IPMNs are treated. It is easy to detect these lesions with medical imaging. However, not everybody with such a precursor will develop cancer. Finding this mutation in i.e. DNA extracted from the fluid from these cysts can help decide whether these patients need surgery to remove the cyst. We also showed it takes around three years to develop cancer once you have a high-grade dysplastic precursor lesion: a window of opportunity to identify patients at risk for getting pancreatic cancer and treat them. I started the work in Laura Wood’s lab, where I did the wet lab work. However, I finished the analysis part in Victor Velculescu’s lab, where there was a lot of expertise on sequencing, analyzing and reconstructing phylogeny from very small neoplastic lesions.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I was doing my pathology residency in Utrecht, the Netherlands, when an opportunity arose to do research at Johns Hopkins. My mentors from Utrecht, Johan Offerhaus and Lodewijk Brosens, have sent many fellows before me and have established an unofficial exchange program, although the exchange goes only one way. So, even though I didn’t choose Johns Hopkins myself, I’m still very happy I came here.

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

I’m honored to receive the Albert Lehninger award. I’m also excited to find out what this award will mean for my future. I know that Dr. Lehninger was a great biochemist. I, on the contrary, was not a high flyer in biochemistry during medical school. So, I don’t really have a connection there. My wife, who I met at Hopkins, did her undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and later came to Hopkins, a path similar to Dr. Lehninger’s, who did his Ph.D. at UW Madison and later also came to Hopkins (a really far-fetched connection).

What contributed to your project's success?

I’m glad that I already trained for a couple of years in pathology: It allowed me to recognize the precursor lesions and the invasive cells in the tissue slides during laser capture microdissection. It also helped me to collaborate on many other projects, when other researchers needed tissue slides evaluated. I’m also very thankful for the guidance of Victor Velculescu and Laura Wood. I have learned a lot from their expertise and advice. Finally, my research was done on samples from patients who agreed to participate with this study. The patients came from multiple countries: U.S., Mexico, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, South Korea, Japan and Australia. I would like to thank all these patients, who contributed to this study during the battle they were fighting against pancreatic cancer.

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 a nice tradition. Students and fellows are getting an opportunity to present what they did and learn the important skill of marketing themselves. I also think it is important that people take ownership over their own project and carry it. The trainee often takes the highest risk when committing to a project. A failed project can diminish any prospects of an academic career for the trainee, while a PI often can bet on many different high-risk projects.

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

I feel like I got a sneak peek behind the curtain on how Johns Hopkins works. It is truly a concentration of some very interesting people: Some people are creative thinkers and problem-solvers, others can give great talks. There is no real definition of a scientist: Everybody fills that out their own way. Intellectually, I have really enjoyed the course “Great Experiments in Biology” from Jeremy Nathans. This course was an eye-opener: Dr. Nathans not only tries to explain how nature works, but he explains how we got to this understanding. I’m also glad I met Scott Kern, who is the definition of somebody who thinks differently and became a really great researcher. I think part of the historical success of Johns Hopkins lays in their courage to choose for people who were critical thinkers, who didn’t always agree with the thought leaders or “experts” of the moment and who were brave enough to come to their own conclusions, based on the evidence.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I have decided to finish my pathology residency at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands. Just aiming for a research position is risky business, and these positions are reserved for the happy few. There are so many other factors that influence these things, like meeting the right people who believe in you. I’m excited about the future, and I’m confident that I’ll be able explore and research my own ideas.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I was diagnosed with a cancer myself (Hodgkin lymphoma), a couple of weeks before I would go to Johns Hopkins. I had to postpone my itinerary for six months to undergo chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Initially, I was afraid to go to a doctor with my symptoms, fearing that the whole adventure would be canceled. But everything went well, and three days after my last negative PET scan, I was on a plane to BWI. The whole experience did change my perspective on life a bit. Before this, my ambitions were more “European-sized.” Now, I hope I can make some meaningful contributions, and I’m motivated to make life as interesting as possible: Life is short!


Melesse Nune

Melesse Nune

Alicia Showalter Reynolds Award

Please describe your research discovery.

The eukaryotic DNA is beautifully organized into a nucleosome comprising 147 bp DNA wrapped around an octamer of core histone proteins H2A, H2B, H3 and H4. The nucleosome is the basic repeating unit of a chromatin. The chromatin is decorated with a wide range of reversible histone post-translational modifications that regulate all processes that require access to DNA. Monoubiquitination of histone H2B (H2B-Ub) plays a role in transcription and DNA replication, and is required for the function of a protein complex that is responsible for the assembly and disassembly of nucleosomes called FACT. Dysregulation of H2B-Ub or FACT is associated with a variety of cancers. In Cynthia Wolberger’s lab, my study focused on understanding how FACT and the deubiquitinating enzyme Ubp10 work in concert to govern histone H2B deubiquitination. My work demonstrated that Ubp10 preferentially cleaves free-standing H2A/H2B-Ub dimers much faster than intact ubiquitinated nucleosomes, but that the addition of FACT stimulates Ubp10 activity on nucleosomes. Importantly, my work also demonstrated that disrupting the functions of these proteins in cells leads to defects in transcription and DNA replication. To get a better understanding of the reason behind Ubp10’s low activity on the nucleosomes, I solved the cryogenic electron microscopy (cryoEM) structures of Ubp10 bound to a ubiquitinated nucleosome. The structures revealed that Ubp10 makes several contacts with histones, ubiquitin, and severely alters the nucleosomal DNA at the nucleosome entry/exit site. Ubp10 docks onto the nucleosome in many conformations suggesting that the enzyme doesn’t bind nucleosomes in the correct register that promotes H2B deubiquitination without the help of FACT. The findings from my work highlight novel relationships between H2B monoubiquitination and the role of FACT in destabilizing the nucleosome to assist Ubp10 in H2B deubiquitination.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Hopkins is regarded as one of the best schools in the world for biomedical research. My decision to come to Johns Hopkins was largely based on two reasons. First, Hopkins has a great infrastructure for someone like me who wants to learn the techniques in structural biology. I wanted to be in an environment that has state-of-the-art facilities and world-renowned scientists to learn from. Second, I have always wanted to live in the D.C./Maryland/Virginia area. After being here for many years, my personal and scientific adventures have confirmed that coming to Hopkins was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.

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

I was made aware of the Young Investigators’ Day Award during my second year of graduate studies. Ever since then, I have been thinking about what it would take and what it would feel like to win this award. I’m deeply honored that I was chosen to receive the Alicia Showalter Reynolds Award. It also gave me a boost in my confidence as a researcher.

What contributed to your project's success?

Besides pure hard work, I would not have been successful without the contributions from my scientific collaborators. A portion of my work was done through national and international collaborations with a geneticist at University of Utah (Tim Formosa), a chemist at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Israel (Ashraf Brik), a single-molecule microscopist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (Taekjip Ha), and a biochemist at UT Dallas (Sheena D’Arcy). In addition, the feedback I received about my work from my mentor, Cynthia, and everyone in the Wolberger lab had a great impact on my success.

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?

I think it’s paramount to recognize trainees in events such as Young Investigators’ Day. It not only provides a platform for trainees to showcase their work to an interdisciplinary audience, it also gives them confidence to pursue greater things.

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

My most memorable experience at Hopkins was when I first operated (on my own) the newly installed Titan Krios, a state-of-the-art electron microscope used to look at the high-resolution 3D details of molecular machines in cells. On that day, I spent so many hours setting up cryoEM data collection. A few days later, I was able to determine the 3D structure of the protein complex that I was investigating. This was done with phenomenal speed. Before the Titan Krios was installed at Hopkins, it would take months to years to collect high-resolution data for protein structure determination.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I plan to graduate within the next few months and start a postdoctoral position. I’m excited to expand upon my expertise in cryo-electron microscopy in my postdoctoral training.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I greatly enjoy learning about financial markets. I spend the majority of my free time analyzing stock portfolio and making buy/sell recommendations to family and friends. I also like photography. I’m enthusiastic about capturing my life’s events and freezing them to eternity. I hope someday my family and friends would enjoy seeing the pictures I captured over the years.


James Osei-Owusu

James Osei-Owusu

Martin & Carol Macht Award

Please describe your research discovery.

Acidic pH is crucial for the function of intracellular organelles in the secretory and endocytic pathways. Furthermore, it is one of the pathological hallmarks of many diseases, including cerebral and cardiac ischemia, cancer, infection and inflammation. However, the molecular mechanisms of acid sensing and regulation are not fully understood.

Exposure of cells to acidic conditions activates a ubiquitous proton-activated Clˉ channel, whose molecular identity has been a long-standing mystery in the field. Through an unbiased RNAi screen, the Qiu lab recently identified a novel and evolutionarily conserved membrane protein, PAC (encoded by PACC1 gene), as the proton-activated chloride channel. The discovery of such a new ion channel represents a major breakthrough, making it possible to reveal its fundamental structural and functional properties. I joined the Qiu lab when it opened its door at Hopkins five years ago, and decided to focus on this exciting new Clˉ gatekeeper.

Taking advantage of single-particle cryo-electron microscopy, we solved two distinct cryo-EM structures of human PAC at a high-pH resting closed state (pH 8.0) and a low-pH, proton-bound, nonconducting state (pH 4.0). I identified key residues critical for pH sensing mechanism, channel inactivation and anion selectivity. My work provides the first glimpse of the molecular assembly of PAC, and a basis for understanding the mechanism of proton-dependent activation.

We also showed that PAC, initially identified as a plasma membrane protein, traffics to the endosomes. It encodes a bona fide acid-sensitive Clˉ leak channel in endosomes and regulates endosomal pH, Clˉ level, and transferrin-receptor-mediated endocytosis. My research has uncovered a mechanism of endosomal Clˉ permeability and revealed a previously unappreciated complexity in endosomal biology.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I was initially drawn to Johns Hopkins because it is one of the leading research institutions in the world. Upon meeting and interacting with the awesome faculty and students in the Department of Physiology, I was fully convinced that Johns Hopkins is the place for me to pursue my Ph.D. 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 indeed a great honor to be a recipient of the Martin and Carol Macht Research Award. It serves as tangible evidence of the value that others see in my work, and that’s really all a scientist could ask for. I am particularly excited about this award because Martin Macht did his graduate work in the Department of Physiology, where I am currently receiving my Ph.D. training.

What contributed to your project's success?

Mentorship. I am very fortunate to receive good training from my adviser, Zhaozhu Qiu. His training, together with help and guidance from my thesis committee members were instrumental to the success of this project. My labmates and members of the physiology department contributed to this success through numerous scientific discussions.

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 celebration is a reward for all the hard work and times we have persevered through self-doubt. Knowing that my work is recognized by the entire Johns Hopkins community brings me a lot of joy and encouragement to keep doing what I am doing. I’m also very excited about the opportunity to talk about my research and exchange new ideas with the diverse research community at Hopkins.

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

I have had many memorable moments at Hopkins, but the most memorable were the late-night tea/coffee/snack break discussions I had with lab and floor mates (second floor WBSB) in the physiology department. It was a great time to share ideas, discuss social issues and support each other.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I am looking forward to graduating this summer and continuing with a postdoc to further my training.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I am fascinated by history. I have always been intrigued by the diverse cultures in the world and their historical journeys. I enjoy getting to know people and their stories.


Thao Phan

Thao P. Phan

Mette Strand Award

Please describe your research discovery.

I have had the great opportunity to pursue my graduate research work in Andrew Holland’s lab. Our lab is fascinated with cell division and the molecular mechanisms that allow this process to happen precisely every time the cell divides.

My research project focuses on cell divisions that occur during early brain development. Specifically, I was curious as to why mutations in proteins functioning at the centrosome — organelles that help form the bipolar spindle during mitosis, frequently lead to a brain developmental condition called microcephaly. Using mouse models carrying these mutations, I was able to show that during the pathogenesis of microcephaly, neural progenitor cells with centrosome defects take longer to complete mitosis, which in turn activate a signaling axis consisting of 53BP1, USP28 and TP53. Activation of this signaling pathway, collectively referred to as the mitotic surveillance pathway, leads to cell death in the developing brain, resulting in a smaller brain size with fewer neurons. Remarkably, removal of any components of the mitotic surveillance pathway is sufficient to restore neural progenitor proliferation and rescue brain size. These findings suggest that activation of the mitotic surveillance pathway is a central mechanism underlying microcephaly pathogenesis in human patients.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose Hopkins because of the very friendly and collegial atmosphere here. This was apparent even from my short interview visit: I was immediately impressed with how much every student knew about the research going on in other labs and how invested they were in other people’s projects. I cannot imagine having done many of the experiments for my graduate work without the mentorship and generous feedback from everyone in my department, my thesis committee and the many collaborators we have across campus.

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

I am incredibly honored and humbled to receive the Mette Strand Award. Personally, it means a lot to me that my award is named after a female immigrant scientist who was not only a successful researcher but also a beloved mentor to her students. It is absolutely inspiring!

What contributed to your project's success?

When I started working in the lab, I had no mouse work experience and very little neuroscience background. Looking back, I feel very lucky and grateful that Andrew trusted me with such a challenging but also very exciting project. Throughout the years, his enthusiasm and mentorship have constantly motivated me to step out of my scientific comfort zone and make the most of my learning environment. I also have to thank the many graduate students, postdocs and faculties in my department and the neuroscience department who spent countless hours training me to perform techniques that no one else in our lab does. I often tell people that I am a great example of what it means to be “raised by a village.”

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?

I think it is an amazing opportunity for young trainees like myself to share my research and get inspired by the science happening all around Hopkins.

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

All of the wonderful time I shared with my classmates and labmates is definitely what I will treasure most from my time at Hopkins.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I am hoping to graduate within the next couple of months, and then hopefully join a lab somewhere as a postdoc and see where science takes me next.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

Both my parents are researchers in the biochemistry field, which I think is rather unique. What often surprises people is that as a kid I wanted nothing to do with science. But I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. And as it turns out, discussing experiments with my parents can be a lot of fun. Maybe except for when my dad tells me my Western blots “have room for improvements.”


Callie Shubin

Callie Shubin, Ph.D.

Nupur Dinesh Thekdi Award

Please describe your research discovery.

I worked in Carol Greider’s laboratory, where we study how telomere length is regulated. Telomere length equilibrium contributes to fundamental cellular processes as well as cellular aging and cancer. Specifically, my thesis work focused on the telomere binding protein Rif1. Rif1 is a conserved protein known to regulate telomere length, origin firing and DNA repair, but the connection of these functions remained unclear. Through this work, we learned that Rif1 has at least two independent functions; we showed that it regulates telomere length through a separate mechanism than that of origin firing. We extended this discovery by mapping the region of Rif1 that is critical for its telomere regulation. This region of the protein has also been shown to be important for DNA repair. This result provides new insight into how Rif1 may regulate both telomere length and DNA repair. These findings expand on our fundamental understanding of proteins involved in telomere length regulation and our understanding of the coordination of telomere length regulation with other cellular processes.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose Johns Hopkins because of the many incredible scientists I met during my recruitment, including Carol Greider, my future PI. She and I will always remember her “Top 10 reasons to come to BCMB at Hopkins” email. I knew that at Hopkins I would not only become a strong scientist, but also form lasting relationships with other great scientists. I am happy to say I made the right decision, and I know these relationships will stay with me as I start the next chapter of my career.

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

This award has great meaning for me — to be recognized by my institution for the work I did is both humbling and deeply gratifying. I am profoundly moved by the particular award that I won, the Nupur Dinesh Thekdi award, as Nupur was a graduate student in my department who passed away much too young. Since receiving this award, I have learned of his compassion and his family’s endowment of an award in his name. I am honored to, in a small way, carry on his legacy.

What contributed to your project's success?

Perseverance and perspective contributed to my positive and productive attitude during the trials and tribulations of graduate school. Perseverance because many times projects don’t go as planned, and perspective to know why this work was important and how the data and insights generated would help the field. Surrounding myself with smart dynamic people, including Carol, who think differently from me helped me see data in new ways and plan interesting experiments.

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?

YID has always been a day of supporting fellow students and learning about the impressive science our colleagues are doing. The event brings together students from several programs and departments, which is both exciting and important. YID also reminds our community that students and fellows conceptualize and carry out much of the exciting and difficult work here, and are integral to the research at our institution.

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

During my second year of graduate school, Carol and I organized a bus to take 50 of our Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences colleagues to Washington, D.C., for the March for Science. We had a poster-making happy hour the day before, and spent the day advocating for science in the rain. Carol reminded me, “We are all waterproof,” and we made many lasting memories that day. To add to the excitement, my family was able to meet us in D.C. and support my efforts, advocate with me and my colleagues, and meet my science family.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I am very excited to say that I am starting a scientist position at Neochromosome in New York City, working on synthetic genome engineering.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

This is always a tough question because what is interesting to me may not be interesting to you! I will share with you my luck for attending musicals in the front rows of the audience, which began with last-minute TKTS tickets to see Chicago in seventh grade. Since then, I have gotten to see Hamilton and The Book of Mormon twice, with great luck from in-person and digital lotteries and great friends who take me with them when they win.


Francesco Simonetti

Francesco R. Simonetti, M.D.

David I. Macht Award

Please describe your research discovery.

My research focuses on the persistence of HIV infection and its interplay with our immune system. The development of antiretroviral drugs changed the face of the HIV pandemic, transforming a devastating disease into a manageable chronic condition. However, despite successful treatment, HIV persists, integrated into the genome of infected cells as part of what we call the latent reservoir. Because of this reservoir, therapy must be continued indefinitely, requiring public health systems to deliver medications to all 38 million people living with HIV for life. Thus, understanding the mechanisms of HIV reservoir maintenance is paramount for the development of novel curative strategies. 

Previous studies showed that the proliferation of infected CD4+ T cells is a major cause of HIV persistence. In the laboratory of Robert and Janet Siliciano, I tried to untangle which forces drive HIV-infected clones to expand over time and survive. My thesis work demonstrated that immune responses to chronic antigens, such as those from other common viral infections, play a major role in determining the fate of infected cells. In other words, the T cells’ “day job” drives reservoir persistence. In most cases, the HIV provirus is just a passenger. Our work shows that HIV leaves a deep footprint on the immune system, which imposes huge challenges for future therapeutic interventions.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

When I decided to pursue a Ph.D., my goal was to continue to work on HIV persistence. Robert and Janet Siliciano have been leading this field for more than two decades. Their group provided the first evidence that the establishment of the latent HIV reservoir prevents antiretroviral therapy from curing HIV infection. Working with them was a big dream of mine, and the main reason I decided to join Johns Hopkins. Moreover, the potential for collaborations with the incredible immunologists and infectious diseases experts was something that drew me toward Johns Hopkins. 

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

I am honored to receive this award. It is an important recognition of the hard work of many people in the lab that helped with the project. This award is the culmination of a very exciting journey of both personal and professional growth.

What contributed to your project's success?

It has been a privilege to work in the Siliciano lab. Robert and Janet allowed me to develop my project with freedom, driven by curiosity and creativity. My clinical training in infectious diseases helped to tessellate different parts of my project and have a translational perspective. The success of my thesis is also due to guidance from my committee members: Andrea Cox, Benjamin Larman and Alison Hill were invaluable mentors. 

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 are the lymph and moving force of our institution. Thus, it is very important to celebrate their efforts, showcase their work and inspire the new generations of trainees.

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

Spending time with other scientists and learning about their lives has been incredibly stimulating. One time I had the opportunity to host Charles Bangham, a retrovirologist visiting from Imperial College London. Initially trained to become a clinician, he then dedicated his life to basic and translational research. I asked what led him to that decision since, at that time, I was uncertain about my career direction. He told me: “It was easy, once I stepped inside the laboratory for the first time, I knew I was home.” That encounter made me realize I shared that very same feeling and cemented in me the idea that going back to grad school was the right choice.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I am planning to graduate this summer. Over the next year, I would love to continue to work on some exciting projects ongoing in our lab. My long-term commitment is to be an active part of the HIV scientific community. Over the past three decades, the knowledge that we gathered surrounding HIV and its treatment is unfathomable. But there is still a lot of work to do. I want to see, up close, what happens over the next three decades.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

What I cherish the most about science is how it makes you wander, and I have a big passion for traveling. I spent the first 30 years of my life in Italy, between Milan and Tuscany, but my research made me move across the pond three times already. Being an avid foodie, adjusting to Baltimore was … a piece of (crab) cake!


Chirag Vasavda

Chirag Vasavda

Hans J. Prochaska Award

Please describe your research discovery.

Trigeminal neuralgia is a chronic, debilitating facial pain characterized by sudden, short and intense episodes of shooting, stabbing or shocklike pain in the face. The pain can be triggered by activities of everyday life, such as eating, drinking, talking or brushing teeth. Trigeminal neuralgia is so debilitating it was historically dubbed the “suicide disease” because patients would sometimes take their own life to end their suffering. Unfortunately, medical treatments for trigeminal neuralgia often fall short, and the only FDA-approved drug for trigeminal neuralgia carries a significant side effect profile.

This collaborative study between the laboratories of Solomon Snyder and Michael Lim sought to understand the mechanisms underlying trigeminal neuralgia. Our discoveries provide insight into what causes pain in trigeminal neuralgia, and, importantly, identifies promising therapeutic targets to benefit patients suffering from this debilitating pain.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

When I was interviewing among M.D./Ph.D. programs in 2013, I remember feeling noticeably energized from my conversations with faculty, staff and students at Hopkins, and their collective energy drew me to Hopkins from the outset. It was also the first time I met Sol and the first time I experienced in person his neuro-centric, stubbornly molecular approach to science. He also asked me very unusual questions, ones that probed at first principles from an orthogonal angle more than others would. Upon learning I was admitted to Hopkins, I was thrilled at the opportunity to study under him and joined his lab shortly afterward. From that interview to this day, Sol inspires me to be a better scientist and thinker, and I will forever be thankful to be a Snyder baby.

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

Every year at the Hopkins M.D./Ph.D. retreat, we are reminded of Dr. Prochaska’s contributions to science and medicine, and honor him with the Prochaska Lectureship. These lectures are often filled with inspirational science, guiding us each year as we seek to become physician-scientists ourselves. I am deeply grateful to receive the Hans J. Prochaska Award, and hope that his legacy continues to inform and improve my approach to science beyond my time at M.D./Ph.D. retreats.

What contributed to your project's success?

A mentor once told me that science may be one of humanity’s greatest collaborations, and the privilege I have had to study science is only because of the many individuals working right beside me and those who supported, taught and guided me along the way.

I am deeply grateful for the privilege to have studied under my mentor, Solomon Snyder. Michael Lim, Xinzhong Dong, Michael Caterina and Allan Belzberg were also instrumental in guiding this work. I am also thankful to my friends and colleagues, including Jimmy Meixiong, Risheng Xu, Jason Liew, Ruchita Kothari, Dustin Green, Ryan Dhindsa and Evan Semenza, all of whom helped drive this study directly or the work underlying it.

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?

I value the Young Investigators’ Days immensely as a trainee, not only as a celebration of my friends and colleagues, but also as an opportunity to learn of the incredible discoveries being made each day in our community. I believe the Young Investigators’ Days can serve as a vehicle to inspire younger trainees by learning of the breadth and significance of the work conducted by our fellow scientists.

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

Hopkins has not only shaped and supported my professional trajectory, but also my personal narrative. I will never forget the moment when my partner Byron matched into the dermatology department here for residency. Byron has accomplished so much over the years as a resident at Hopkins — and now faculty member — and through his successes has taught me both professional and personal lessons.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I am currently enrolled in the Johns Hopkins M.D./Ph.D. program and expect to graduate in May 2023. I hope to advance both my clinical and scientific training through a research-track residency, with the ultimate aspiration of leading a research program focused at the intersection of chemical biology, pharmacology and clinical medicine.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

Outside of the lab, I was a member of the hip-hop dance team SLAM at Johns Hopkins. I also love to bike. I am quite possibly the worst cook you’ve ever met.


Shannon Wongvibulsin

Shannon Wongvibulsin, Ph.D.

David Yue Award

Please describe your research discovery.

Through the use of big data, informatics and machine learning, we created tools with high predictive ability for identifying patients hospitalized with COVID-19 who are at high risk of progression to severe disease or death. First, we developed an interactive web tool (Severe COVID-19 Adaptive Risk Predictor) that provides risk predictions as well as explanations of the prediction logic in terms of interpretable decision trees. Afterward, we integrated our risk calculator into Epic at Johns Hopkins in record time to facilitate use within the clinical workflow and incorporation of risk scores as part of the electronic medical record. This work is important both in the context of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the broader field of machine learning in health care. I conducted this research in the lab of Scott Zeger, as part of the Johns Hopkins Individualized Health Initiative (Hopkins inHealth).

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose Johns Hopkins for my training and research not only because of the institution’s reputation in public health, engineering and medicine, but also because of the collegial environment. After meeting the students and faculty when I interviewed and returned for second look, I knew that joining the program would afford me with world-class training as well as a second family.

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 enormous honor to receive the David Yue Award. Personally, it marks a milestone for me, as a recognition of what I have been able to accomplish during my training as an M.D./Ph.D. student at Hopkins. Professionally, I am excited to be part of the legacy of Young Investigators’ Day as I prepare for my career as an independent physician-scientist. Having completed my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, I hope to be able to honor Dr. Yue’s life through continued contributions in biomedical research.

What contributed to your project's success?

The success of the project could not be possible without the enormous amount of support and mentorship I received from individuals across multiple disciplines from public health and engineering to medicine and biostatistics. Additionally, the dedication and talent of a collaborative and multidisciplinary team as part of JH-CROWN (the COVID-19 Precision Medicine Analytic Platform Registry) were essential to the project’s success.

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 an exciting celebration that highlights the talent of students and fellows in driving forward the research at Hopkins. It is a great forum to share research with others and potentially spark new ideas and collaborations. 

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

Having been at Hopkins for almost seven years, it is difficult to pick a single best/most memorable experience. There have been so many exciting moments with amazing colleagues and mentors. If I had to pick a single experience, it would be working with the multidisciplinary COVID-19 research team. It has been incredibly rewarding to apply the machine-learning methodology I developed during my Ph.D. to address the challenges of clinical risk prediction in patients hospitalized with COVID-19. Working alongside the leading experts in data science, informatics, infectious diseases and critical care to create risk precision tools to aid front-line clinicians in the COVID-19 pandemic has been truly memorable.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I will be graduating from the M.D./Ph.D. program this year and then beginning residency. After completing my preliminary year in medicine, I will be a research track resident in dermatology, and I intend to stay in academia as a physician-scientist.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

Promoting wellness has been a long-standing interest of mine. As an undergraduate, I was the director and editor-in-chief of Total Wellness Magazine. At Hopkins, I’ve led a variety of wellness initiatives including the B’more Healthy Cookbook and Teaching Kitchen (wshannon.netlify.app/wellness.html).


Helen Wu

Helen Di Wu

Michael A. Shanoff Award

Please describe your research discovery.

In the lab of Takanari Inoue, we use and develop new biological tools to study and manipulate live cells. Cell signaling is crucial for all the processes of life at long and short timescales. Growth and development can take years, whereas fight or flight responses take less than a second. Studying how cells signal at fast timescales of seconds to minutes requires novel synthetic biology tools. Previously, all chemical and optogenetic systems allowed the end user to rapidly bring together two proteins with high specificity. To expand what we could achieve, I developed a novel chemically inducible trimerization (CIT) system to bring together three proteins of interest. CIT allows us to rapidly perturb membrane contact sites between organelles, and interrogate tri-organellar interactions. I am now using CIT and other synthetic biology tools to address the role of plasma membrane organization by the protein Pacsin2 on mast cell activation.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

During my graduate school interviews, I felt most at home when talking to Hopkins faculty and students. The research topics excited me, and it was clear that people were passionate about their work. Everything clicked.

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

It means a lot to me, both personally and professionally, to get recognized for the work we accomplished in our lab. I am honored and humbled, and hope to live up to the legacy of the successes of the previous award winners.

What contributed to your project's success?

I had very good mentors who supported me throughout my graduate career. Hideki Nakamura, a previous postdoc in the lab, mentored me through both projects that comprise my thesis work. I am not a cell biologist by training, and his discussions and extensive knowledge really helped guide my research and the way I think as a scientist. My thesis adviser, Takanari Inoue, gave me freedom to explore my own ideas, encouragement when I doubted myself, and scientific guidance. I thank Yuta Nihongaki for generating crucial knockout cell lines. Siew Cheng Phua, Allister Suarez, Hideaki Matsubayashi, Allen Kim, Abhijit Deb Roy and all my labmates (past and present) also contributed much to my project’s success and my daily happiness.

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 great way to celebrate successes of students and fellows in the basic sciences, and pass the torch to the next generation of scientists.

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

Scientifically, the first time the CIT system worked was one of my best experiences.

Memorable general life experiences were first-year anatomy dissections, a triathlon, and having fun with friends and labmates. On one particular night, a fun gathering with labmates continued at a speakeasy and ended in the din and smoke and harsh neon lighting of a Korean BBQ place at 4 a.m.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I hope to graduate and look for a postdoctoral position, where I can combine my current skillsets with the study of cell secretion in the context of complexity science.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I love dystopian and mystery genres, so I’m currently “working” on a dystopian mystery novel, heavily inspired by the novels of Margaret Atwood and Gillian Flynn.


Wang Xi

Wang Xi

Bae Gyo Jung Award

Please describe your research discovery.

In Beer lab, we study computational genomics and gene regulatory mechanisms. My research focuses on the regulation of higher order chromatin architecture in mammalian cells. I developed a computational model to predict the interaction of chromatins in three-dimensional space based on a process called loop extrusion. It explains how factors like CTCF and cohesin work together to form loops between distant regions quantitatively, which has important implications in nuclear DNA packing and gene expression regulation.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

Johns Hopkins is an ideal place for graduate study because of the huge amount of exciting biomedical research going on here. Clinicians and basic researchers from different backgrounds work tightly with each other to exchange ideas on a daily basis. This equal, supportive and friendly environment spurs us to make novel discoveries constantly.

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 great honor. It is really important for young scientists to be recognized at early stages of our careers, as it helps us build confidence on the road toward making greater discoveries.

What contributed to your project's success?

I owe most of my success to my supervisor, Mike Beer, for his patience and support during these years. He encourages me to always pursue the most important and exciting scientific problems, and directs me with his unique insights from physics. I also want to thank other members from Beer lab for their help and interesting discussion. Besides that, the ENCODE consortium we are within is an amazing scientific community that brings teams with different expertise together to collaboratively push the boundary of human knowledge on regulatory genomics.

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?

Events like Young Investigators’ Day are highly valuable in my opinion. I think it’s really important to motivate trainees who did scientific research and made novel discoveries.

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

Receiving this award is definitely one of the best moments so far! Besides that, every time my scientific hypothesis got validated is memorable for me.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I’m planning to pursue a career in academia in the foreseeable future.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I have a 20-month-old shiba inu. He is the best companion one could imagine during the pandemic, and practices physical distancing with me at home.


Helen Xun

Helen Xun

Paul Ehrlich Award

Please describe your research discovery.

Our multidisciplinary research team of surgeons and engineers use 3D printing to rapidly prototype and test medical devices, established and developed by Sung Hoon Kang with Justin Sacks and me. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we investigated ventilator solutions, and rapidly prototyped ventilator multiplexors and other ventilator-associated parts. This team was led by Sung Hoon Kang, Jamie Guest and Julie Caffrey. Our work demonstrates the potential of multidisciplinary translational engineering teams, collaborations between multiple institutions, and of adapting emerging technologies to innovate and improve patient care.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose to attend the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine because of its unique blend of history and vision. Departments and divisions are strong across multiple institutes, allowing for successful multidisciplinary collaborations. Furthermore, are the goals for diversity and inclusion, and promotion of women in STEM. When I first heard the stories of Mary Elizabeth Garret, Helen Taussig and Florence Sabin, I knew this was the right place for me.

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

I am humbled to receive the Paul Ehrlich Award. Seeing all the young investigators inspires me, and I feel proud to be part of such a hardworking community. For me personally, it provides me with the inspiration that I, too, can become a surgeon-scientist.

What contributed to your project's success?

The people! There is a saying you become the most like the five people you spend the most time with. It would be my greatest privilege to become more like my PIs and my lab partners (Christopher Shallal and Runhan Tao). Despite most of our interactions being over Zoom now, the team created a supportive environment and hive mind so that no challenge is too great. We work as a team with open communication and honesty, and we motivate each other! We call each other after lab meetings because we are just so excited about the work, and we want to share the joy with each other.

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?

Frequently during graduate school, students feel that their time and effort (unfortunately much of which result in failures) is not sufficiently captured by two-dimensional CVs. I have grown and learned the most from my failures, deriving a third axis of growth to become a multidimensional investigator. Young Investigators’ Day is a celebration of success and in recognition of failures that we have overcome. It is a day to honor our mentors and teams who have guided and taught us to continue “gradatim ferociter” (step-by-step, ferociously).

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

My best experience at Hopkins was during my first year in anatomy lab. I was enamored with the vasculature and hand. The professors were very generous and would let me stay after longer so I could continue to study the anatomy. I loved to sit there with my headphones in, listening to Bon Iver, and follow the course of an artery. I wanted to discover where it’s going (muscle?), what it’s going with (nerves or veins), and how it evolves and feels different the farther it is from home (heart).

My most memorable experience was my first time ever in the operating room, in the winter of my first year. I was shadowing Richard Redett for pediatric plastic surgery. I was very nervous, but the entire team made me feel very comfortable, and took the time to teach me. Even though it was my first time meeting everyone, the residents and staff said to me “one day, you will do this,” or “when you do this, don’t forget to …” Before that day, becoming a surgeon was unfathomable to me; that day initiated a lifelong vision. The ardor gave me confidence, and I no longer became fearful of failure.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

This year, I will graduate with my M.D. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine as the first woman in my family to achieve higher education. Following graduation, I will start as an integrated plastic and reconstructive surgery resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center/Harvard Medical School, with the goal of becoming a post-trauma reconstructive microsurgeon. I plan to continue to work with multidisciplinary teams to develop expedited workflows for surgical innovations. Specifically, I hope to advance microsurgery and limb salvage in remote/resource-limited settings by using emerging technologies in fabrication and additive manufacturing.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I am a published nuclear chemist! I completed an internship with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in nuclear forensics. This included visiting the National Security Site (Area 51 is so-named because it is 51 miles from the entrance), and the National Ignition Facility to learn about the largest laser-based inertial confinement fusion device (Star Trek was filmed here)! This experience taught me that truth is often stranger than fiction, and to always keep an open mind because there are so many well-kept secrets in our reality.


Nathan Zaidman

Nathan A. Zaidman, Ph.D.

Alfred Blalock Award

Please describe your research discovery.

My research focuses on the role of an atypical G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) called Gpr116. In the Pluznick lab, we are focused on how Gpr116 and other GPCRs affect kidney physiology. Recently, I discovered that Gpr116 is a significant regulator of acid excretion by the kidney. More specifically, Gpr116 acts to inhibit runaway acid secretion in A-type intercalated cells in the collecting ducts. This discovery addresses a major gap in my field’s understanding of how A-type cells regulate acid secretion. Furthermore, since Gpr116 is an atypical GPCR with some unique structural features, we can begin to form hypotheses about the biomechanical cues that may reveal how Gpr116, and other similar GPCRs, affect our physiology.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I joined the Pluznick lab to work on understudied GPCRs with the goal of discovering a novel physiological phenomenon.

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

Receiving recognition for my work means a great deal to me, especially when it comes from colleagues who I look up to as mentors. I hope this award helps me to attain my goal of becoming an independent investigator. However, when I told my wife I got this award, I still had to clean the dishes.

What contributed to your project's success?

One of the main reasons I joined Dr. Pluznick’s lab was that she assured me I would be encouraged to follow the science wherever it took me. The Gpr116 project had many unexpected twists and turns, but I was always allowed to investigate based on the results of my experiments. This allowed me to collaborate with many great scientists from Johns Hopkins and other renowned institutes, which enhanced the success of my project and my postdoctoral training.

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?

As someone who works on the inside, I know how integral and essential trainees are to Hopkins and all biomedical research. Celebrating the contributions of young investigators on Young Investigators’ Day is a great way to recognize the achievements of trainees and propel them into larger roles.

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

I really have enjoyed volunteering during the Johns Hopkins Day of Service in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s great to see the Hopkins community working in our Baltimore community.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I hope to get enough data to put together another manuscript, and then I’ll be sowing the fallow fields of the faculty job market.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

When I was little, my dad and I use to water our neighbor’s houseplants in Maplewood, Minnesota, when he was away. The neighbor’s name was Courtland Agre, and his son was a promising young scientist in Baltimore.


Roger Zou

Roger S. Zou

Michael A. Shanoff Award

Please describe your research discovery.

CRISPR-Cas9 has catalyzed a biotechnological revolution through convenient and programmable genome editing. Cas9 itself, however, only performs the first step — site-directed induction of DNA damage. Completion of editing relies on the cell’s DNA repair machinery, which has been challenging to characterize due to the lack of control over DNA damage induction. In the laboratory of Taekjip Ha, we sought to tackle this problem by developing two systems for very fast light-mediated control over Cas9 activation and deactivation. First, we demonstrated Cas9 activation within seconds of light exposure, which allowed greatly improved kinetic measurements of DNA damage induction and repair. We discovered that Cas9-induced DNA damage could be detected within two minutes and repaired within 15 minutes, which is much faster than previously believed. Second, we demonstrated Cas9 deactivation within seconds of light exposure. Using this system, we discovered that only a few hours of CRISPR activity were sufficient for efficient genome editing. This system also greatly reduced editing at unintended “off-target” sites, which enhances the safety of genome editing. Together, my work in Dr. Ha’s lab opens the door for control of CRISPR-Cas9 as an effective method for studying genome editing and DNA repair.

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose to pursue my M.D./Ph.D. training at Johns Hopkins first and foremost because of the warmth and camaraderie that is pervasive throughout this community. The atmosphere of energy and excellence not only pushes me to work my hardest, but also has made my experience here enjoyable and memorable. This is all, of course, on top of the incredible clinical training, collaborative research and unparalleled opportunities for making impactful scientific discoveries.

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

The Michael A. Shanoff Award has been awarded for over 30 years at Johns Hopkins, and I am aware of many of its former recipients and their distinguished careers as scientists and physician-scientists. It is truly an honor to be included in the same company as such talented individuals. This award further motivates me to carry on Dr. Shanoff’s legacy by pursuing a career as a physician-scientist.

This award also represents to me the culmination of the sacrifices my immigrant parents made in order to provide me with the opportunity to receive a world-class education in the U.S. as well as the endless support my mentors, friends and colleagues have offered me along this journey.

What contributed to your project's success?

The key to this project’s success has been the people, two in particular. The first is my thesis advisor, Taekjip Ha. He has continually challenged me to think creatively and to tackle the big questions in science. He has been extremely supportive and provided the perfect amount of independence to pursue my scientific interests. Under Dr. Ha’s guidance, I have had the chance to hone and gain confidence in my skills as an independent scientist. The second is Yang Liu, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab, very close friend, and also a winner of a Young Investigators’ Day award. From the very start of graduate school, he took me under his wing and has taught me so much about the biomedical research process. As part of this team, I feel confident and excited to take on any challenge in research. My relationships with these two individuals remind me that the scientific enterprise is at its core a human enterprise, and the most important aspects of the scientific pursuit are our friends, colleagues and mentors.

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?

There is incredible research at Johns Hopkins being done by fantastic students and mentors. Young Investigators’ Day celebrates these accomplishments, which are the culmination of years of hard work and dedication to the scientific pursuit. In addition, mentors are also recognized for their invaluable contributions to students’ successes. These students and fellows will be the future leaders of research who will represent their excellent training at Johns Hopkins for years to come.

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

So many come to mind. Competing in the College Olympics during my first two years of medical school. Learning how to interview my first patient with my wonderful clinical mentor, David Cooke. The few times during graduate school where experiments worked so beautifully that I couldn’t believe it. Many late nights working with my labmates tackling the big questions in science.

What are your plans over the next year or so?

I plan to defend my Ph.D. thesis in 2021 and return to medical school in the fall.

Tell us something interesting about yourself.

I have never lived in one place for more than six years, and my first time doing so will be for my M.D./Ph.D. training at Hopkins! I enjoy kayaking, recreational fishing, macrophotography and playing the piano.

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