These are some heady times for Hong-Sheng Li, a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Medicine's Biological Chemistry Department. He is 7,500 miles from his home in China studying at "the world's top institute of biomedical research," he recently became a father, and this week both Li and his wife, Jianwu Bai, a predoctoral fellow in the same department, will be presented with prestigious Young Investigator Awards.
Now in its 24th year, Young Investigators' Day is an annual presentation of awards to promising pre- and postdoctoral researchers in the School of Medicine. The event--perhaps the ultimate sophisticated science fair for grown-ups--celebrates the often seminal work conducted by the best and brightest. The 2001 awards ceremony will be held on Thursday, April 12, from 4 to 6 p.m. in the Mountcastle Auditorium of the Preclinical Teaching Building, JHMI campus.
Winners of the 14 awards typically go on to head their own labs at Hopkins or at other high-profile research institutions. This year's 21 winners resemble a United Nations assembly, as they hail from Egypt, China, Italy, Vietnam and India, as well as the United States.
Li's research involves characterizing the molecular assembly of a new family of calcium-permeable ion channels. These particular ion channels are involved in pain sensation and immune cell activation and have been implicated in brain development. His groundbreaking work could have important ramifications for human health and disease.
Modest about his accomplishments, Li says that uncovering science's mysteries is merely an unavoidable passion.
"I just want to know the answers to the questions I am interested in and cannot wait until somebody else finds out and tells me," Li says. "To find out the answers myself, I have to be a researcher."
Not to be outdone by her husband, Jianwu Bai was a winner of the David I. Macht Award. Bai's research is focused on the mechanisms underlying the progression of cancer. Bai has been using the ovary of a fruit fly as a model system to study genes that may be responsible for the invasive character of cancer cells. One gene she's studied sheds light on the ability of steroids to trigger such invasive behavior.
Craig Montell, a professor of biological chemistry and faculty sponsor of Li's work, says both Li and Bai are research stars in the making. Montell would know; his wife, Denise, happens to be Bai's faculty sponsor.
"Hong-Sheng and his wife are an awesome team that always rises to the occasion," Montell says. "They are very committed to science."
Montell says that presentation of the Young Investigator Awards appears to grow in significance each year.
"In view of the many highly qualified students and postdocs who apply, the Young Investigator Awards are highly competitive," Montell says. "There are very few opportunities for them to be recognized for their achievements and to present their findings to our JHU community. As such, these awards are highly coveted."
Winners of the Michael A. Shanoff Research Award, the longest-standing of the honors, were Gregory J. Gatto Jr. and Jian Yu. Gatto did molecular detective work to clarify how proteins are carried to the cell digestive organelles called peroxisomes. Gatto focused on the 3D structure of a receptor in a cell's cytoplasm, called PEX5, that acts as a sort of card reader for enzymes and other proteins, recognizing them and leading them to peroxisomes where they do their work. His study, published in last December's Nature Structural Biology, takes a key step in explaining how human peroxisomal diseases--long a medical mystery--can occur.
Yu's work centers on showing how p53, a gene familiar to cancer researchers, plays its major role in keeping malignancy at bay. Scientists have recently found that in diseased cells far along on the road to ruin, p53 triggers apoptosis, or self-destruction. By rigging a model cell system in which p53 is expressed, Yu has found an important gene that is probably p53's direct intermediary for the destruct message. Scientists may one day use her find to trigger apoptosis in tumors or to block tissue death in other diseases.
This year marks the creation of two new prizes, the Ivor and Colette Royston Awards. Ivor Royston, a School of Medicine alumnus and an oncologist/entrepreneur, is co-founder of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center in San Diego. The pre-doctoral award went to Gregory Cost and the postdoctoral to William Roberts. Cost has discovered how the mobile sections of DNA called transposons--which constitute roughly a third of the human genome--are able to reproduce. Roberts has developed a statistical model that predicts who's most at risk to have cancer recur following prostate removal. His model will improve studies to show how chemotherapy or other adjuncts improve surgery's long-term outcome.
Venkatesh L. Murthy has won the Hans J. Prochaska Award for his methods to identify the rules that govern folding of RNA molecules. His mentor, biophysicist George Rose, says, "I expect Venk's contributions to change the course of his field."
Theresa Shapiro, a professor of medicine and chair of the awards review committee, says all the investigators honored this year have demonstrated remarkable research abilities.
"If this year's group of winners indicates the quality of young researchers in general," Shapiro says, "science will be in very good shape in the decades ahead."