SoM Honors 17 Young Researchers
Crista Brawley, winner of the
Martin and Carol Macht Research Award, with adviser Erika
Matunis of Cell Biology.
PHOTO BY HIPS/WILL KIRK
Young Investigators' Day recognizes 'the once and future
stars at Hopkins'
By Audrey Huang
Johns Hopkins Medicine
Alongside every successful professor is an army of
hard-working, dedicated and talented students and fellows.
On Thursday, April 20, the
School of Medicine will recognize 11 students and six
fellows for their exceptional research accomplishments
during the 29th annual Young Investigators' Day
celebration, a Hopkins tradition.
The 17 investigators were chosen from a pool of nearly
100 outstanding applicants, according to the chair of this
year's faculty committee, Randall Reed, a professor of
molecular biology and genetics in the Hopkins Institute for
Basic Biomedical Sciences. "It was really hard to come to
the final decisions," he says. "These are the once and
future stars at Hopkins."
The research projects recognized this year range from
the molecular genetics of visual transduction in Drosophila
to studies of how a schizophrenia-associated mutation
disrupts cerebral cortex development. The awards are named
after former Johns Hopkins students and well-respected
former faculty members. They are accompanied by a cash
prize, funded by friends, family and the Johns Hopkins
Medical and Surgical Society.
"The Young Investigators' Awards are really about
recognition as much as competition," Reed says. "We try to
recognize those who have done particularly excellent work
and made unique and individual contributions to the
The program will start at 4 p.m. in Mountcastle
Auditorium, where selected awardees will present their
research and all will receive honors. A poster session and
reception will follow.
"I've always dreamed about being a part of this
ceremony," says neuroscience fellow Sangwon Kim, recipient
of the A. McGehee Harvey Research Award, who discovered a
connection between two different molecular pathways
involved in inflammation while working in the lab of
Solomon H. Snyder, Distinguished Service Professor of
Neuroscience, Pharmacology and Psychiatry in the Department
of Neuroscience that bears his name.
Jason Shepherd, a doctoral candidate in the Cellular
and Molecular Medicine program, is one of the four
recipients of the Paul Ehrlich Award. "The scope and
breadth of the science here at Hopkins is truly
mind-boggling," he says.
Working jointly with professors of neuroscience Paul
Worley and Richard Huganir, Shepherd linked a protein
called Arc to the control of signaling at nerve endings and
showed this relationship to play a role in learning and
memory. Using a mouse model, Shepherd removed Arc and found
the mice to have only selective memory.
Another recipient of the Ehrlich Award, M.D. candidate
Brad Barnett, worked with adviser Aravind Arepally to
encapsulate insulin-producing human islet cells and
transplant the capsules into pigs, with sights on improving
a treatment for type 1 diabetes. The existing method of
islet transplantation calls for delivering invisible cells
through a needle guided by ultrasound into the portal vein,
which connects to the liver. By putting islet cells into
capsules, Barnett has developed a method that allows
doctors to follow the capsules by MRI, so they can make
sure the islet cells end up in the right place;
additionally, Barnett's approach introduces the cells
through the femoral vein in the leg, which is more
accessible and easier to steer through than the portal
Barnett says that he shares with his award's namesake
an attitude toward research. "As [Ehrlich] once said, 'The
first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the
parts.' And given the complexity of this universe and the
limits of our senses, we would be foolish to think we are
capable of anything more than intelligent tinkering."
Jordan Steinberg, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate in
neuroscience, says that he also feels a special connection
to the namesake of the award that he received: the Nupur
Dinesh Thekdi Award, which honors a former M.D./Ph.D.
student. "I was in my second year of the program when Nupur
died in a tragic accident," Steinberg says. "He was a very
accomplished student and scientist, and I am honored to
receive the award in his name. I thank his family for
having endowed the award so that others can continue in his
Steinberg's research led to the discovery of how a
protein called PICK1 can control neuron function in a type
of motor learning called the vestibulo-ocular reflex. By
generating a collection of mouse mutants, Steinberg and his
adviser, Richard Huganir, were able to definitively show
how PICK1 controls receptors on the surface of Purkinje
The recipient of the Michael A. Shanoff Award was
Meenakshi Rao, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience.
"From day one," he says, "my adviser, Shan Sockanathan,
gave me free reign to pursue my ideas, although many of
them led nowhere."
Some of them did. Rao discovered a protein called GDE2
that is controlled by retinoic acid, a metabolite of
vitamin A. GDE2 appears necessary for motor neuron
differentiation in the spine and is a pioneer member of a
new class of proteins that may be involved in a new type of
Ph.D. candidate Daniel Bendor,
seated, will be recognized with the David Israel Macht
Research Award for his work with sponsor Xiaoqin
PHOTO BY HIPS/WILL KIRK
Daniel Bendor, a doctoral candidate in the Biomedical
Engineering program, received the David I. Macht Research
Award for his work, which was published in Nature. With
mentor Xiaoqin Wang, Bendor did what others were unable to
do previously: map the region of the brain in monkeys
involved in hearing the pitch of a sound.
The pitch of a sound corresponds to its vibration.
When you pluck a string, the whole thing vibrates. But it
also vibrates in halves, quarters and smaller intervals.
Each of these smaller intervals corresponds to a harmonic.
Pitch neurons respond to multiharmonic sounds but not when
any of the harmonics are played alone.
"We seem to have found the same region of the brain
that humans use for pitch perception," says Bendor, a
fifth-year student who anticipates graduating next year. In
humans, pitch is important for understanding speech and
appreciating music. Animals use pitch to identify and
discriminate vocalizations, for communication.
Bendor took electrical readings of single neurons in
the brain to map out which cells are responsible for
hearing pitch. Those neurons are active only when certain
sounds are played. By comparing the electrical behaviors of
different neurons in response to different sounds, Bendor
was able to pick out the pitch-responsive neurons.
A musician and composer in his spare time, Bendor
says, "This award is a great honor, and I'm also fortunate
in that my research overlapped with my hobby."
Crista Brawley, a doctoral candidate in the Cellular
and Molecular Medicine program, received the Martin and
Carol Macht Award for her project, "Stem Cell Niche
Repopulation in Vivo Via Dedifferentiation."
Although it is well accepted that stem cells can
repopulate injured tissue, where those stem cells come from
and how repopulation is controlled is not well understood.
One idea that had never been proved was that of
dedifferentiation, where cells that have taken on a certain
identity like muscle or skin somehow lose that identity and
revert to a stem cell state.
Brawley, in her work, was able to manipulate a
signaling pathway in specific cells of Drosophila to coax
them into reverting into stem cells.
"The word dedifferentiation was the scary part," says
Brawley, whose work was published in Science. "Most stem
cell biologists avoid this word because it is so hard to
The sperm of fruit flies develop from a population of
stem cells called germline stem cells. Every time one such
stem cell divides, one daughter cell becomes a future
sperm, while the other stays behind as a germline stem cell
to maintain the stem cell population so that more sperm can
be made. Fruit flies mutant for a gene called STAT,
however, are unable to maintain a population of germline
stem cells; when the germline stem cells in STAT mutant
flies divide, both daughter cells become sperm, leaving no
stem cells behind. When Brawley reintroduced STAT back into
the mutant flies, she noticed the reappearance of germline
stem cells. But her adviser, Erika Matunis, was
"It took some convincing, as Erika didn't believe me
at first," Brawley says. "I repeated those initial
experiments many times."
But when Brawley streamlined her experimental approach
and showed, by adding STAT, that the developing sperm could
indeed revert to a stem cell state, Matunis was sold. "She
was stunned," Brawley says. "But I trusted my gut that I
had something novel; I only had to convince my adviser of
"This [recognition] is a reward for all the hard work
and long days and years I've put into work at Hopkins,"
Brawley says. "The award solidifies for me that I have made
the correct choice in choosing a career in science."
Postdoctoral fellow Ronald Cohn,
right, will receive the Helen B. Taussig Research Award
honoring the project he conducted with sponsor Harry 'Hal'
PHOTO BY HIPS/WILL KIRK
Ronald Cohn, a postdoctoral fellow in the
McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, received
the Helen B. Taussig Award for his project, "TGF
Beta-Induced Failure of Muscle Regeneration in Multiple
Myopathic States." Cohn, with adviser Hal Dietz, found that
a too-high level of the growth factor TGF-beta leads to an
inability to repair muscle in mouse models for two
diseases, Marfan syndrome and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Marfan syndrome is a connective tissue disorder associated
with aortic aneurisms and skeletal abnormalities. Duchenne
muscular dystrophy is the most common inherited form of
muscular dystrophies in children.
Skeletal muscle has the unique ability to repair
itself after injury through regeneration; if muscle
regeneration doesn't happen, muscle mass and strength are
"We can prevent failed muscle regeneration in mouse
models for both diseases by blocking TGF-beta signaling
with a known drug," Cohn says.
By looking at genes known to be turned on by TGF-beta
signaling, Cohn showed first that TGF-beta signaling is
indeed the cause of muscle loss in animals with Marfan, as
well as in animals with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. By
blocking TGF-beta signaling, Cohn showed that muscle loss
could be prevented in those same animals.
"I feel deeply honored to have been chosen to receive
the Helen B. Taussig Award among so many excellent young
scientists here at Hopkins," Cohn says, noting that Taussig
made many groundbreaking contributions to medicine within
the field of pediatric cardiology and also by supporting a
wide range of social causes, including her successful
campaign in the 1960s to ban the use of thalidomide by
pregnant women. "I have a special interest in compassionate
care," Cohn says, "and I hope the karma associated with her
accomplishments will positively impact my future career as
2006 Young Investigators' Day
Thursday, April 20, Mountcastle Auditorium of the
Preclinical Teaching Building on the East Baltimore
Welcome from Edward D. Miller, dean of the
medical faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, and
The Michael A. Shanoff Research Award
"Transmembrane protein GDE2 directs spinal motor neuron
differentiation in vivo"
Meenakshi Rao, M.D./Ph.D. candidate, Neuroscience Graduate
Sponsor: Shanthini Sockanathan, assistant professor,
The David Israel Macht Research Award
"The neuronal representation of pitch in primate auditory
Daniel Bendor, Ph.D. candidate, Biomedical Engineering
Sponsor: Xiaoqin Wang, professor, Biomedical
The Martin and Carol Macht Research Award
"Stem cell niche repopulation in vivo via
Crista Brawley, Ph.D. candidate, Biochemistry, Cellular and
Molecular Biology Graduate Program
Sponsor: Erika Matunis, assistant professor, Cell
The Paul Ehrlich Research Award
"Arc regulates synaptic scaling of AMPA receptor"
Jason Shepherd, Ph.D. candidate, Cellular and Molecular
Medicine Graduate Program
Sponsors: Paul Worley and Richard Huganir,
PRESENTATION OF STUDENT AWARDS|
The Paul Ehrlich Research Awards
"Identification of a novel hedgehog receptor from a
systematic survey of the Drosophila genome"
Shenqin Yao, Ph.D. candidate, Biochemistry, Cellular and
Molecular Biology Graduate Program
Sponsor: Philip Beachy, professor, Molecular Biology
"Molecular genetics of Drosophila visual transduction"
Tao Wang, Ph.D. candidate, Biological Chemistry Graduate
Sponsor: Craig Montell, professor, Biological
"MR-guided transplantation of magneto-capsules
immunoprotecting pancreatic islets"
Brad P. Barnett, M.D. candidate
Sponsor: Aravind Arepally, assistant professor,
The Hans Joaquim Prochaska Research Award
"Chemical rescue of a mutant enzyme in living cells"
Yingfeng Qiao, Ph.D. candidate, Pharmacol-ogy and Molecular
Sciences Graduate Program
Sponsor: Philip A. Cole, director, Pharmacology and
The Mette Strand Research Award
"Parietal eye phototransduction components: Insight into
vertebrate photoreceptor evolution"
Chih-Ying Su, Ph.D. candidate, Neuroscience Graduate
Sponsor: King-Wai Yau, professor, Neuroscience
The Alicia Showalter Reynolds Research Award
"Catalysis in translation elongation and termination"
Elaine M. Youngman, Ph.D. candidate, Biochemistry, Cellular
and Molecular Biology Graduate Program
Sponsor: Rachel Green, associate professor,
Molecular Biology and Genetics
The Nupur Dinesh Thekdi Research Award
"Cellular and molecular mechanisms of long-term synaptic
depression in the cerebellum"
Jordan Philip Steinberg, M.D./Ph.D. candidate, Neuroscience
Sponsor: Richard Huganir, professor, neuroscience
The Helen B. Taussig Research Award
"TGF-beta-induced failure of muscle regeneration in
multiple myopathic states"
Ronald D. Cohn, postdoctoral fellow, McKusick-Nathans
Institute of Genetic Medicine
Sponsor: Harry C. Dietz, professor, Pediatrics, and
HHMI associate investigator, Institute of Genetic
The A. McGehee Harvey Research Award
"Synergistic inflammatory mechanisms with therapeutic
Sangwon Kim, postdoctoral fellow, Neuroscience
Sponsor: Solomon Snyder, professor, Neuroscience
PRESENTATION OF POSTDOCTORAL
The W. Barry Wood Jr. Research Award
"Schizophrenia-associated DISC1 mutation perturbs cerebral
Atsushi Kamiya, M.D., postdoctoral fellow, Psychiatry and
Sponsor: Akira Sawa, assistant professor,
The Daniel Nathans Research Award
"hAT element transposition"
Liqin Zhou, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, Molecular Biology
Sponsor: Nancy L. Craig, professor, Molecular
Biology and Genetics
The Alfred Blalock Research Award
"Genetic and functional analysis of the PIK3CA oncogene in
Yardena Samuels, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow,
Sponsor: Victor Velculescu, assistant professor,
The Albert Lehninger Research Award
"Genetic selection of forward transport signals directing
cell surface expression"
Sojin Shikano, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, Neuroscience
Sponsor: Min Li, professor, Neuroscience
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