It is said that you shouldn't forget where you came from, and it is clear at Johns Hopkins that faculty remember the days they slaved away as graduate students and postdocs. For the 26th consecutive year, the School of Medicine celebrates the scientific contributions of graduate and medical students, postdoctoral and clinical fellows with its annual Young Investigators' Day.
A long-standing tradition of Young Investigators' Day is a series of awards that recognize some of the best work to come out of Johns Hopkins. Of 95 applicants, 19 have been selected to receive awards this year, which carry prestige and cash prizes. Representative of their compatriots, awardees will present their work at the celebration, which begins at 4 p.m. on Thursday, April 10, in Mountcastle Auditorium in the Preclinical Teaching Building in East Baltimore.
Research to be presented ranges from determining the 3-D structures of important proteins to establishing new roles for a host of biological molecules, revealing the details of critical cellular processes and signals, and finding new ways to treat and diagnose cancer and heart disease.
The applications for awards were of spectacular quality as always, says Se-Jin Lee, professor of molecular biology and genetics and chair of this year's 25-member selection committee. "Selecting award recipients was extremely challenging, and I wish we could have recognized many more of the applicants," he says. "The awardees reflect the outstanding work of all of Hopkins' students and fellows."
Even though their work is published in top journals, including Science, Nature, Cell, Molecular Cell, Nature Genetics and the Journal of Clinical Investigation, most awardees still get a real boost from Young Investigators' Day recognition.
"I got the call at home on a Sunday morning, and it was great, a very special feeling," says nephrology postdoctoral fellow Melissa Burne-Taney, recipient of this year's A. McGehee Harvey Research Award. "For your work to be considered among the top is a great honor."
Burne-Taney, a native of Australia, has helped establish certain immune cells (CD4+ T cells) as major players in early damage from the loss and re-establishment of blood flow to the kidney. She'll begin examining the cells' role in long-term kidney damage--applicable to kidney transplant situations--as a junior faculty member starting in July.
"Part of the duty of faculty is to prepare their postdocs and graduate students to pursue independent research," says Burne-Taney's adviser, Hamid Rabb, associate professor of nephrology in the Department of Medicine. "Young Investigators' Day is a testament to the institution's commitment to developing the next generation of biomedical researchers and encourages young scientists to continue to do excellent, creative research."
That's exactly the perspective of Dennis Barbour, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate working with Xiaoqin Wang in Biomedical Engineering. "Because the selection committee included individuals in various biomedical disciplines, I'm reassured that the problems I'm working on have meaning and application beyond my own field," says Barbour, recipient of the David Israel Macht Research Award. "The award also convinced me to extend the research portion of my training in hopes of eventually translating basic science results into clinical advances."
Barbour and Wang discovered nerve cells that preferentially respond to sounds when background noise is high, explaining for the first time how it is possible to pick up a conversation in a loud room. Their January paper in Science was the first description of such neurons, so a lot of work remains to see how or if the findings will help people with hearing loss, Barbour says.
Because of the number of deserving candidates and the awards' distinguished lists of past recipients, the recognition of a Young Investigators' Day award is humbling, notes Joshua Mendell, this year's Michael A. Shanoff awardee. In his work, Mendell, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate in human genetics, has challenged current thinking about how cells process RNA that contains premature "stop signs."
"The cell recognizes these errors in the RNA, and either destroys the RNA or excises the region containing the error, through a process called alternative splicing," says Mendell, who works in the lab of Harry Dietz. "These studies provided evidence that translation, the process that recognizes premature stop signals, occurs inside the nucleus, not just in the cytoplasm as generally believed."
Figuring out the 3-D structure of an enzyme called Sir2 has Jose Avalos, a graduate student working with biophysics professor Cynthia Wolberger, thinking beyond the basics of science. His findings, published in Molecular Cell last September, help explain why and how the enzyme acts as it does to silence certain genes, findings that could have important implications in cancer research, he says.
"Sir2 removes small acetyl groups from proteins but has some very unusual ways of doing that," says Avalos, a native of Mexico. "The structures we solved reveal conformational changes that may account for its behavior and reveal how the enzyme interacts with the tumor suppressor p53, opening the door to enhancing or blocking that interaction."
Other recognized projects include using bacteria to kill cancer, determining the structure of breast cancer receptor HER2, establishing exercise tests as the best way to detect heart disease in women with no symptoms, and discovering a major antioxidant role for bilirubin. Funds for awards are provided by the friends, family and colleagues of awards' namesakes and by the Johns Hopkins Medical and Surgical Association, an alumni organization.
For a list of this year's student awardees, see below.
Follow this link to A Look Back: Twenty-six Years of Honoring Hopkins Researchers-in-Training