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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University March 28, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 27
HHMI Taps Two on SOM Faculty

Honor goes to Geraldine Seydoux and Alex Kolodkin

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Two School of Medicine faculty were among a group of 43 recently tapped as Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators, a prestigious honor that recognizes the nation's most promising biomedical scientists.

HHMI chose the scientists through a nationwide competition that began in 2004, when the institute asked approximately 300 universities, medical schools and institutes to nominate candidates who demonstrated exceptional promise within four to 10 years of their becoming independent researchers.

The two winners from Johns Hopkins are Geraldine Seydoux, professor of molecular biology and genetics, and Alex Kolodkin, professor of neuroscience. With these two latest additions, the university now has 14 HHMI investigators, scientists who are recognized for their innovation, creativity and productivity.

As HHMI investigators, Seydoux and Kolodkin will be provided with funds, equipment and, perhaps most importantly, the freedom to pursue challenging questions and push the boundaries of science. HHMI prizes intellectual daring and seeks to preserve the autonomy of its scientists as they pursue their research.

A previous recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and HHMI Predoctoral Fellowship, Seydoux has been studying the molecular differences between somatic and germline cells during embryonic development. Multicellular organisms consist of two general cell types: somatic cells, which form the individual body, and germline cells, which serve for reproduction. Specifically, Seydoux's lab is using genetic and molecular approaches to characterize cell development mechanisms in the nematode (roundworm) Caenorhabditis elegans.

"We are motivated to understand how development works," she said. "A lot of diseases happen because things go awry during development. So understanding how things work during a normal, healthy development is valuable."

Geraldine Seydoux has been studying the molecular differences between somatic and germline cells during embryonic development.

Seydoux, who was been at Johns Hopkins since 1996, said that she was both surprised by and delighted with the announcement.

"It was wonderful news for my lab. This is one of the wonderful things about Hopkins, that you get to be nominated for such honors. I am very grateful to be at an institution where these types of opportunities are available," she said. "This award gives us access to a lot more resources. My lab is funded by NIH, a very generous organization, and we are lucky enough to have two NIH grants. But certainly the Howard Hughes award gives us much more freedom to investigate new areas and take on bolder projects. They basically say don't be afraid to be creative and take on difficult questions, as they might very well be worth pursuing."

Until now, Seydoux's lab has focused on development in simple organisms, she said, but with the new funds she can apply the principles she has been using to more complex systems like mammals.

A McKnight Neuroscience Award recipient, Alex Kolodkin has been researching how neuronal connectivity is established during embryonic development and maintained in the adult nervous system. This includes understanding how extending neuronal processes find their way during development, avoid "inappropriate" targets and get to their final destination. His chief goal is to learn how certain proteins act as "guidance cues" for growing nerves, alternately repelling and attracting growth to keep a developing nerve on the right track inside the body. To define the basic principles of complex nervous system organization, his lab works to identify genes in a fruit fly model and also studies newfound molecules in mice for a clearer picture of how they contribute to mammalian neural development.

Ultimately, scientists want to be able to rebuild damaged human nerve cells, and Kolodkin said his research could help shed light on how to promote neuronal regeneration of axons following injury or neural degeneration.

As a postdoctoral fellow, Kolodkin led the discovery of the largest known family of repulsive guidance cues — a family of proteins called semaphorins, which can function to prevent neurons from extending or migrating in the wrong areas.

Alex Kolodkin has been researching neuronal connectivity-how impulses find their way, avoid 'inappropriate' targets and get to their final distination.

Kolodkin said he, too, is extremely grateful and honored to be chosen by HHMI.

"I'm still in shock," he said. "From my perspective, this award allows us the freedom to ask any major question we choose to take on. It is an extremely generous award and will allow us to continue what we are doing while opening up new opportunities for tackling innovative research directions."

Through its flagship investigator program, HHMI currently employs 298 of the nation's most innovative scientists, who lead Hughes laboratories at 64 institutions.

The 43 men and women selected must now be formally appointed, a process that will take up to six months. The general competition for new investigators, the first since 2000, represents a continued expansion of the institute's biomedical research mission.

A nonprofit medical research organization, HHMI was established in 1953 by aviator-industrialist Howard Hughes, who died in 1976. The institute, headquartered in Chevy Chase, Md., is one of the largest philanthropies in the world with an endowment of $12.8 billion at the close of its 2004 fiscal year.

The institute's current annual research budget is $416 million. With the selection of the new investigators, it will invest more than $300 million in additional support for biomedical research over the next seven years.


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