April 9, 2012

Young Investigators honored

School of Medicine’s 35th celebration to be held on Friday

Elizabeth Gerber, a Paul Ehrlich Award winner, with her mentor, Hal Dietz. Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

This year marks the 35th annual Young Investigators’ Award program, when School of Medicine trainee researchers are recognized for their stellar accomplishments in the lab. The event will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. on Friday, April 13, in Mountcastle Auditorium in the Preclinical Teaching Building on the East Baltimore campus.

Researchers will celebrate and share their findings, and 13 students and three fellows will receive awards. Each award includes a cash prize and is named for a former member of the Johns Hopkins community.

Each spring students and fellows look forward to the Young Investigators program as a way to acknowledge their years of dedication to the lab.

“Students and postdoctoral fellows are the major work force of biomedical research at Johns Hopkins, yet we don’t have the luxury of fast, immediate gratification because most experiments are trial and error,” says Lishi Li. “The Young Investigators’ Day is a good recognition of our efforts,” she adds, “and great encouragement for us to continue with the hard work.”

Li currently is finishing up her doctorate in David Ginty’s lab in Neuroscience. She was awarded the David I. Macht Award for her research on neurons in the skin that sense gentle touch. In December, she plans to finish her dissertation and transition into a postdoc position.

Mentors Hongjun Song and Guo-li Ming with Daniel Nathans Award winner Michael Bonaguidi and Mette Strand awardee Junjie Guo. Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

“I think it is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the extremely talented group of students and fellows here at Hopkins,” says Junjie Guo, the Mette Strand awardee, of Young Investigators’ Day. “It also reminds us of how lucky we are to be in this unique intellectual environment, and we should all find ways to benefit from it by collaborating, or even just discussing, with your colleagues as much as possible.”

In December, Guo completed his dissertation, in Hongjun Song’s lab at the Institute for Cell Engineering, showing that chemical modifications to DNA in brain stem cells change as the cells mature into neurons. He is currently in search of a postdoc position.

Michael A. Shanoff Award winner Maame Sampah, center, with mentors Janet Siliciano and Robert Siliciano. Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

Maame Sampah says that as an African-American woman, she hopes that her Michael A. Shanoff Award will serve as inspiration for minorities in medical research. A student in Robert Siliciano’s lab in the Department of Medicine, Sampah analyzes drug treatment regimens for HIV patients. She tests different combinations of HIV treatment drugs on white blood cells, determining the most effective and least toxic combinations. She says that after finishing her PhD research in the summer, she looks forward to working this fall on her medical degree and delivering patient care in the clinic.

From the time when they were junior members of the lab, some students aspired to become awardees.

“I have been aware of Young Investigators’ Day since 1996, when I was first exposed to biology research in Gary Pasternack’s lab as a high school student,” says Raymond Cheong, who recently defended his dissertation. “Speaking from a long personal experience, I think Young Investigators’ Day plays an important role to inspire and encourage students and fellows to do excellent science, and provides an important forum for young researchers to be recognized and honored.”

In Andre Levchenko’s lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Cheong studied how cells process information from their environments, work for which he received a Michael A. Shanoff Award. He is currently on leave to help launch a startup company based on the technology he developed during his dissertation research, but he will return to Johns Hopkins in the fall semester to finish medical school.

A few of the trainees say they feel a personal connection with their award’s namesake.

Daniel Lee says he is honored to receive an award in the name of Paul Ehrlich, a researcher who made advancements in hematology, immunology and chemotherapy. Lee says, “I had the unfortunate situation to have to need chemotherapy during graduate school, and that medicine saved my life. It is the hard work of Ehrlich and many other scientists who work in this area of research that allowed me to receive this award.”

Lee explored the function of adult stem cells in the hypothalamus of the brain and discovered that the cells play a role in regulating metabolism, weight and energy balance. Recently, he completed this work in Seth Blackshaw’s lab in the Department of Neuroscience and the Institute for Cell Engineering. Lee plans to go to the California Institute of Technology for a postdoc position.

Neurosurgery resident Chetan Bettegowda says he is honored to receive this year’s Helen B. Taussig Award. “Receiving the Taussig Award is even more special because of [Taussig’s] incredible and long-lasting contributions to the field of pediatric cardiology,” Bettegowda says. “As a physician-scientist, my undying professional goal is to make a contribution to patients that will improve their care the way Dr. Taussig did for children with congenital heart defects.”

Bettegowda identified two genetic causes of oligodendrogliomas—the second most common brain tumor—in the lab of Bert Vogelstein and Ken Kinzler at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center. After spending almost 14 years at Johns Hopkins, he will complete his residency in June, and will look for surgeon-scientist positions in academic medical centers so that he can continue to see patients and start a research lab.

Describing this award as the cherry on top on her PhD career, Vedangi Sample says that this award means a lot to her personally. “One of my friends who I look to for advice was also the recipient of the Bae Byo Jung Award, so it felt good to receive the same award that he did in 2010,” Sample says. “I was in awe of the research conducted by the recipients of these awards, and that was always a source of inspiration for me in my research.”

Sample studies a new role for chemical messengers in the cell’s nucleus, in Jin Zhang’s lab in the Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences Department. Later this month she will begin a postdoc in the Department of Genetics at Harvard University.

Other trainees say they feel that Young Investigator awards add to their remarkable experiences at Johns Hopkins.

Postdoc Michael Bonaguidi, from Hongjun Song’s lab in the Institute for Cell Engineering, says that one of his most memorable experiences was the review process to get the lab’s work published. “Dr. Song remarked that we essentially crammed one year’s worth of work into five weeks,” Bonaguidi says. “It was the culmination of our collective training, expertise and fortitude as well as an insane month. But it was worth it.”

Bonaguidi received the Daniel Nathans Award for his studies following the “family tree” of adult brain stem cells as they matured into neurons. He will continue his work at Johns Hopkins for the next two years, and then he plans to enter the faculty job market.

For her work identifying the DNA changes leading to stiff skin syndrome and engineering a mouse model to study the condition, Elizabeth Gerber received a Paul Ehrlich Award. She says that her most memorable experience at Johns Hopkins was meeting one particular stiff skin syndrome patient and hearing about his personal experiences with this disease. “We shared excitement over the generation of our mouse model, and hope that it might someday enable us to provide therapeutic options for him,” she adds.

As a member of the School of Medicine’s MD/PhD program, Gerber is completing her dissertation research with Hal Dietz of the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, and will return to medical school next spring.

Some students attribute the success of their research to inspiration from their mentors.

“The most important factor to my project’s success is my mentor Andy Feinberg, whose passion for science has inspired me from the day I joined the lab,” says Akiko Doi, a graduate student in the Center for Epigenetics, part of the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. “My mentor taught me how to think outside the box.”

Doi, the Hans J. Prochaska awardee, studies how samples of body cells, such as skin or blood, are reprogrammed in the lab into stem cells. Specifically, she observes how chemical modifications to the DNA change as body cells convert into stem cells. She found that stem cells retain a chemical modification fingerprint that is specific to their body cell’s origin, while at the same time sharing some DNA modifications found in cancer cells. After she completes her research this fall, Doi wants to take a postdoc position.

In addition to great mentors, the atmosphere at Johns Hopkins contributed to other trainees’ success.

“The environment at Hopkins, specifically in the Pharmacology Department, fosters great collaboration, provides exclusive research and pushes all of us,” says Mary Katherine Tarrant, who did her dissertation research in Philip Cole’s lab. “Phil was a wonderful mentor, and the work would not have been a success without his support, willingness to try new things and helpful perspective.”

Tarrant, the Alicia Showalter Reynolds awardee, concentrated her research on chemical modifications that regulate a cell survival and stress response protein. Although she defended her dissertation back in October, she stayed in the lab to finish up a few more experiments. This month, she leaves to start a postdoc position at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Former graduate student Chris Shoemaker received the Martin and Carol Macht Award for his research uncovering details of the mechanism that simultaneously breaks down protein blueprints, mRNAs, as they’re converted into proteins.

“This work benefited tremendously from the academic freedom granted to me during my tenure at Hopkins, which afforded me copious opportunities to pursue and fulfill my many academic curiosities,” he says. Shoemaker completed his PhD in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics with Rachel Green as his mentor. He now holds a postdoc position at Harvard University.

Sarah Richardson, a graduate of the Human Genetics program and the Nupur Dinesh Thekdi awardee, says, “I always felt well treated as a student at Hopkins, and I was honored to be surrounded by such hardworking and brilliant people at all levels of the organization, from the janitorial staff all the way up to the deans.”

Richardson says that her advisers were very patient when she spent time away from her research to take math and computer classes so she could improve her computational science skills. This training was necessary, she says, for creating algorithms to support the design and construction of the first synthetic yeast chromosome, which was completed while she was in Joel Bader’s lab in Biomedical Engineering. Next, she will take a postdoc position at the Joint Genome Institute at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

For work investigating how fission yeast turns on genes in low oxygen conditions, Chih-Yung Sean Lee received a Paul Ehrlich Award. Although Lee finished his dissertation late last year, he decided to stay with the Johns Hopkins community as a postdoc by joining Geraldine Seydoux’s lab in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics.

“I think the contributing factors to my project’s success were my wonderful lab mates, who made this lab a great place to work, and my mentor, Dr. Peter Espenshade, who is very supportive and always encouraging,” Lee says.

W. Barry Wood Jr. Award winner Ju Young Kim says that “as a working mom, the love and support from my family, especially my two lovable sons, made my research achievement possible.”

Kim completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Guo-li Ming’s lab in the Institute for Cell Engineering. She identified a precise genetic cause for schizophrenia, focusing on the function of DISC1, a schizophrenia risk protein, in brain development. Recently, she moved to San Diego with her family.

“This is a great time to study genetics and bioinformatics because of the large quantity of genomic data that is readily available,” says medical student and researcher Molong Li. “I am grateful for all the researchers who have contributed to this fund of knowledge and made my project possible.”

Working in Aravinda Chakravarti’s lab in the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, Li analyzes regions in the genome in between genes. Many of these spaces have no known functions and many are linked to certain diseases. Li received a Paul Ehrlich Award.