Harvard MCB hosts dozens of promising early career scientists, many of whom conduct research under the auspices of postdoctoral fellowships.
These five postdocs recently received funding in support of their research on neuroscience, genetics, and developmental biology. Congratulations to Kritika Gupta (Cluzel Lab), Nathan Lord (Schier Lab), Athar Malik (Uchida Lab), Annika Nichols (Schier Lab), and Yasuyo Tanaka (Uchida Lab)!
Details on their fellowships are below:
Hailing from Delhi, India, Kritika Gupta is one of five 2018-2019 B4 Science and Technology Fellows. The fellowship, administered by the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, enables promising Indian scientists to spend 18 months researching at Harvard.
“Through the fellowship, the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute at Harvard facilitates exchange of scientific experiences and builds a network through discussions with pioneers and experts in science,” Gupta says. “Moreover, I must say that it also makes you feel comfortable in a foreign land.”
Gupta’s interest in biology began early in life. “I owe my specific interest in experimental genetics to my grandfather, who meticulously maintained a record of the diseases running in the family,” she says. Her curiosity about how genes contribute to phenotypes led her to study protein folding and structure as a Ph.d. student in the biophysics program at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.
Today, Gupta studies genetic circuits in bacteria and how these circuits enable individual bacteria to respond to their environments. She’s particularly interested in the potential uses of microfluidics in microbial genetics research. Using microfluidics techniques will help scientists understand how and why each bacterial cell is different from others, Gupta says.
She’s looking forward to learning new techniques and conducting ambitious experiments at Harvard. “I’m reminded of a saying: ‘Only when you have the courage to lose the sight of shore, can you discover the ocean,” she says. “With a background in molecular genetics and training in molecular biology and protein biophysics, I’m now looking forward to strengthening my research capabilities through exposure to challenging tasks.”
The Schier Lab’s Nathan Lord has received the NIH’s prestigious “Pathway to Independence” Award (K99/R00), which provides five years of support to postdocs who will soon found their own labs. The award will support both his current postdoctoral work and his first endeavors when he becomes a primary investigator.
“I feel really thankful to the NIH for its support of basic research and for scientists who scientists who move between disciplines,” Lord says. “One of the best parts of my career has been the opportunity for reinvention…It is always a joy to become a new scientist at each stage.”
Lord is investigating how cells in zebrafish embryos respond to chemical cues. In particular, he’s interested in cells’ ability to “read” the complex melange of chemical signals that surrounds them.
“I study what embryos do when they make mistakes,” he says. “We tend to think of embryos as being perfect little machines that develop just the right way every single time. However, it turns out perfection is really hard to achieve…I want to know what mechanisms embryos have in place to prevent mistakes from happening and whether they can recover when something goes wrong.”
This work builds on Lord’s Ph.D. research on how bacterial cells sort through chemical “noise” and randomness. “This noise turns out to be a major factor in how bacteria do business– sometimes they use it in clever ways to solve problems, and sometimes they employ elaborate molecular circuits to minimize it,” he explains.
Lord’s NIH award will fund further investigations into how animal cells cope with noise. “I’m excited to see whether we can see these same mechanisms operating in other animals,” he says.
Athar Malik has been awarded a 2019-2020 Neurosurgery Research & Education Foundation (NREF) Research Fellowship Grant. The grant, which is jointly sponsored by the NREF, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), and the Congress of Neurological Surgeons (CNS), supports research led by neurosurgery residents pursuing careers as neurosurgeon-scientists. Malik’s grant was awarded to support his project of developing a mouse model of midbrain compression to study the neural circuits underlying coma and consciousness.
Malik’s work as a neurosurgery resident at Massachusetts General Hospital was a source of inspiration for his research. He explains, “Neurosurgeons treat patients with many forms of brain injury. Some of the most devastating injuries are those involving compression of a part of the brain called the midbrain, because these injuries can affect a person’s level of consciousness and, if severe enough, can even cause coma.”
Treatments for these patients are limited at present, but Malik points out that occasionally patients make remarkable recoveries — literally waking up from coma. “This convinced me that recovery is possible and inspired me to learn more about the neural circuits of the midbrain and their response to injury. My hope is that such research will not only advance our understanding of the neural basis of consciousness but will also lead to new treatments for patients.”
His interest in midbrain circuitry led him to the Uchida laboratory. “Dr. Uchida is a leader in the study and manipulation of neural circuits underlying behavior, and his laboratory has published seminal papers on the role of midbrain circuits in reward processing,” Malik says. As a postdoctoral fellow in the Uchida Lab, Malik will use optogenetics, calcium imaging, and electrophysiological recordings to explore midbrain circuitry in his mouse model of midbrain compression. “Training in Dr. Uchida’s laboratory will help me develop the techniques and skills needed to study brain circuits and work towards advancing our understanding and treatment of midbrain injury,” Malik adds.
“It is a tremendous honor to receive the NREF research fellowship grant in support of my project in Dr. Uchida’s laboratory,” Malik says. “The funding from this grant will enable me to perform experiments that will hopefully improve our understanding of the neural circuits underlying coma and consciousness.”
Annika Nichols is the recipient of an EMBO Long-term Fellowship. Sponsored by the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), the fellowship encourages international cross-pollination by funding postdocs who pursue research in a country other than the one where they did their Ph.D.
“I’m originally from Australia, but I completed my Ph.D. in Austria,” Nichols says. “I love that scientific research is often an international effort and have enjoyed being able to live in several countries and meet diverse, passionate people from all around the globe. I see that as being especially true at Harvard, as many of the world’s best and brightest have congregated here.”
“I feel honored to have received this fellowship,” she adds. “It also shows that the scientific community supports me and my ideas. This encourages me to do the best science I can.”
During her postdoc in the Schier Lab, Nichols will investigate the genes and neural circuits that govern sleep in zebrafish. “I first became interested in sleep during my Ph.D., where I studied the brain activity of sleeping nematode worms,” Nichols says. “Sleep still contains many mysteries and I’m interested in investigating it further in fish, as their brains have many more underlying similarities to ours.”
In particular, Nichols will be looking into the genes and neurons that shape patterns of sleep and wakefulness. Though zebrafish are distant cousins to humans, it’s likely that some of the same genes and circuits shape human sleep schedules.
“I’m excited to work with zebrafish as they are many fold larger and complex than the humble worm,” she says. “They are in and of themselves a whole new world and I am enjoying exploring their inner workings, especially in the context of sleep.”
Nichols is looking forward to sharing ideas with people in and around Cambridge, MA. “I’m delighted to have become a part of the Harvard community,” she says.“The quality and quantity of research in diverse fields as well as the number of world-class scientists coming through the Harvard campus is overwhelming. It’s an intellectual’s playground.”
Yasuyo Tanaka arrives at the Uchida Lab as a postdoc, thanks to the Naito Grant for Studying Overseas. The grant’s sponsor, the Naito Foundation supports life science researchers who contribute to the advancement of science and the promotion of human welfare.
“I feel really, really honored to receive this grant. If I couldn’t get this, I had no chance to research in a foreign country,” Tanaka says. She adds that she is looking forward to encountering new ideas and experiencing a wider perspective.
Tanaka will investigate how the brain processes information about the passage of time. “I’m interested in how we sense time in the brain,” she says. “We may feel length of time differently depending on our mood, healthy, wakefulness and so on. Sense of time and state of our body and brain may have strong relationship. If we know this relationship, our sense of time might become a barometer of our body’s — or brain’s — condition.“
Her goal is to understand how different brain regions regulate activity in dopamine neurons that play a role in perceiving time. “As a first step…in the Uchida lab, I will try to investigate the internal time representation of dopamine neurons in mice, which are related to reward system,” she says. “I’d like to know the relationship between the activity timing of dopamine neurons and other brain regions’ neural activities such as the cerebellum or basal ganglia.”
To address these questions, Tanaka is using neuroscience techniques, including electrophysiology, optogenetics, and fiber photometry.
Tanaka is appreciative of the support from the Naito Foundation and the Harvard MCB community. She would also like to thank her husband and two daughters, who are staying in Japan but understand what Tanaka hopes to do during her postdoc. She adds, “I miss them, but I’ll do my best here.”
The fellowship funds awarded to these outstanding scientists will enable further experiments into fundamental biology. Congratulations to all of these postdocs!