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Four undergraduates – Yunsoo Kim in Craig Hunter‘s lab; Siyuan (John) Liu in Sharad Ramanathan’s lab; Alissa D’Gama in Joshua Sanes’s lab; and Veronica Shi in Alexander Schier’s lab – received a total of five awards for their undergraduate theses in the Molecular and Cellular Biology concentration. Yunsoo Kim and Siyuan (John) Liu both received the departmental Henderson Prize. Yunsoo Kim also received the received the college-wide Hoopes Prize for Excellence in the Work of Undergraduates, as did Alissa D’Gama and Veronica Shi.

The Thomas Temple Hoopes Prize was established in 1982 to “grant awards to undergraduates on the basis of outstanding scholarly work or research.” Each of this year’s 89 winners will receive a cash award of $4,000.

The Lawrence J. Henderson Prize is awarded to the student or students who submitted the most meritorious thesis to the Board of Tutors in Biochemical Sciences, which oversees the undergraduate concentrations in Molecular and Cellular Biology and Chemical and Physical Biology. The recipients receive a $350 book award, a framed certificate, and a copy of “Fitness of the Environment” by Professor Laurence J. Henderson (1878-1942), who was known for his research on blood biochemistry. 

(L-R) Craig Hunter, Yunsoo Kim, and Antony Jose

Yunsoo Kim (Hunter lab) received both a Henderson Prize and a Hoopes Prize for her thesis, “A conserved cytoplasmic tyrosine kinase functions in the transport of silencing RNA between C. elegans cells.” Her research showed that SID-3, a gene first isolated in the Hunter Lab in 2002, encodes for a highly conserved tyrosine kinase found in many species including human and is required for the transport of RNA silencing signals between cells in the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans. Dr. Antony Jose in the Hunter Lab nominated Kim for the Hoopes Prize. Dr. Hunter, who nominated her for the Henderson award, wrote: “Yunsoo Kim has studied the mechanism of an aspect of RNA interference (RNAi), a genetic phenomenon whose discovery in the nematode C. elegans resulted in the 2006 Nobel prize in medicine. In RNAi, cells specifically inactivate expression of a gene if they are given a double-stranded RNA copy of the gene. RNAi is one of the most important technologies being used in modern genetic research and is also a promising therapeutic technology. One of the major challenges to developing an RNAi therapeutic is the delivery of the double-stranded RNA copy of the gene into cells. Ms. Kim’s thesis work investigated the function of a C. elegans gene called SID-3, which is required for the movement of RNA silencing signals from cell to cell. Her work represents an important advance working on a problem of great significance and current interest in genetics. The sheer amount of work she has done and the amount and significance of the results achieved are extraordinarily impressive for an undergraduate student.”


(L-R) John Liu and Sharad Ramanathan

Siyuan (John) Liu (Ramanathan lab) received a Henderson Prize for his thesis, “Single Cell Temporal Dynamics and Spatial Reorganization of Oct4 in Mouse Embryonic Stem Cells Reveal Differential Activation of the Pluripotency Circuit During Cell Fate Selection.”  For his thesis, John studied how certain genes that maintain embryonic stem cells in a pluripotent state are altered as these cells differentiate into more specialized cells. He quantitatively analyzed how the levels of a critical gene, Oct4, change through time in single cells and also studied how the binding of Oct4 and Sox2 changes as the embryonic stem cells differentiate. “This thesis addresses an important problem in cell/developmental biology using a strong experimental design (single cell analysis) and an impressive array of experimental and statistical tools for analysis,” wrote a third party reviewer. “What makes this thesis exceptional is the care and thoroughness with which experiments were designed and analyzed, the quality and clarity of the writing, and all the additional work on binding of Oct4 and Sox2 during differentiation. Overall, SJ Liu is to be commended on a truly exceptional thesis.”


(L-R) Alissa D’Gama, Josh Sanes, and Brendan Lilley

Alissa D’Gama (Sanes lab) received a Hoopes Prize her submission entitled “SAD kinases and neuronal polarization: examination of regulatory phosphorylation sites.” She was nominated by Professor Joshua Sanes and worked under the guidance of Dr. Brendan Lilley. Her thesis focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms by which neurons form axons and dendrites during development. The morphology of neurons is uniquely suited to their function. In general, neurons form one long, slender axon and multiple thicker, branching dendrites, structures that allow them to receive and transfer information in the nervous system. Errors in this transfer of information can lead to debilitating neuro-developmental and neurodegenerative diseases, making the formation and maintenance of neuronal polarity critical for proper neuronal function. Recent work supports the hypothesis that, during development, neurons integrate both extracellular cues, such as molecules secreted from the extracellular matrix, and intracellular mechanisms to break their symmetry and form a distinct axon and dendrites. Many molecules and pathways are involved in this process, including SAD-A/B, which are serine/threonine kinases previously demonstrated to be strictly required for neuronal polarization and the establishment of synaptic organization. In cortical neurons, SAD-A/B are activated by the kinase LKB1 and phosphorylate the microtubule associated protein tau at a site that controls tau binding to microtubules. Because little else is currently known about the regulation and targets of the SAD kinases, D’Gama investigated regulatory phosphorylation sites on SAD-A/B using site-directed mutagenesis. Altogether, her findings indicate that SAD kinases are intricately regulated by phosphorylation in the nervous system. In addition to her research, D’Gama wrote for the Crimson (Harvard’s undergraduate newspaper) for four years. To read her articles, click here.


(L-R) Alex Schier, Veronica Shi, and Ian Woods

Veronica Shi (Schier lab) received a Hoopes Prize for her submission entitled “Neuropeptide function in larval zebrafish: The role of cholecystokinin in anxiety-related behavior.” She was nominated by Professor Alexander Schier. Her thesis investigated how the behavior of larval zebrafish is affected by various neuropeptides, many of which are known to modulate anxiety in humans. Larval zebrafish represent a powerful system in which to study behavior, with the ability to investigate function at the level of genes, neuroanatomy, and neural circuits. Shi focused on one neuropeptide in particular, cholecystokinin, and its role in anxiety-related behavior. She used a wide range of cutting-edge approaches, including molecular genetics, anatomical studies of gene expression, and behavioral analysis. She characterized the expression of cholecystokinin in regions of the brain that are poised to influence anxiety-related behavior in zebrafish. She found that cholecystokinin increased both the general locomotor activity of larval zebrafish, and the response to specific stimuli, such as light and heat stimuli. Similar locomotor responses have been shown to reflect anxiety-related behavior, and Shi’s results thus demonstrate that larval zebrafish have the potential to be used as a high-throughput model to investigate modulators of anxiety. One reader wrote, “I couldn’t help but be impressed by the rigor, completeness, and attention to detail, which I found to be significantly beyond the average thesis that usually finds its way onto my desk… Veronica’s analysis examines significant levels in detail and brings the manuscript to publication quality.”