Neuroscience concentrator Kathleen Ran (‘21) has been awarded the Dowling Thesis Prize, which honors outstanding thesis work by an undergraduate doing neurobiology research.
The award’s namesake, MCB faculty John Dowling, was impressed by Ran’s investigation into the role of microglial cells’ “engulfment” behavior in Alzheimer’s risk. “Kathleen has written a magnificent thesis,” he says. “Exceptionally well written, its introduction describing the possible role of microglia in Alzheimer’s disease is wonderfully thorough and extensively referenced. Almost 80 pages in length, it is more like a PhD thesis than one by an undergraduate.”
Being chosen as a Dowling Prize recipient was a pleasant surprise for Ran. “Because I was familiar with Professor Dowling’s groundbreaking research on rhodopsin, receiving the prize in his name was all the more surreal and meaningful,” she says. “I actually found out the news while I was out at a dinner, when one of my fellow neuroscience concentrators texted me to jump on the awards presentation Zoom call.”
Ran did her thesis research at the Broad Institute in Beth Stevens’s lab.
“My thesis project investigated the role of the immune system’s microglia cells in Alzheimer’s disease pathogenesis,” Ran says. “I sought to identify novel genetic regulators of engulfment function using microglia differentiated from human stem cells. By analyzing gene expression data and measuring engulfment activity following genetic knockout, I determined the direct effect of newly identified Alzheimer’s risk genes on microglia engulfment function.”
The strength of the evidence Ran collected greatly impressed Dowling. “The thesis provides impressive support for the view that microglial cells play an important and central role in Alzheimer’s disease,” he says.
Ran’s thesis is also notable for incorporating cutting-edge techniques such as single-cell RNA sequencing, and conducting such technique-intensive work during a pandemic was far from a simple task. “The week that I formally joined the Stevens Lab was the same week that both Harvard University and the Broad Institute shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ran says. “I actually did not meet any lab members in person until I was able to enter the Broad Institute and begin benchwork in the fall.”
“Fortunately,” she adds, “remote research was incredibly productive. With support from my postdoctoral fellow mentor, Dr. Martine Therrien, I was able to learn and apply new bioinformatic skills for analyzing transcriptomic data.”
Ran says that she is honored to receive this accolade and glad to be part of the Harvard Neuroscience and MCB community. “The neuroscience community at Harvard is an incredibly welcoming group of students and faculty who actively make space for people with diverse research interests,” she says. “I have been able to learn so much about niche areas of the field just from talking to other neuroscience concentrators in the BioLounge. I am grateful to be able to graduate with so many great friends and memories!”
Congratulations to Kathleen Ran!