Four postdocs from MCB labs recently received fellowships that will enable their research on bacterial gene expression, the olfactory system, deer mouse behavior, and cognition in larval zebrafish.
Luis Boero of the Murthy Lab was chosen for the Pew Latin American Fellows Program in Biomedical Sciences, and Alina Guse of the Cluzel Lab received funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) through their Walter Benjamin Programme. Meanwhile, Juan Ignacio Sanguinetti Scheck of the Hoekstra and Uchida Labs and Fabian Voigt of the Engert Lab were both awarded Long Term Fellowships through the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP).
For more on each postdoc’s research, see below:
Postdoc Luis Boero of the Murthy Lab has been fascinated by sensory systems since he was a college student at University of Buenos Aires in Argentina. He conducted his undergraduate thesis and Ph.D. work in the same lab, studying auditory synapses in the cochlea.
“When I started to look for places to do my postdoc, I was sure that I wanted to continue working on a sensory [system] but mostly focused on how the sensory inputs from the periphery are processed and transformed in the brain to specific decisions,” Boero says. “Also, after years of patching hair cells of the cochlea, I was interested in learning other techniques and ways of exploring neural activity.”
That search led him to the Murthy Lab’s work on the olfactory system. Since joining the lab in March, Boero has been studying how animals track an odor to its source. “When we try to find what smells bad in our fridge or when we follow the smoky odor of a barbecue, we are following odor traces,” Boero says. “One thing we can assume about odor tracking is that when an animal (like us, or laboratory mice in this case) is still far from the odor source, the frequency with which the animal detects the odor is low. However, as soon as the animal starts moving towards the source, the number of encounters with the odor becomes higher.”
Somehow, animal brains must take in data about the frequency of odor encounters and use it to follow a scent. Boero’s research investigates the neural circuits that enable lab mice to accomplish this task.
Boero is one of ten postdocs in the 2021 Pew Latin American Fellows Program in Biomedical Sciences cohort. The program, funded through The Pew Charitable Trusts offers early career scientists who earned their Ph.D.s in Latin America the opportunity to conduct postdoctoral research in the United States.
“Becoming part of the 2021 class of PEW Latin American Fellows is a big honor for me,” says Boero. “Many scientists that I admire and who also inspired me to pursue a career in basic science have also received this award.” He adds that, in addition to the funding for postdoctoral research, the fellowship program provides networking opportunities and seed funding for fellows to establish their own labs in their home countries.
Specifically, Guse researches the genes that govern the flagellum. These whip-like tails are the main mode of locomotion for many bacteria, but growing and operating a flagellum requires a lot of energy and nutrients. Most wild bacteria live where food is scarce, and they have evolved gene regulation circuits for balancing how many resources go into supporting the flagellum and how many go toward cellular growth.
“Although the flagellum is highly conserved between different but often closely related species, we can observe distinct differences in the mechanisms that drive flagellar gene expression depending largely on the prevalent environmental conditions,” Guse says. “Of special focus in my project is the adaptation of the genetic circuit in response to culturing the bacteria for several months without the addition of further nutrients.”
Her experiments will explore whether bacteria facing limited nutrients adapt and change their transcriptional dynamics, allowing the bacteria to maintain growth, cell division, and a flagellum.
“Although bacteria are only a few micrometers small, they have evolved highly complex circuits to build and operate comparably large organelles such as the flagellum in a remarkably coordinated manner,” Guse says. “Understanding the underlying mechanisms and why seemingly closely related species have evolved different strategies to achieve the same outcome under greatly diverse conditions is fascinating to me.”
Guse was awarded a Walter Benjamin Fellowship from the German Research Foundation (DFG). The Walter Benjamin Programme supports early career researchers who have spent at least 3 years conducting research in Germany at the doctoral or postdoctoral level and who are embarking on independent research projects. The funding will enable Guse to continue these experiments. “I am very happy about the opportunity the DFG has given me to proceed with my project in Philippe Cluzel’s lab–especially in these uncertain and difficult times,” Guse says.
She also expressed gratitude toward her previous PI, saying, “I previously worked at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in the lab of Marc Erhardt, who is a great part of where I am today, and I want to thank him for his support in choosing my current lab. It was a difficult transition to move across the Atlantic Ocean during a global pandemic, alone and without knowing anyone, leaving behind everyone and everything you know–but I am grateful to be given this opportunity, especially now that international travel is starting to be available to everyone again, allowing to reunite with loved ones.”
“I am excited that MCB is beginning to return to previous activities, and I am looking forward to interacting more with the community in the future,” she adds.
Juan Ignacio Sanguinetti Scheck
Postdoc Juan Ignacio “Nacho” Sanguinetti-Scheck arrived at MCB in the middle of a pandemic and found the experience eerie. “Going into a lab without crossing people felt like trespassing,” he recalls.
Thankfully, he found a way to connect with the MCB Community in this summer’s Rhino League Volleyball Games. “I just want to express my appreciation for the BioLabs volleyball playing community where I have made many friends,” he says. “It really made the BioLabs courtyard feel like an extension of my home.”
In the lab, Sanguinetti-Scheck studies the neural evolution of neophobia, or avoidance of new and unfamiliar objects. His project is a joint effort between the Hoekstra Lab, which investigates evolution and behavior of deer mice, and the Uchida Lab, which explores neural circuitry underpinning learning and decision-making.
“In life we are exposed to novel things all the time and we need to decide whether to explore it (neophilia) or to stay away from it (neophobia),” Sanguinetti-Scheck explains. “I will take advantage of the amazing model system of Peromyscus mice and will ask: how does evolution shape how animals respond to novelty in their lives?” His work will focus on dopaminergic circuits and may have broader implications for how the brain learns and assesses risks.
Sanguinetti-Scheck says he arrived at this research topic by simply following his curiosity throughout his academic career. He conducted his Ph.D. work on navigation and play behavior in rats at the University of Humboldt in Berlin.
Originally hailing from Montevideo in Uruguay, Sanguinetti-Scheck says he is only the third Uruguayan to ever receive a Long Term Fellowship from the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP). Founded in 1989, HFSP is an international collaboration that fosters basic international research on complex life sciences questions. It specializes in funding high-risk, interdisciplinary projects. The HFSP Long Term Fellowships provide three years of funding that enable recipients to train and conduct research in a lab outside of their home country.
“I feel very honored to have received the HFSP long term postdoctoral fellowship,” Sanguinetti-Scheck says. “It provides me a great opportunity to explore science in the frontier of knowledge and in the limits of my current expertise. I feel beyond proud to represent my country being the 2nd person ever from Uruguay to receive such a fellowship, and I hope it inspires other Uruguyans as well in the future.”
“At an age of 6 to 7 days zebrafish larvae start to actively hunt small single-celled prey such as paramecia,” Voigt explains. “This behavior is guided by vision—they are not able to hunt in the dark. Interestingly, zebrafish larvae are often able to choose the closest prey when presented with multiple prey objects. Their visual system can compare distances.”
Voigt’s research investigates how the larval zebrafish pull off these visual distance comparisons. “Using a combination of behavior tracking, virtual reality, and whole-brain imaging, I will try to tackle the question of which distance cues zebrafish are able to use during hunting and how the underlying neuronal circuits might work,” he says.
Before joining MCB Voigt worked on microscopy techniques for imaging the mouse brain as a graduate student in Frijtof Helmchen’s lab at the University of Zurich. His research there included launching the mesoSPIM Initiative, which builds open-source microscopy platforms for imaging cleared tissue with light sheets.
Voigt helped mesoSPIM grow into an international collaboration. “I realized that I deeply enjoy tackling challenging imaging problems together with researchers working on all kinds of model organisms, and I’m thus looking forward to interacting with the MCB community and the wide range of organisms studied here,” he says.
Like Sanguinetti-Scheck, Voigt has received a Long Term Fellowship from the Human Frontier Science Program, which provides three years of funding to ambitious, international projects led by early-career researchers.
“I feel very honored to be selected for a HFSP fellowship!” Voigt says. “Apart from the support for my project, I’m looking forward to the HFSP Meetings that bring together scientists from all over the globe in a series of highly interdisciplinary conferences…getting to know scientists working in a completely different field is extremely difficult in the current COVID-era of online-only events.
Congratulations to these four postdocs!