Several postdocs from MCB Labs have received prestigious fellowships that will support their ongoing research. To learn more about these postdocs and their fellowships, read on!
Postdoc Shuonan He of the Hoekstra Lab has been awarded a Helen Hay Whitney Research Fellowship that will support his investigation into the evolutionary genetics of fur growth in deer mice.
Since its founding in 1947, the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation (HHWF) has provided fellowships to over 1,100 early career scientists in basic biological and biomedical research. Each fellowship recipient receives three years of funding for their postdoctoral work.
He will be working with the Hoekstra Lab’s chosen animal of study–the deer mouse. “For most animals that live in the wild, hair is crucial for survival as it provides thermoregulation, camouflage, tactile sensation, and many other important biological functions,” He explains. “My research stems from a simple observation: high-altitude mammals inherently develop longer and denser fur compared to their low-altitude conspecifics. By studying wild populations of the North American deer mice collected at different altitudes, I would like to understand what genetic changes contribute to their fur differences, how these genes function during hair growth, and ultimately, how changes in hair morphology enable the animals to better adapt to their habitats.”
“The HHW fellowship provides the much needed financial support for me, and will allow me to carry out both field research as well as large-scale forward genetics crosses in the lab,” he adds.
Working with mammals is a relatively new experience for He, who studied genes that control embryonic development in the sea anemone Nematostella as a graduate student in the Gibson Lab at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. “I really enjoyed working with these understudied marine invertebrate organisms, which allows formulating interesting hypotheses regarding animal body plan evolution,” he says. “However, Cnidarians branched off from the bilaterians (animals like worms, flies, fishes and humans) over 600 million years ago…So for my postdoc research, I shifted to work with the deer mouse, which underwent recent morphological diversification events as they expanded and colonized new terrestrial habitats after the last glacial maximum 20,000 years ago. Combining population genetic and forward genetic approaches, it is possible to not only identify the genetic changes associated with a certain trait, but also understand their population structure and evolutionary history.”
He says he is honored to receive the HHW Foundation’s support and is looking forward to his upcoming scientific adventures. “I’m originally from Inner Mongolia, China, and spent seven years in Kansas City, Missouri before moving to Cambridge,” he says. “It’s sad to say goodbye to the cornfields and barbecues, but the Bostonian beaches and seafood serve as a nice substitute. I’ve always loved the ocean and the exotic marine life, yet had to give up my dream of becoming a marine biologist due to severe sea sickness. So working in a coastal city on cute terrestrial mammals becomes the next best option. Working with a non-traditional mammalian organism is both challenging and stimulating, as I have to constantly come up with novel approaches and experimental setups that have not been implemented or tested in this system before. Fortunately, my colleagues and friends here are extremely supportive and helped me get on track quickly.”
Postdoc Luis Hernandez-Nunez of the Engert Lab has been named as a recipient of the prestigious Warren Alpert Distinguished Scholar Award. This is the first time that a FAS postdoc receives this honor, which is given to postdocs with at least three years of research experience, and provides two years of generous funding as the recipients wrap up their postdocs.
“I’m deeply honored to receive the Warren Alpert Distinguished Scholar Award,” he says. “Every year each institution/university nominates 1 postdoc for this award and then only 5 or 6 are selected from across the United States, so it’s a great honor for me to receive it.”
Hernandez-Nunez uses an interdisciplinary systems neuroscience approach to investigate the neural circuits that control heart function. “Brain circuits need to generate signals to control organs, including the heart,” he says. “Moreover, brain state is modulated by internal sensory neurons that sense how each organ is doing. I’m using a multidisciplinary approach that combines systems neuroscience, control theory, and cardiology to uncover how the brain modulates heart function and vice versa.”
Cardiac function isn’t the first scientific topic to catch Hernandez-Nunez’s interest. “I went from working on ways to implement control algorithms to stabilize a satellite in space to then working on how bacteria control protein concentrations to effectively swim, and then during my PhD [in the Samuel Lab] I studied how larval Drosophila use behavior to control internal body temperature,” he explains.“Now I study how zebrafish control cardiac function. The constant in my work is that I look for control systems, the ones I consider with the highest opportunity for critical scientific discovery.”
He adds, “I started my postdoc in September 2020 and I have had a wonderful time working here. I have been able to work with independence and support. My advisors have given me ample resources and space for me to develop my scientific vision and allowed me to assemble a team of students that work with me. I could not imagine a more ideal situation for a postdoc who is working in a new field.”
Hernandez Nunez also expressed gratitude toward his mentors and collaborators, saying, “I’m grateful to my advisors Florian Engert and Mark Fishman, as well as to my students Areni, Joana, Mariam, Sky, Laurens, and Maanasa. I could not have made this much progress so fast without my amazing team. This is an accomplishment for all of us and the funding will benefit all of them as well. I am also grateful to the Life Sciences Research Foundation and to Additional Ventures who have supported me in the previous years of my postdoc and will continue to do so. Last, I am also grateful to my collaborators from the Ahrens Lab at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus, and at the Lichtman lab here at Harvard MCB.”
Postdoc Ding Liu of the Dulac Lab and the Uchida Lab has been selected to join the Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program. Administered by Health Resources In Action (HRIA), the Charles A. King supports postdoctoral researchers and mentored clinician-scientists who are in the later stages of their scientific training and preparing to transition to becoming principal investigators.
Liu is approaching the end of his sixth year as a postdoc in MCB, where he studies instinctive social need in mice. Over the past years, he has identified a neural circuit that appears to underpin varying responses to social isolation. The fellowship will enable him to build on this research.
“I’m super excited to receive this fellowship,” Liu says. “It is a big encouragement and confirmation for my current project and the following-up studies.”
Liu is looking forward to further experiments. “My project focuses on a very fundamental question: why do we need a social life and what is the underlying drive of social interactions (or in a human word, what is loneliness?),” he explains. “This fellowship enables me to continue exploring the reasons underlying individual differences when facing social isolation. Like people with different personalities have different needs for social activity, some mice are super social and very sensitive to social isolation, and some mice are insensitive to isolation stress.”
“There is no doubt that eating, drinking and sleeping are our fundamental needs,” Liu adds. “My project suggests that social interaction is another important need that is quite similar to the regulation of eating, drinking and sleeping.”
Liu got his Ph.D. in the Institute of Neuroscience (ION) in Shanghai, China and studied the neural mechanisms on working memory.
He adds that studying social interactions at Harvard has been rewarding. “This is an overarching project that needs help and collaboration across fields and labs,” Liu says. ”Without the scientific and emotional support from my colleagues in the Dulac Lab and the Uchida Lab, I cannot complete the project alone. That is another example of how important social interaction is in creative works.”
The BRAIN Initiative has chosen research associate Brandon Logeman of the Dulac Lab as a recipient of the K99/R00 Postdoctoral Career Transition Award to Promote Diversity. The prestigious K99/R00 program supports researchers as they transition from their mentored postdoctoral research experience to establishing their own labs as principal investigators.
“Receiving the K99/R00 BRAIN Initiative Advanced Postdoctoral Career Transition Award to Promote Diversity is an incredible honor, one that my younger self would have never thought possible,” Logeman says. “Growing up on a pig farm in rural Kentucky, scientific research never seemed a realistic possibility. After becoming the first in my family to graduate college, this award will help me continue my career path in academics.”
Logeman’s experience growing up on a farm was a key part of what led him to pursue a career in science. “I was originally drawn to research in agriculture by the prospect of using genetic engineering to create more nutritious corn for livestock consumption and spent my Ph.D. studying biologically essential metals such as copper,” he says.
After completing his Ph.D. in the Thiele Lab at Duke University, Logeman decided to switch over to studying nerves. “The neuroscience based research I’m conducting as a postdoc is quite different than anything I’ve done in the past,” he says.In the Dulac Lab, Logeman studies how hormonal signaling influences animal behavior. “Neurons can significantly alter their ability to transform information into behavior depending on current situations,” he explains. “I study the molecular mechanisms by which neurons make cell-type specific changes in response to circulating hormones and how this affects animal behavior towards infants.”
The K99/R00 funding will enable Logeman to further pursue this research. He adds that he is grateful to his colleagues and collaborators for their help over the past five years at Harvard. “I’m especially grateful to everyone that has given a smile, shared a laugh, and let me know I am not alone,” he says.
Postdoctoral fellow Isobel Ronai of the Extavour Lab has received funding from the American Australian Association, which will support her research on the genetics of ticks and tick-associated diseases.
“This funding means a lot to me, it has provided me the opportunity to pursue and advance tick molecular research in this vibrant research community,” Ronai says. “Also, the Association has a wonderful community of Australian scholars in the United States, through which I have been connected to fellow Australians in other FAS departments and HMS.”
Ronai hails from Australia, one of the furthest places in the world from Massachusetts. She says it takes a 6.5 hour flight, followed by a 15 hour flight to return home.
As a graduate student in Ben Oldroyd’s lab at the University of Sydney, Ronai studied a different invertebrate. “My PhD research was in the same area (insect/arthropod genetics) as my postdoc, but I worked on another well-recognized organism– honey bees!” she says. “I helped establish the genetic and mechanistic basis of worker sterility in the honey bee and more broadly the social insects during my PhD.”
For her postdoctoral work, Ronai shifted to ticks. Tick-associated diseases are a major problem in the United States and elsewhere, but relatively little is known about the genetic and molecular traits of ticks. “They are blood-feeding parasites that cause over 50 diseases worldwide, including Lyme disease in the United States,” she says. “I was inspired to study ticks because they are animals that have a tremendous health impact worldwide, but I discovered that we know very little about their fundamental biology. I work on a highly invasive tick species, associated with a human disease that has a 30% fatality rate, which reproduces asexually and we do not know how the tick does this.”
Ronai also advocates for increased funding to address tick-associated diseases and has written about the issue for The Conversation.
She adds, “I am extremely grateful to my advisor Cassandra Extavour for going above and beyond in supporting me to apply for fellowships and welcoming ticks into her lab.” Ronai is enthusiastic about her research and looking forward to conducting more experiments on ticks.
Congratulations to these outstanding postdocs!