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Six Postdocs from MCB Labs Receive Fellowship Funding

Six Postdocs from MCB Labs Receive Fellowship Funding

This spring, several postdocs in MCB labs have been awarded fellowships to further their research. Alon Chappleboim of the Ramanathan Lab received a Damon Runyon Fellowship Award, Lyle Kingsbury of the Uchida Lab was chosen for a Helen Hay Whitney Fellowship, Isobel Ronai of the Extavour Lab earned a fellowship from the Life Sciences Research Foundation, Amo Ryunosuke of the Uchida Lab won a grant from the Harvard Brain Science Initiative, Shirai Yu of the Extavour Lab received funding from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and Kelsey Tyssowski of the Hoekstra Lab received a K99 through the BRAIN Initiative. 

For postdocs, receiving a fellowship can be an important step toward achieving their long-term goals, such as establishing their own lab. Please join us in congratulating these talented postdocs. 

Alon Chappleboim (Ramanathan Lab)

Alon Chappleboim was selected to receive a Damon Runyon Fellowship Award from the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. The grant  will enable Chappleboim to further his research on developing spine-like organoids from human stem cells. “Having a young family, and a spouse who is also a postdoc is very challenging both in terms of time and resources,” he says. “The Damon Runyon fellowship allows me to worry less about other things, focus on my research, and take risks that I otherwise would not be able to take.” 

Chappleboim says organoid research is needed because problems during development can lead to severe conditions later on, but experimenting with human embryos is unethical. Animal studies can sometimes fill the gap but are very expensive and time consuming. “I develop new engineering techniques that direct stem cells to robustly develop spine-like structures, enabling systematic investigation and understanding of the underlying genetic networks on an unprecedented scale,” he says. 

He adds that he is fascinated by stem cells and their ability to generate any tissue. “Having access to human stem cells, and our ability to manipulate them and study their response and subsequent outcomes is an amazing opportunity to understand cellular decisions and interactions, revealing how they form the intricate machinery of the human body,” Chappleboim says. “Beyond better understanding of developmental biology, I’m hopeful that the potential to identify genetic variants that cause or prevent disease, will allow us to mitigate congenital disease in the future, and I’m excited to be a small part in this effort.”

Lyle Kingsbury (Uchida Lab

Lyle Kingsbury was awarded a Helen Hay Whitney Research Fellowship that will allow him to explore how the brain goes about making decisions. “I am incredibly grateful and honored to have received this fellowship,” Kingsbury says. “It has tremendous significance to me as a source of encouragement and affirmation of the strength of my ideas and research approach. On a practical level, the fellowship is also hugely helpful in giving me the freedom and support to go after big questions that may otherwise feel too risky to pursue.”

The Helen Hay Whitney Research Fellowship supports researchers who investigate basic questions. Kingsbury is looking into the neural mechanisms that underpin decision-making, using foraging mice as an example. “For many animals, survival depends on the ability to efficiently gather resources from the environment, which requires making many (hundreds to thousands) decisions each day about where to go for food and how to harvest it – all the while weighing the value of different options and environmental risks (like predation),” he explains. “We also make decisions all the time about how to “forage” for goods, such as food, information, and social interaction.” 

“I have always been deeply curious about how the mind works,” Kingsbury adds. “How do we think, process information, and come to distinct choices about how to act in the world? The brain is the organ that allows us, and other animals, to think at all – and how we think is constrained by the biology in the brain that implements cognitive processes such as decision-making. By peering into the brains of animals while they make choices (like mice do when they forage), we can learn a lot about the basic structure of neural processes that implement decision computations. Ultimately, this increases our understanding of how cognition works generally, and may shed light on our own cognitive processes and how they can go awry in mental disorders.” 

Isobel Ronai (Extavour Lab)

Isobel Ronai has been awarded a three year fellowship from The Life Sciences Research Foundation, funded through HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute). “I am extremely grateful to have received this funding to support both my salary and research costs for three years,” she says. “Also, I wanted to acknowledge my fellow cohort of 17 amazing researchers who are working at the forefront of basic biological research.”

Ronai’s research focuses on ticks and their associated diseases, such as Lyme Disease. “Every year half a million people are diagnosed with Lyme disease in the United States of America, all because of a bite from an infected tick,” she explains. “There are more than 30 other human diseases associated with ticks worldwide, such as a hemorrhagic fever with a 40% fatality rate and a red meat allergy that leads to fatal anaphylaxis. Worryingly, no long-term control strategies for ticks exist.”

To solve tick borne disease problems, Ronai is looking to the ticks themselves. “My fellowship project is titled ‘Developing tick control strategies to prevent Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases,’” she says. “I am investigating the molecular basis of tick development, with the ultimate goal of creating more effective control strategies for ticks.”

“My research program is motivated by the enormous health threat ticks pose to humans in both the United States and overseas,” she says. “I raise awareness about this public health issue by working with stakeholders, such as delivering expert testimony at government hearings and presenting webinars on tick biology for the Harvard Medical School Lyme Wellness Initiative.”

Ronai expressed gratitude to the American Australian Association, which funded her initial stint at Harvard. “After my fellowship, I am excited to start my own lab group that will focus on tick molecular biology,” Ronai adds. “For ticks, there are many lifetimes worth of fascinating biological discoveries to make.” To learn more about Ronai and her research, check out her website at www.isobelronai.com

Amo Ryunosuke (Uchida Lab)

Amo Ryunosuke received a seed grant through the Harvard Brain Science Initiative (HBI)’s Postdoc Pioneers Program. It supports Harvard researchers who pursue innovative approaches to research and who are asking questions outside of their lab’s main area of focus. The program provides $50,000 which can be used over one or two years.

“The fellowship boosts the progress of my projects and gives me opportunities to present those results at conferences,” Ryunosuke says. 

He is looking into the effect opioids have on the dopamine control system in the brain. “My research analyzes the effect of opioids on the dopamine system and how it happens to help understand opioid analgesia and addiction,” Ryunosuke says. I am motivated by my observation that opioids drastically alter dopamine response to aversive stimuli.” 

Ryunosuke expressed gratitude to his mentors, MCB faculty Naoshige Uchida and research fellow Mitsuko Watabe-Uchida. “I want to thank Mitsuko and Nao for their continuous support,” Ryunosuke says. “I hope this grant will be a step to becoming an independent scientist.” 

Yu Shirai (Extavour Lab)

Yu Shirai is enthusiastic about receiving funding for investigating the parallels between early embryo development and later metamorphosis in insects. “My fellowship is the JSPS (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) Overseas Research Fellowship,” Shirai says. “When I was a PhD student, I spent three months in Barcelona as a visiting student (Host Researcher: Prof. Xavier Belles). This great experience made me realize the value of conducting research abroad and communicating internationally, which motivated me to pursue opportunities abroad after getting my PhD. So, I am very happy to get this opportunity. Since this short visit was also supported by JSPS, I am very grateful for their continued support. I am always with you, JSPS! I would also like to thank Prof. Cassandra Extavour for accepting my application.”

“I am truly grateful to have received this opportunity, thanks to the support of many people including those mentioned above as well as my family and friends,” he says.

For his Ph.D. work, Shirai developed gene editing method for injecting gene modifications into adult insects. He tested it on a variety of species, including crickets, cockroaches, stink bugs, mosquitoes, beetles, moths, and flies. “I have learned a lot from my supervisor, Prof. Takaaki Daimon (Kyoto University),” Shirai says. “Through these experiences, I have become more interested in the diversity and evolution of insects.” 

Shirai is interested in insects’ developmental turning points, such as metamorphosis when some larval insects undergo dramatic changes to transform into an adult. “I am also interested in the early stages of insect development, where the embryo changes from relying on the mother’s nutrients to developing on its own,” he explains. “Since I feel these two processes involve “dramatic changes”, I want to explore the relationship between early developmental changes and metamorphosis. My goal is to understand how these two processes are related, offering novel insights into the evolution of insects.” 


Kelsey Tyssowski (Hoekstra Lab)

Kelsey Tyssowski won a K99 Pathway to Independence grant from the NIH BRAIN Initiative in support of her research studying differences between forest deer mice and prairie deer mice. K99 awards support the later stages of postdoctoral research and the first years of starting an independent lab. “When the BRAIN Initiative was announced back in 2013, I was a grad student. My grandmother, who was not a scientist, but who was very politically active, called me up and told me that the president was looking for people like me to help understand the brain, and that she was proud that I was doing something important. So I like to think she’d also be proud that the very initiative she called me about over 10 years ago is now funding the start to my own lab!”

In her research, Tyssowski compares and contrasts mice from different habitats. “Forest mice are good at climbing and more dexterous than their prairie counterparts,” she explains. “The research funded by this fellowship aims to determine the neural basis of these behavioral differences. Thus far in my postdoc, I have found that forest mice have an increase in the number of a particular neuron type that sends information from the cortex of the brain to the spinal cord.” Researchers have long hypothesized that a greater number of neurons contributes to skilled movements like climbing. 

“However, we don’t really understand what having more neurons does to brain function,” Tyssowski says. “In the research funded by this fellowship, I plan to compare these closely related deer mice to understand (1) how differences in neuron number affect neural circuit activity and skilled motor behavior and (2) how these differences in neuron number arise in development.”

She adds, “Recent technological advances have made it more and more feasible to study neuroscience in non-model systems, like deer mice. This enables us to uncover the neural and molecular basis of complex, ecologically relevant behaviors. On a broader scale, I want to understand how seemingly small genetic or molecular changes, like those that we find in the mere thousands of years of evolution between my deer mouse subspecies (and also those between individuals!), can result in differences in the brain and behavior.” 

(l to r) Amo Ryunosuke, Kelsey Tyssowski, Yu Shirai, Alon Chappleboim, Isobel Ronai, and Lyle Kingsbury

(l to r) Amo Ryunosuke, Kelsey Tyssowski, Yu Shirai, Alon Chappleboim, Isobel Ronai, and Lyle Kingsbury