Four MCB students have been honored this spring with prestigious awards designed to allow them to continue their academic pursuits at Harvard. Caitlin Lewarch from Hopi Hoekstra’s lab has won a two-year Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF DDIG). G1 student Stephania Irwin has won the Postgraduate Scholarship-Doctoral Award (PSGD3) from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Jenelle Wallace from Venkatesh Murthy’s lab has won an F31 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And finally, Annie Aindow from the Dan Kahne lab has won an NSF Fellowship.
Lewarch’s grant will fund additional experiments beyond the scope of her original dissertation, which is on the genetic and neurobiological basis of nesting behavior disparities between different species of deer mice.
According to her advisor, Professor Hopi Hoekstra, these NSF grants for graduate students are extremely competitive. Applicants are judged both on the intellectual merit of their work, and on the broader impacts of the successful completion of their projects. For Lewarch, the grant will be used to illuminate aspects of her dissertation that were not addressed in the main scope of her work.
“For my PhD research so far, I’ve identified a heritable difference in how quickly two 11Peromyscus species begin nesting and have done a quantitative trait locus (QTL) mapping experiment to identify regions of the genome that are associated with this behavioral difference,” Lewarch said. “These QTL each contain a number of genes, many of which are expressed in the brain. To narrow down the gene list to only the best candidates, we’d like to know more about where a gene linked to nesting behavior should be acting in the brain. In other words, we want to know which neurons are active while an animal is nesting.”
Lewarch’s grant experiments will attempt to reveal the areas of the mouse brain involved in nesting. Lewarch says the grant will cover expenses like sequencing costs, as well as fees for using a slide scanning microscope at the Harvard Center for Biological Imaging.
“My goals are to identify neurons that are active while an animal is nesting using patterns of immediate-early gene (IEG) expression, then characterize the transcriptomes of these neurons using phosphorylated ribosome profiling,” Lewarch said. “This will allow us to focus on candidate genes that are expressed in neurons important for nesting behavior.”
“Caitlin is an incredibly enthusiastic researcher and mentor, who tackles big questions with a combination of passion, patience and persistence,” said Hoekstra. “On a given day Caitlin may be conducting behavioral assays, or doing bioinformatics, or querying the brains of mice, or likely all three. Sometimes you can find her in the field, digging up nests in nature. Caitlin’s research approach is integrative, focusing on understanding both the evolutionary and molecular mechanisms giving rise to natural behaviors.”
Irwin is still planning her academic path at MCB, and is currently rotating between labs. As a native of Canada, her options for fellowships were somewhat hampered by her status as an international student.
“I heard about the NSERC PGS-D after having applied for and received an NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award at the University of Alberta,” Irwin said. “The PGS-D program allows for Canadians studying in the United States to receive funding, which is critical given the restrictions on funding for international students. While my classmates worked on their NSF proposal, I was able to work on my proposal and have the assistance of my peers, the MCB292 teaching staff, and other MCO workshops.”
Irwin is looking forward to joining a lab this summer, and to beginning her own project once she has settled on an area for research. For now she is rotating through three MCO labs, and contemplating the added benefits of winning her NSERC award.
“Having a fellowship will help me to have other professional development opportunities, such as conferences, to build networks and presentation skills,” she said. “My long term goal is to run my own research group.”
Wallace’s neural research has earned her the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Individual Predoctoral Fellowship (Parent F31). According to the NIH, the purpose of the award is to identify promising predoctoral students in health-related fields and offer them mentored research training from outside faculty sponsors. The goal is to help students hone their research skills in order to improve their dissertation work in their chosen field.
“I’m studying adult neurogenesis in the mouse olfactory system, specifically how adult-born neurons integrate into existing brain circuits,” Wallace said. “I’ve been tracking the functional maturation of these cells in vivo.”
Wallace’s mentor, Professor Venkatesh Murthy, had encouraged her to apply for the NIH grant, thereby demonstrating faith in her research plans.
“During the two years of my fellowship, I’m hoping to learn new techniques that will complement my existing skills and allow me to ask more mechanistic questions about how adult-born neurons functionally mature in the circuit,” she said. “Someday I hope to have my own lab and continue studying neural circuits and plasticity.”
Aindow did not let early setbacks discourage her from pursuing funding for her proteomics research. With the encouragement of two supportive advisors, she learned that the third time’s the charm when applying for her NSF grant.
“I applied for the fellowship as an undergraduate and again as a G1 and was rejected both times,” Aindow said. “I was discouraged but decided to apply again this year, since this is the last year that applicants could apply three times. I am very fortunate to have the support of my current advisor, Dan Kahne, as well as my undergraduate advisor, Jeremy Thorner [Professor of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Structural Biology at UC Berkeley], both of whom have invested a great deal of time and effort in my development as a scientist, and who encouraged me to apply for this fellowship.”
Aindow’s work impressed the NSF committee, which honors exceptional students in several NSF-sponsored research fields. Aindow says she is excited about the award’s focus on career development and networking, as well as teaching and outreach.
“I hope to use this opportunity to highlight the far-reaching implications of antibiotic resistance both in a clinical and basic research context,” she said. “My research centers around the penicillin-binding proteins (PBPs), enzymes which build bacterial cell walls and are commonly the target of antibiotics. My lab studies the functional mechanism of this class of proteins in Staphylococcus aureus, due to its prevalence as a human pathogen.”
“The project I proposed aims to explore the functional interdependence between PBP2, a PBP normally found in S. aureus, and PBP2a, which is only found in strains which have acquired methicillin resistance [methicillin-resistant S. aureus, or MRSA],” she said. “While interaction between PBPs has been hypothesized before, I developed a plan to take advantage of biochemical tools such as crosslinking in order to determine how this interaction contributes to the functional interdependence of these two proteins. The eventual goal is to target this interaction using small molecules in order to specifically kill MRSA, while leaving the host microbiome otherwise intact.”
Aindow’s long term goals involve following in her mentors’ footsteps, and eventually becoming a professor. The NSF grant will allow her to continue her work at Harvard toward achieving that goal.
“I hope to pass on my passion for research to future generations of scientists through mentorship and teaching, as my advisors have done for me,” she said.