The recipients of Fellowships in 2014 carry out their research in various fields within the life sciences, such as neurobiology, genetics, ecology and biotechnology. These passionate young scientists are often motivated by matters touching on local public health or biodiversity protection.
Obesity and diabetes
Current Institution: New York University School of Medicine, USA
Host Institution: New York University Langone Medical Center, USA
A major risk factor for both cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which cause at least 2.8 million deaths annually, obesity was once a problem only in high income countries but is now dramatically on the rise in medium- and low-income countries around the world. Bhama Ramkhelawon’s research aims to solve the mystery of precisely how dysfunctional immune reactions in obese patients trigger these widespread and often fatal illnesses. Her recent work has demonstrated that a molecule present in the body called Netrin-1 plays a pivotal role in maintaining the chronic inflammation—a dysfunctional immune response—of adipose (fatty) tissues linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. During her fellowship, she will use gene deletion experiments to test her hypothesis that Netrin-1 does in fact hold the key to this mystery. If her theory proves correct, the work done by Bhama Ramkhelawon will contribute to a far better understanding of obesity-induced inflammation and ultimately lead to the development of new and more effective treatments.
Plant molecular biology
Current Institution: Molecular Systematics Laboratory, Department of Botany, University of Lagos, Nigeria
Host Institution:Centre for Plant Diversity and Systematics, University of Reading, United Kingdom
Aramide Oshingboye is focusing her PhD research project on a particular plant family, the Fabaceae family, whose biodiversity -the existence of a healthy array of species and subspecies with a large and varied gene pool- is vital to the ecosystem of the arid zones of northern Nigeria which is a fragile paradise. The ability of these leguminous plants to fix nitrogen in the soil helps maintain its fertility and prevent erosion while, as well, cultivated varieties such as chickpeas, soybeans and lentils are essential to food supplies. The combined threat of global warming and unsustainable farming practices are however, threatening the genetic diversity of the Fabaceae family. Much of Aramide Oshingboye’s research will involve the use of new DNA barcoding technique for identifying plants in order to create a genetic map of the relationships between the different species. In contributing to a greater understanding of the biodiversity of the Fabaceae family and of the region itself, her work will enable more effective conservation efforts in the face of global climate change and eco-friendly farming methods both in her home country and throughout the world.
Pharmaceutical and biomedical science
Current Institution: Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan
Host Institution:Division of Health Sciences and Technology, Harvard-MIT, Cambridge, USA
Gul Shahnaz’s research focuses on inventing a new drug delivery system for Leishmaniasis, a tropical disease transmitted by sand flies that affects 12 million people in over 88 countries. Currently, the only existing treatment is both expensive and highly toxic, often resulting in severe adverse reactions. As well, in many parts of the world the parasite causing the disease has become drug-resistant and there is now a pressing need to find new treatments that are both effective and affordable. Gul Shahnaz believes that the key lies in nanotechnology. She aims to harness the potential of this “technology of the infinitesimally small” to create a system for administering the drug, either orally or via application on the skin, that improves its stability, releases it into the body in a time-controlled manner and increases the amount that actually reaches the bloodstream. In a particularly innovative extension of her research, she will also attempt to overcome the problem of drug resistance associated with conventional therapies. If she achieves her goal, her work will enhance quality of life for countless Leishmaniasis patients around the globe.
Current Institution: Department of Research in Virology and Biotechnology, Gorgas Memorial Institute of Health Studies, Panama City, Panama
Host Institution: Institute for Human Infections and Immunity, Galveston National Laboratory, Texas, USA
After having made several fundamental discoveries regarding how the human immune system reacts when the body is infected by a virus, Sandra Lopez-Verges is currently focusing on particular category called arboviruses. Transmitted through blood-feeding insects such as mosquitoes, sand flies and ticks, arboviruses pose a major threat to public health in her country and the surrounding region. Her research will specifically target dengue virus and eastern equine encephalitis virus (EEEV), both of which have grown much more virulent in recent years. Incidence of dengue fever has increased 30-fold over the past fifty years, with up 50-100 million infections occurring annually in over 100 countries. EEEV in Latin America was, until a short time ago, found only in horses, but the first recorded human epidemic occurred in Panama in 2010. Sandra Lopez-Verges will use her fellowship to study the genomes of these two viruses in the hopes of understanding how and why they have become more virulent, and the ultimate goal of her work is to help prevent the spread of the often deadly diseases they cause.
Current Institution: Genome Institute of Singapore
Host Institution: Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institute, Sweden
Jingmei Li specializes in the study of breast cancer, a complex disease that develops from accumulated genetic mutations. Although several strong inherited mutations conferring a 60-85% lifetime risk of breast cancer have been identified, they account for only 5-10% of actual cancers. Researchers now believe that the majority of inherited breast cancers stem from combinations of weaker genetic factors, each conferring a small amount of risk individually but when present together greatly increasing the odds of developing the disease. Jingmei Li’s research aims to ascertain which of these weaker genetic factors are associated with particularly aggressive tumors and poorer prognosis. Her results should help shed light on some of the important drivers of the disease and improve the identification of women at risk of developing the severest forms of breast cancer who might otherwise be diagnosed at a stage too late for effective treatment. She will also attempt to uncover combinations of survival factors that can help doctors with decision-making and enable new personalized treatments for cancer patients.
Current Institution: School of Medicine, Ahfad University for Women, Sudan
Host University: Institute of Immunology, Genetics and Pathology, Uppsala University, Sweden
Adila Elobeid’s fellowship will serve a two-fold purpose. A medical doctor and researcher in neuropathology, she has set herself the difficult challenge of raising awareness of brain donation in Sudan, a country where traditional beliefs make it difficult for families to accept post-mortem organ donations. Encouraging brain donations will enable Sudanese researchers to progress more rapidly in understanding neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. Along with the opportunity to observe first-hand how brain banks are established and managed, her time in Sweden will be spent furthering her PhD project. Her research is centered on the process of neurodegeneration, in particular the transport of vital substances between the center of the brain cell to its outlying extensions or axons. She will specifically focus on the process of axonal transport by specific motor protein and attempt to assess whether changes in the levels of these proteins may be involved in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Upon completion of her doctorate Adila Elobeid plans to return to Sudan to continue teaching and researching and her goal is to set up the country’s first brain bank.
Current Institution: Hédi Raïs Institute of Ophthalmology, Tunis, Tunisia and Institut Pasteur, Tunis, Tunisia
Host University: Department of Genetics, Institute of Vision, Paris, France
Farah Ouechtati’s early research focused on the genetic basis of eye diseases and more specifically inherited retinal diseases. Some causative genes when under-expressed lead to progressive photoreceptor degenerations. Scientists discovered a gene encoding for a protein involved in the degenerative process that may also have a role in Alzheimer’s disease. Farah Ouechtati will use her fellowship to study this gene, Nxnl2, in more details. As the Nxnl2 gene is involved in the functioning of the eye and brain function, and its reduced expression is linked to both cognitive impairment and deterioration of the retina, Farah Ouechtati aims to determine whether it can be manipulated in such a way as to treat these debilitating disorders. To achieve this, she will attempt to identify the molecular processes that regulate the Nxnl2 gene and, secondly, attempt to identify the specific brain cells in which this gene is naturally expressed. Her results should open the door to innovative, non-invasive treatments for neurodegenerative diseases and help to shed light on the complex molecular interactions underlying them.
Current Institution: Okan University, Istanbul, Turkey
Host Institution: Division of Biomedical Engineering, Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA
Working at the frontiers of material science and biochemistry, Ahu Arslan Yildiz’ current work focuses on developing innovative diagnostic tools. She recently harnessed advances in technology to develop highly innovative experimental membrane platforms that mimic cell membranes and the proteins they contain. As cell membrane proteins are implicated in a wide range of diseases, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cancer, they provide critical information for early diagnosis and preliminary screening of many of these illnesses. During her fellowship Ahu Arslan Yildiz aims to develop a stable, reproducible method for using her biomimetic approach of these artificial cell membrane to create “lab-on-a-chip” systems that can be used at any point-of-care, eliminating the need for expensive laboratory equipment and certain types of medical personnel and infrastructure that are scarce or inexistent in many economically disadvantaged regions. Ultimately, the portability, affordability and high sensitivity of these systems will make top-quality diagnostic techniques available to patients in non-hospital settings in remote parts of the developing world.
Current Institution: South African Environmental Observation Network
Host Institution: Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia
Emma Gray is most fascinated by an issue that is of vital importance to both science and society: what impact will climate change have on plant life? Answers to this question are of supreme importance, as the effect of climate change on plant species will, in turn, have major implications for animal life, water supplies, food supplies and a host of other concerns ranging from flood prevention to understanding fire behaviour to the availability of botanicals used in medicines. For her master’s degree, she studied one of the lesser known and quite surprising outcomes of climate change, that of large areas of savanna and grassland turning into forest and woodland, driven by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. During her fellowship, Emma Gray will turn her attention to the much broader question of why plant species grow at different rates and what factors limit or promote growth in different environments. Her ultimate goal is to contribute to a predictive model of how terrestrial systems are likely to respond to climate and land use change.
Current Institution: Department of Systems Biology, Enzyme and Protein Chemistry, Technical University of Denmark, Lyngby, Denmark
Host University: Department of Plant Science, UC Davis University of California, USA
Carbohydrates, or carbs, and what types of them we should or should not eat, along with two other words formerly used only by researchers, probiotics and prebiotics, are subjects that the media and advertizing and have adopted as their own. Yet much of what is said on these topics has not actually been proven by science. Tania Pozzo’s work is focused on providing sound scientific evidence to support the claim that a combination of probiotic bacteria and prebiotic foods can confer benefits for human health. Despite the enormous interest from all quarters, little is actually known about how probiotic bacteria in the human gut recognize and interact with certain types of carbohydrates known as prebiotics. This is the process thought to be key to their beneficial effects and comprehending it has implications for numerous diseases, such as gastrointestinal disorders, cancer, allergies and even neurological disorders. Tania Pozzo will study how the genes of probiotics and prebiotics encode their interplay with the goal of increasing our understanding of which foods and food supplements can improve health and even treat disease.
Cellular and molecular biology
Medical doctor and PhD student
Current Institution: Faculty of Biological Sciences, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago de Chile, Chile
Host Institution: Center for Autoimmune & Musculoskeletal Disease, Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, Manhasset, NY, USA
Initially trained as a doctor, Francisca Barake came to the conclusion that she could make a more significant contribution to medicine by understanding the mechanisms underlying disease. Consequently, she changed track to begin a PhD focusing on a neurological manifestation of an autoimmune disease, neuropsychiatric lupus or NPSLE. Mainly affecting women, lupus is a debilitating condition that occurs when the immune system dysfunctions, producing antibodies which target the body’s own proteins and results in damage to tissues and organs. In NPSLE, the particular form of lupus that Francisca Barake is studying, the disease attacks the central and peripheral nervous system, resulting in many manifestations such us depression, cognitive impairment and psychosis. Her research is aimed at the specific antibodies involved in NPSLE and precisely how they work together to harm the nervous system. Her goal is to identify a way to block their action in the hope that such new knowledge could lead to an effective treatment for the disease.
Plant molecular genetics
Current Institution: National Centre of Biotechnology, Madrid, Spain
Host Institution: School of Life Sciences, University of Warwick, UK
Plant pathologist Selena Gimenez Ibañez studies food crop disease and she is specifically interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying plant immunity. Unlike animals, plants lack specialized immune cells which can be rallied to the point of infection. Instead, they have developped a sophisticated system to perceive threat and respond appropriately. Certain microbes are, however, able to overcome this first line of defence. Plants then activate a second line of defence that involves reprogramming certain genes, which, in turn, creates a change in the chromatin found inside their cells. Despite these two inherent barriers, some diseases still succeed in infecting plants. With her fellowship, Selena Gimenez Ibañez will attempt to determine whether certain pathogens succeed in infecting plants by directly attacking the chromatin in their cells, thereby preventing the plant from defending itself. She hopes that her research will lead to the development of more resistant and higher-yielding crop varieties crucial to feeding the world’s growing population
Current Institution: Eötvös Loránd University, Faculty of Science, Budapest, Hungary
Host Institution: Interdisciplinary Institute for Neuroscience, University Bordeaux, France
Katalin Czöndör’s research aims to shed light on the molecular mechanisms underlying brain function. Her work will help advance our fundamental understanding of how the highly complex neural networks are formed. In the simplest terms, she is interested in how and why brain cells “fire up”—or how and why they do not. Brain cells form and maintain networks by passing on messages via molecules known as neurotransmitters. The communication between these cells is facilitated through structures called synapses, where the neurotransmitters must jump the gap between the connected cells. Katalin Czöndör is specifically focused on certain molecular interactions which dictate whether a synapse is excitatory or inhibitory, whether it transmits the information to the brain cell next in line, or not. As conditions such as autism and schizofrenia are thought to be linked to the malfunctioning of this type of synaptic connection, her work may one day lead to better treatments for these disorders.
Current Institution: Graduate School of Medical Sciences, Kyushu University, Fukuoka, Japan
Host Institution: Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, UK
While the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, is still poorly understood, recent studies indicate that it may be associated with diet. In the absence of any pharmacological cure for the disease, Mio Ozawa aims to demonstrate that modifying diet in mid-life, before symptoms of mild cognitive impairment—the precursor of dementia—become apparent, is the best way to prevent or delay onset of this debilitating disorder and reduce its social and economic costs. During her fellowship in London, she will explore the results of an ongoing cohort study whose participants also undergo nutritional survey and regularly scheduled MRI scans, which will enable her to identify possible underlying mechanisms leading to brain degeneration. By correlating data from the study with information provided by the MRIs, Mio Ozawa hopes to prove her hypothesis that mineral intake and other vascular‐protective diets in adult life can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Current Institution: Department of Pharmacology, The University of Jordan, Amman, Jordan
Host University: Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Georgia Regents University, Georgia, USA
Diabetes affects a staggering 347 million people worldwide and deaths from the disease, mainly caused by cardiovascular complications, are projected to rise by more than 50% in the next 10 years. Faced with this race against time, Alia Shatanawi is working to unravel the molecular mechanisms underlying the development of cardiovascular complication in diabetes in the hope of finding new methods for the early prediction of these complications. The starting point for her research is the observation that an enzyme, arginase, is increased in the blood of diabetic patients as well as in obese young adults with pre-diabetes showing early signs of vascular disease. She believes that measuring levels of this enzyme could be used as an indicator of the development and progression of diabetic complications. She plans to test her hypothesis by measuring arginase levels in patient blood samples from the repositories of two related medical studies. Upon return to the University of Jordan, Alia Shatanawi will train other researchers in these new techniques and work on a parallel project using samples from Jordanian diabetic patients.