2015 International Rising Talent
The International Rising Talents are chosen from countries in each world region, Africa & Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America. This year’s International Rising Talents are already making significant contributions in disciplines as varied as ecology and sustainable development, physics, pharmacology, epidemiology, medical research, neuroscience and evolutionary biology.
Research Fellow, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Bio21 Institute, University of Melbourne
For her project on tackling an emerging drug-resistant superbug.
Doctor Kathryn Holt is using a combination of genetics, math and supercomputers to study the genomes of disease-causing bacteria in order to understand how they spread. Breaking new scientific ground with her investigation of typhoid fever in Kathmandu, she discovered the disease does not spread as was previously thought. Her research is already changing the way public health officials respond to epidemics.
Dr. Holt will be using the same techniques to understand how “superbugs,” deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria, spread in hospitals. She aims to find out whether patients are catching these deadly diseases in the hospital or whether they are bringing the bacteria in with them. Her work will also help determine whether clinicians can be given early warning about drug-resistant bacteria spreading among their patients.
Concerned about the need to bring more women into science, Dr. Holt believes that society must “shift the expectations of family responsibilities to both parents equally. If both male and female scientists had to worry about picking up the kids from school or managing childcare while attending an international conference, then this would no longer disadvantage women (or men) who have families.”
Associate Professor, Laboratory for Molecular Modeling and Drug Design, Universidade Federal de Goias (Federal University of Goias), Goiania
For her project on multi-target drug discovery for leishmaniasis using integrated strategies in Medicinal Chemistry.
Leishmaniasis is a disease caused by parasites that are mainly transmitted to humans by bites from infected sandflies. Endemic in 88 countries in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, with an estimated 1.3 million new cases per year and 50,000 deaths annually, leishmaniasis is one of the three parasitic diseases with the highest mortality rates worldwide. The main treatments in use were discovered more than 50 years ago. These drugs are costly, their effectiveness is limited and they cause severe adverse effects.
Doctor Carolina Andrade aims to combat leishmaniasis by researching new multi-target drugs, meaning drugs that do double- or triple-duty. Instead of attacking only one of the parasite’s vital functions, a multi-target drug attacks it in several places, which increases the chances of killing the parasite while decreasing its chances of becoming drug resistant. Dr. Andrade will focus on finding low-cost therapies affordable to patients in the developing countries where the illness is most prevalent. Her work has the potential to change the lives of the millions of men, women and children suffering from this debilitating and often deadly disease.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Research Institute, The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto
For her project on Salmonella Typhimurium Pathogenesis: Characterization of the Role of Bacterial Effectors in the Evasion of Host Innate Immunity.
Doctor Vanessa D’Costa’s research focuses on Salmonella, one of the leading causes worldwide of food-borne gastroenteritis, commonly called food poisoning. Severe cases of salmonellosis can cause death as well as contribute to the development of reactive arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that develops in response to infection. Recent years have seen an increase in infections by drug-resistant Salmonella, resulting in an urgent need to develop new treatments.
It is known that Salmonella causes infection by evading the immune system with the “help” of toxin-like proteins called effectors, whose function is not fully understood by scientists. Dr. D’Costa’s research aims to elucidate how these effectors manipulate host cells and enable the food-borne pathogen to bypass the body’s disease-fighting systems. She also hopes that her findings will provide insight into the functioning of other drug-resistant bacteria and, more generally, our understanding of the immune system.
NINDS, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland
For her project on the exploration of the structural basis of membrane transporter mechanisms through computational methods: one step closer to understanding neuropathological conditions.
An expert in structural biology and bioinformatics, Doctor Ariela Vergara-Jaque uses sophisticated computational tools to study proteins, the building blocks of the human body, which work like tiny machines to keep us alive. Through computer simulations she can observe the virtual “proteins” from all sides, see their movements in three dimensions and manipulate them according to various hypothetical scenarios to observe how they might behave.
Dr. Vergara-Jaque’s current focus is on a family of proteins located in cell membranes, whose dysfunction has been implicated in complex neurological disorders. These proteins act as gates, allowing certain substances to enter the cells and other substances to leave. She aims to understand how the proteins rearrange their internal structure to permit or block passage of specific substances. When vital substances are blocked from entering or when substances that should be eliminated are retained, the cells malfunction and cause disease. Dr. Vergara-Jaque’s ultimate goal, along with unraveling this complex, but important process, is to identify which parts of the protein might be targeted by drugs in order to fight disease. Her work could result in lifesaving therapies for a variety of neurological disorders.
Assistant Professor, Ecoinformatics & Biodiversity, Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University
For her project on tundra change at the dawn of drone ecology.
Doctor Signe Normand is researching one of the most crucial issues of our day, climate change and its impact on biodiversity. To do so, she is employing small remote-controlled flying objects that have been, until recently, associated more with warfare than with scientific research: drones. Dr. Normand is focusing her work on how vegetation patterns are being altered in Greenland, one of the world regions that will be most affected by global warming.
Current knowledge of changing vegetation patterns in Greenland is limited because data is either collected from satellites, which do not provide sufficient detail, or gathered in the field by observers who can only cover relatively small areas of the world’s largest island. Dr. Normand’s drones are set to fill what might be called the “observation gap” between these two methods in several regions in Greenland. Not only will her research tell us more about how climate change will impact the Arctic, the methods she develops using drones are also applicable to other regions of the world. The more we know about the effects of global warming, the greater the chances of mitigating its effects on the well-being of humans, animals and plants.
Assistant Professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Faculty of Pharmacy, Cairo University, Cairo
For her project on the pharmacogenetics of Hepatitis C virus : Study of the effects of host genetics on the outcomes of a new triple therapy in the Egyptian population.
The Hepatitis C virus (HCV) represents a major global public health problem and Egypt has the highest prevalence of the disease in the world. Over 10 million Egyptians are infected with the illness. Although a new treatment exists, scientists have observed that, while some patients respond very well to it, others remain infected with the virus. It is known that, along with other factors, a patient’s individual genes affect these outcomes. Immunologist Doctor Nourtan Abdeltawab is setting up a study designed to determine precisely which genetic components in the Egyptian population influence the success or failure of the treatment.
Dr. Abdeltawab’s ultimate goal is to create a genetic test that will determine whether the new Hepatitis C medicine is right for any given patient, rather than the trial and error approach that is, for the moment, the only choice available to doctors. Her research will lead to more in-depth knowledge of how a disease of epidemic proportions can be curbed and, most especially, enable more personalized treatments that, for many patients, can cure the illness with little or no suffering.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre de Recherche sur la Cognition Animale, CNRS, Université Toulouse 3
For her project on cracking the neurobiological mechanisms of visual cognition in a miniature brain.
Cognitive neuroscientist Doctor Aurore Avarguès-Weber specializes in studying the behavior of social insects, particularly bees. Her work has already disproven the idea that bees are simple creatures with pre-programmed brains operating on instinct alone. On the contrary, she has shown that these insects, whose brains are no bigger than a pinhead, have the ability to access cognitive levels comparable to mammals. Investigating their miniature yet high-performance brains opens up fascinating perspectives for numerous arenas in science.
Dr. Avarguès-Weber’s current project focuses on understanding how these tiny brains carry out complex visual tasks. In other words, how do bees see? With so few neurons available to process the information received by their eyes and sent to their brains, how can they distinguish between different objects in their environment? Amazingly, not only do bees see quite well, they actually recognize faces. Using an ingenious experimental method she has developed, Dr. Avarguès-Weber is attempting to understand how this is possible. In addition to telling us more about how our own brains function, her findings will also have potentially major implications for fields as varied as artificial intelligence, device miniaturization and medicine.
Associate Professor, Department of Computer Science and Mathematics, Lebanese American University (LAU), Beirut
For her project towards optimized smart grid network design and operation in emerging countries.
A reliable supply of electricity is frequently a major problem in emerging countries, with large-scale shortages that lead to regular power blackouts and severe electricity rationing. Power plants with limited capabilities and outdated equipment, transmission and distribution losses, and performance inefficiency are all too often the norm. At best, such limited access to power is inconvenient; at worst it is dangerous, highly detrimental to business and industry, and exacerbates poverty and its consequences.
A computer scientist and networking expert, Doctor Sanaa Sharafeddine is exploring ways communications infrastructure, networking technologies, and computing can improve the efficiency and quality of electric power grids in emerging nations while also saving energy. She is currently focusing on how digital technology could be utilized to enhance Lebanon’s power grid at different stages from the generating plant to the customer’s premises, in order to monitor, measure and control the flow of electricity as well as the flow of data and information. Dr. Sharafeddine’s findings will contribute to enhancing economic performance and quality of life in her own country and throughout the developing world.
Senior Lecturer, Department of Medical Microbiology, Faculty of Medicine, University Malaya, Kuala Lumpur
For her project on the development of novel therapeutic peptides targeting host autophagy machinery against enterovirus A71 infection.
Doctor Yoke-Fun Chan’s research centers on enterovirus A71, a virus that causes hand, foot and mouth disease in children. The virus is prevalent in South East Asia, especially in Dr. Chan’s home country of Malaysia. By age 12, about 80% of Malaysian children have contracted the infection. An emerging global problem, Enterovirus A71 is rapidly evolving and recent outbreaks caused not only hand, foot and mouth disease but were also associated with brain infection, which can be fatal.
There are currently no anti-viral agents to treat the illness. Dr. Chan aims to develop a treatment that targets the body’s autophagy mechanism, the process by which cells “eat” the virus and store it. The virus takes advantage of this mechanism to survive and multiply. Dr. Chan will attempt to use protein-based treatments to block the autophagy mechanism, which, in turn, will also block the virus. Her work may provide a cure for an emerging and potentially catastrophic infectious disease.
Postdoctoral Fellow, New York University Langone Medical Center School of Medicine, New York
For her project on how Hypoxia sustains low-grade inflammation by inducing Netrin-1 expression in adipose tissue resident macrophages in obesity.
Obesity is one of the leading causes of preventable death worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that obesity could soon surpass issues such as inadequate nutrition and infectious diseases as the most prevalent cause of poor health. Doctor Bhama Ramkhelawon is researching one of the main consequences of obesity, chronic inflammation, which leads to a wide range of serious illnesses, notably diabetes.
Dr. Ramkhelawon and her team previously discovered that the body’s “clean-up” cells, known as macrophages, secrete a substance called Netrin-1 when they are located in fatty tissues. Netrin-1 induces these clean-up cells to accumulate in adipose tissues while also preventing them from carrying away pathogens and unwanted fat cells. The result of this build-up of poorly performing cells is inflammation, which is quite harmful to the body. What is not understood, however, is precisely why these cells secrete Netrin-1. Dr. Ramkhelawon has hypothesized that the underlying problem may be hypoxia, a lack of oxygen in the fast-expanding fat. The blood vessels carrying oxygen cannot reach the increasing energy demand of the fat depots. If her idea proves correct, her research could open the door to new and more effective treatments for the numerous inflammation-related diseases associated with obesity.
Lecturer & Researcher, Centro de Investigaciones Regionales Dr. Hideyo Noguchi de la Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán
For her project on the expression and validation of potential cardiac biomarkers in an animal model infected with Trypanosoma cruzi (DTU I and VI) during acute and chronic phases of Chagas disease.
Chagas disease is a parasitic infection affecting approximately 7 to 8 million people in Latin America. Carried by the insect triatoma dimidiate, the illness is responsible for more than 15,000 deaths every year. Chagas disease is a three-phase condition with an acute phase, a 10-30 year inactive phase with no symptoms, and a chronic phase that concerns some 30% of those infected and causes serious damage to various organs, especially the heart and digestive system.
Doctor Matilde Jimenez Coello’s research centers on biomarkers, substances in the body whose presence indicates a disease. In this case, she is studying and verifying potential cardiac biomarkers for Chagas disease as well as attempting to determine whether those biomarkers differ according to the particular strain of the disease. Dr. Jimenez Coello’s work should lead to more effective diagnosis and treatment of the illness, a greater understanding of its effects on the body and possible avenues to a cure.
Quantum Research Group, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban
For her project on the quantum origins of life: A description of the emergence of life from inanimate matter.
Quantum biology is a field that makes use of quantum physics, the study of the smallest particles in existence, to learn more about living things. For Ms. Marais, this discipline has led her to perhaps the most intriguing question of all in the minds of both scientists and non-scientists alike: What is life? More specifically, how did living matter originally emerge from the inanimate liquids, solids and gases that make up the universe?
It has been theorized that light must have played a part in the genesis of life, so Ms.Marais is employing quantum physics to investigate photosynthesis--the process through which plants transform light from the sun into energy to “feed” themselves. In other words, how they utilize light to create and sustain life. Ms.Marais’s research will also contribute to answering less metaphysical questions: Understanding the energy transformation mechanisms of plants could lead to biomimetic technologies that imitate nature’s effectiveness in using the sun to power complex systems.
Ramon y Cajal Researcher, Physics Department, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
For her project on advanced nanoporous materials for high efficient hydrogen production.
Our world is faced with an urgent need for alternatives to the fossil fuels that are both harmful to the environment and being depleted at ever faster rates. Clean, green, renewable hydrogen is one of our best hopes. Yet, for the moment, hydrogen production methods are either ecologically unfriendly or require the use of very costly, scarce metals. Dr. Eva Pellicer’s objective is to discover the means for creating an abundant supply of inexpensive, non-pollutant hydrogen for use as fuel.
To achieve this, Dr. Pellicer is working on ways to replace the rare metals currently used in the process with new synthetic, cost-effective materials. As an expert in nanomaterials, she is focusing on nanoporous catalysts made of noble‐metal‐free alloys or semiconductors as possible substitutes. Not only are these materials far more economical, and therefore suitable for large-scale manufacture, they also have the potential to be just as effective in producing hydrogen. At the forefront of her field, Dr. Pellicer’s project is of prime importance in the quest to solve to our current energy and environmental challenges.
Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
For her project on avian eggshell engineering: evolutionary innovations in color and structure.
Doctor Mary Caswell Stoddard is investigating one of the most fascinating but least well understood aspects of birds: their eggs. Over the past 150 million years, bird eggs have continued to evolve into dynamic life-support systems with crack-resistant shells that can be pigmented to provide camouflage in almost any habitat. How did birds accomplish this remarkable biological feat?
Dr. Stoddard’s multidisciplinary research combines cutting-edge techniques from genomics, applied mathematics, and bioengineering to examine avian egg evolution in a dramatically new way. Along with increasing our knowledge of birds and their eggs, her findings could pave the way for numerous and highly valuable applications across a broad range of fields. Her discoveries will enhance our comprehension of the evolutionary process in general and may help us protect bird populations threatened by climate change. In addition, since eggshells have such impressive structural properties, Dr. Stoddard’s work could enable engineers to replicate aspects of shell formation for improvements in materials, particularly ceramics, as well as lead to egg-inspired breakthroughs in human health, technology, and the environment.
Lecturer, Biomedical Engineering Department, Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City
For her project on the development of fucoidan-based polymeric micelles for cancer treatment and diagnostic.
Most existing cancer drugs disperse throughout the body, attacking healthy and unhealthy cells indiscriminately, rather than specifically targeting cancer cells. As well, the medium in which the drug is dissolved for injection, usually a polymer solution with no curative properties, is excreted by the body, which also results in rapid clearance of the drug from the blood system. Doctor Phuong Ha-Lien Tran is exploiting nanotechnology to develop a new therapy that will avoid such elimination and carry the cancer drug directly to the diseased cells.
Dr. Tran plans to explore the use of fucoidan, a substance extracted from seaweed that has recently been found to possess anti-cancer properties and which can also act as a polymer. Fucoidan will therefore serve a dual purpose as both a medium for the drug and a therapeutic agent in and of itself. When fucoidan, which attracts water, is combined with a cancer drug that repels water, self-assembled nanoparticles form. The nanoparticles also provide a tool to observe tumors during the therapy. Dr Tran’s project may result in less expensive, more effective cancer treatments with fewer side effects.