2012 Rita Allen Foundation Scholars Announced

June 1, 2012

The Rita Allen Foundation today announced seven biomedical research scientists who have been selected as 2012 Rita Allen Foundation Scholars. The Scholars will receive a total of $2,850,000 in grants to pursue innovative research in a variety of areas, including antibiotic-resistant pathogens, the function of microRNA, and the neural circuits of pain.

Rita Allen Foundation Scholars are young leaders in biomedical science who focus on areas of global concern. Scholars have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, the National Medal of Science, and the Wolf Prize in Medicine. Over 100 Rita Allen Foundation Scholars have been selected since 1976.

“The members of this year’s class each have the potential to advance the frontiers of biomedical understanding, whether in the mechanisms of pain, in the molecular functions behind disease, or in enormously complex neurological behavior,” said Elizabeth Good Christopherson, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Rita Allen Foundation. “We see in each of them the unique combination of risk-taking and passionate commitment that have led earlier generations of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars to groundbreaking solutions.”

Rita Allen Foundation Scholars are nominated by research institutions in the United States and are selected by a Scientific Advisory Committee comprised of leading scientists and clinicians. Scholars receive grants of up to $110,000 annually for a maximum of five years.

This year’s Rita Allen Foundation Scholars include two joint Rita Allen Foundation–American Pain Society Scholars. Christopherson noted that this is the fourth year the Rita Allen Foundation and the American Pain Society have collaborated to review applicants and award scholarships to those studying ways to alleviate pain.

The members of the 2012 Class of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars are:

Dr. Sreekanth Chalasani, Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Dr. Chalasani seeks to understand how neural circuits transform environmental stimuli into appropriate behavioral outputs. His current work involves studying the neural basis of C. elegans (roundworms) behavior. He is an Assistant Professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Lab at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He received his B.S. in Genetics, Zoology and Chemistry from Osmania University in India and his Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Chalasani is studying a set of neural circuits that mediate and interpret chemosensation, especially olfaction in C. elegans, using state-of-the-art calcium imaging, molecular genetics, and physiology.

Dr. Christopher Hammell, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Dr. Hammell seeks to identify the gene regulatory architectures that couple temporal gene expression to cell fate commitment during animal development. Dr. Hammell is an Assistant Professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and is a member of both the Genetics and Genomics and Cancer Biology programs. He received his B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Georgia and his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Dartmouth Medical School. Dr. Hammell’s research is focused on systematic and functional identification of components that control the activity of multiple regulatory RNAs. These RNAs, called microRNAs, govern the expression of large suites of downstream targets and play important roles in defining specific cell fates. While his current work is focused on understanding how microRNA activity is temporally regulated during C. elegans development, many of the gene products involved in this process are highly conserved and play roles in normal human development.  In addition, key components of these temporal regulatory pathways are often mis-expressed in cancer and other diseases.

Dr. Hammell has also been designated the Milton E. Cassel Scholar for the 2012 Class of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars. This special award honors the memory of a long-time president of the Rita Allen Foundation who passed away in 2004.

Dr. Michael Jankowski, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (in conjunction with the American Pain Society). Dr. Jankowski is studying the molecular mechanisms of musculoskeletal pain after ischemic tissue injury, the result of numerous cardiovascular diseases and traumas. Dr. Jankowski is an Assistant Professor in the University of Cincinnati Department of Pediatrics and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anesthesia, Division of Pain Management, at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. He received his M.S. in Neuroscience and Ph.D. in Neurobiology from the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Jankowski’s lab is interested in the molecular mechanisms of sensory neuron plasticity after peripheral injuries. He has two main focuses: mechanisms of musculoskeletal pain, specifically in the context of ischemia, and the developmental effects of injury and inflammation in infants and children.

Dr. Xin Liu, UT Southwestern Medical Center. Dr. Liu conducts structural and mechanistic studies on the three-dimensional chromatin organization, which drives gene function. He is an Assistant Professor in the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at UT Southwestern Medical Center. He received his B.S. in Biochemistry from Nanjing University in China and his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania. In his lab, Dr. Liu is addressing how chromatin dynamics impacts RNA polymerase II transcription. His research focuses on the signal-dependent regulation of chromatin loop formation, in particular promoter-terminator gene looping, a fundamental cellular process implicated in cancer cell growth and proliferation.

Dr. Michael Long, NYU School of Medicine. Dr. Long’s research focuses on the neurobiological dynamics that enable us to generate complex movements and behaviors and specifically investigates activity of neuronal ensembles critical for behavior. His proposed research plan uses the zebra finch songbird as a model system to reveal the circuit-level mechanisms that lead to precise, coordinated, and sequential motor behaviors, exemplified by the bird’s song. He is an Assistant Professor in the NYU Neuroscience Institute and the Physiology and Neuroscience Department at NYU School of Medicine. He received his B.S. in Biology and B.A. in Psychology from Rhodes College and his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Brown University.  His postdoctoral work was completed at MIT under the guidance of Michale Fee.

Dr. Luciano Marraffini, The Rockefeller University. Dr. Marraffini studies the generation of molecular memories of past infections in prokaryotes as part of an effort to understand the spread of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. He is an Assistant Professor in the Laboratory of Bacteriology at The Rockefeller University. He received his undergraduate degree in Biotechnology from the University of Rosario in Argentina and his Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Chicago. Dr. Marraffini seeks to understand how bacteria evolve by incorporating DNA sequences from mobile genetic elements into their genomes. His research focuses on the mechanisms that control the traffic of DNA molecules between bacteria, the major route for the development of antimicrobial resistance.

Dr. Sarah Ross, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine (in conjunction with the American Pain Society). Dr. Ross is investigating the neural circuits of pain and itch. She is an Assistant Professor in the Neurobiology Department at the University of Pittsburgh. She received her B.S. from the University of Western Ontario and her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. The goal of Dr. Ross’s research is to functionally dissect the neural circuits that underlie pain and itch. Her lab investigates the question of how the nervous system senses the world, using pain and itch as sensory paradigms, and using molecular genetic, electrophysiological, and behavioral approaches to understand them.


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