2013 Rita Allen Foundation Scholars Announced

July 25, 2013

The Rita Allen Foundation today announces that seven biomedical scientists have been named as 2013 Rita Allen Foundation Scholars. The scientists were nominated by research institutions in the United States and selected by a Scientific Advisory Committee of leading scientists and clinicians. The selected Scholars, who will receive grants of up to $110,000 annually for a maximum of five years, pursue innovative research on topics including chromosome replication, the molecular basis of sensation and genetic variations leading to disease.

Since 1976, more than 100 young leaders in biomedical science have been selected as Rita Allen Foundation Scholars. The program embraces innovative research with above-average risk and promise. Scholars have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the National Medal of Science, the Wolf Prize in Medicine, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

“We are delighted to support a new class of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars as they pursue groundbreaking research that extends biomedical science,” said Elizabeth Good Christopherson, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Rita Allen Foundation. “In addition to addressing long unanswered biological questions, their discoveries will have a direct impact on the development of new therapies for a vast array of conditions, including cancer, developmental disorders and chronic pain.”

This year’s Rita Allen Foundation Scholars include two joint Rita Allen Foundation–American Pain Society Scholars. This is the fifth 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 2013 Class of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars are:

Michael Boyce, Duke University School of Medicine
Sophie Dumont, University of California, San Francisco
Dorothea Fiedler, Princeton University
Elena Gracheva, Yale School of Medicine
William James Greenleaf, Stanford University School of Medicine
Rebecca Seal, University of Pittsburgh
Reza Sharif-Naeini, McGill University

Meet the Scholars

Michael Boyce, Duke University School of Medicine. The goal of Dr. Boyce’s research is to understand the role of protein glycosylation—the attachment of sugars onto proteins—in cell signaling and physiology. Protein glycosylation is a dynamic process, and it can be difficult to study using conventional techniques. His lab uses a range of biochemical, cell and chemical biological methods to study two forms of glycosylation in particular—one relating to the regulation of cell metabolism and one relating to the management of improperly folded proteins. Dr. Boyce holds a Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School and is Assistant Professor in Duke University’s Department of Biochemistry.

What will funding from the Rita Allen Foundation allow you to do?
“I am especially grateful for the funding from the Rita Allen Foundation because it will allow my still-new lab to take important scientific risks and embark on ambitious projects. In particular, Rita Allen funding will enable us to tackle a new proteomics study to capture and identify changes in protein glycosylation caused by oncogene activation. This project will be a high risk/high reward endeavor, and it would be very difficult for us to attempt it without Rita Allen Foundation support. Moreover, I was particularly impressed by the work that other Rita Allen Scholars presented at the 2013 symposium. It was clear from the excellent research presentations that Rita Allen Foundation funding had allowed previous Scholars to launch challenging and important projects early in their careers. That, in turn, has inspired me to use my own funding to undertake a similarly ambitious project, and I am grateful to Foundation for that opportunity.”

Sophie Dumont, University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Dumont is interested in how cells coordinate mechanical and chemical activities to equally distribute their genetic material when they divide. During cell division, each cell must inherit exactly one copy of the chromosome—and errors can lead to cell death, cancer and developmental disorders. Dr. Dumont’s lab uses biophysical and molecular tools to probe how cells generate, detect and respond to mechanical force to move their chromosomes and move them to the right places. Dr. Dumont holds a B.A. in Physics from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in Biophysics from the University of California, Berkeley. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell and Tissue Biology and the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco.

Sophie Dumont has also been designated the Milton E. Cassel Scholar for the 2013 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.

What will funding from the Rita Allen Foundation allow you to do?
“Funds from the Rita Allen Foundation will allow us to pursue high risk and high reward ideas. In particular, we will use these funds to develop mechanical approaches for probing how the cell accurately segregates its chromosomes when it divides—and how it fails to do so.”

What’s your favorite science-related book?
Random Walks in Biology, by Howard Berg”

Dorothea Fiedler, Princeton University. Dr. Fiedler’s lab is dedicated to investigating challenging problems in signal transduction: How do cells respond to environmental changes and alter their internal status accordingly? Information is processed via highly regulated and complex signaling networks, yet the individual steps within these cascades often depend on simple chemical reactions. Her research program is aimed at understanding the multiple ways in which nature utilizes phosphate in both protein signaling pathways and metabolic networks. Specific examples include elucidating the role of inositol pyrophosphate second messengers in type 2 diabetes and obesity, and understanding the importance of inorganic phosphate as an essential nutrient and potential signal in cancer progression. Common to all projects is a multidisciplinary approach that combines inorganic, physical organic, and supramolecular chemistry, with genetics, metabolomics, and molecular biology techniques. Ultimately, the research will highlight targets for the design of new therapeutics. Dr. Fiedler is Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Princeton University and holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

What will funding from the Rita Allen Foundation allow you to do?
“The funding from the Rita Allen Foundation will allow me to pursue research in an area that is closely related to my overarching program, yet has remained very poorly defined to date. We are aiming at defining the regulatory role of inorganic phosphate in cancer progression and metastasis. Because we are exploring an underdeveloped research area, the funding from the Rita Allen Foundation will help to obtain the necessary preliminary data, which can then be used to obtain funding from more traditional sources.”

How did you enter this career path? Was there anyone or anything that particularly inspired you?
“My education is in inorganic chemistry, but I have always had a fascination with the molecular basis of biological systems. This is why I decided to carry out postdoctoral work in the laboratory of Kevan Shokat at UCSF, where I developed a deep appreciation for the complexity of information transfer in biological networks. It is still incredible to me how signaling and metabolic networks operate in a cellular setting with such high precision. Defects in signal transduction are associated with numerous detrimental diseases, most notably malignant transformation. It was during my time as a postdoc that I decided to pursue an academic career, and a central goal of my research program would be to contribute to the elucidation of the signaling mechanisms that can promote tumorigenesis and metastasis.”

Elena Gracheva, Yale School of Medicine. Dr. Gracheva seeks to answer questions about molecular adaptations at the level of sensory systems, such as those that allow warm-blooded animals to hibernate without discomfort. She is Assistant Professor of Cellular and Molecular Physiology at Yale University’s School of Medicine, and she received her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Gracheva’s laboratory is part of a multidisciplinary research program aimed at understanding the molecular basis of sensory physiology and thermoregulation. Using a wide array of tools, including deep sequencing, differential transcriptomics, electrophysiology, biochemistry and behavioral paradigms, they are able to characterize membrane receptors that perceive environmental inputs and convert them into electrical signals in somatosensory neurons of mammalian hibernators.

What will funding from the Rita Allen Foundation allow you to do?
“The funding will allow me to focus on science. These days, when competition for government funding is immense, it is gratifying to see that the Rita Allen Foundation is supporting scientists in their first independent steps and allows them to pursue innovative, intellectually rewarding ideas.”

How did you enter this career path? Was there anyone or anything that particularly inspired you?
“I was drawn to science through conversations with my father, a high energy physicist.”

What's your favorite science-related book?
“My favorite science-related book is Professor Dowell’s Head. This is a science fiction novel by Russian author Alexander Belyayev.”

William James Greenleaf, Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Greenleaf works to develop methods to understand the relationship between sequence, structure and function in genomes and epigenomes. His lab builds new tools that leverage the power of advanced sequencing and microscopy to illuminate basic biological questions about genomic and epigenomic variation. In particular, the lab seeks to understand specific cases of variation in small subpopulations of cells or in specific cells, rather than in a population viewed in the aggregate. Recently his lab has developed a method that identifies regions of the genome that are “accessible,” i.e., available to the machinery of gene expression, and which areas are closed and sequestered. This method is applicable to very small numbers of selected cells, allowing phenotypically distinct subpopulations to be investigated, and shedding light on the regulatory heterogeneity of complex tissues. Dr. Greenleaf is Assistant Professor of Genetics at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. He received an A.B. from Harvard University, a Diploma in Computer Science from the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Stanford University.

What will funding from the Rita Allen Foundation allow you to do?
“While cancer is generally thought of as a genetic disease, recent evidence has suggested that cancer cells with the same genome sequences can behave differently. For example, some cancer cells, so-called cancer stem cells, are thought to be difficult to exterminate with chemotherapy, and to be capable of regenerating entire tumors. Because these cells are rare, they are very difficulty to study, but understanding the nature of these cells is crucial to creating efficient therapies.

“We have developed a method to study the epigenetic landscape of very rare cells that will allow us to investigate these observations. In general, this new method allows us to investigate the way in which DNA is packaged in the genome within selected cells. Because only approximately 2 percent of the genome is accessible to the machinery of transcription—the rest is packaged and sequestered away—the specific genomic regions that are accessible form a molecular memory that enforces the biological state of the cell. Our method can identify these regions in small samples, providing insight into the regulatory mechanisms that cause some cancer cells to be different from others and providing clues about how to efficiently exterminate all of them. Funding from the Rita Allen Foundation will enable these investigations.”

How did you enter this career path? Was there anyone or anything that particularly inspired you?
“I wanted to be a scientist since my earliest memories. I remember sitting next to my father, who is a scientist who develops biological imaging methods, and peppering him with questions about the world and why it worked the way it did. Every free weekend, my vote was to attend the science museum. Every time the TV turned on I scanned the channels for NOVA. During the summers of high school, when my classmates worked as lifeguards or as interns, I worked at the Mayo Clinic and developed a method of delivering foreign genes to cells using ultrasound, work that culminated in my first, first-author peer-reviewed paper. Some kids want to be police officers, firefighters or ballerinas—for me it was always science. The support from the Rita Allen Foundation is my first peer-reviewed funding—and it is incredibly meaningful to me given this long interest in participating in scientific discovery. This support is all the more welcome in this coldest of federal funding climates.”

What’s your favorite science-related book?
“I think that Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene had perhaps the greatest impact on me growing up. It provided an ability to ground much of my understanding of the world and biology.”

Rebecca Seal, University of Pittsburgh (in conjunction with the American Pain Society). Dr. Seal’s research examines the circuitry that drives behavior normally and in disease. She is Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh and received her Ph.D. from Oregon Health and Science University. Dr. Seal’s lab is focused in particular on the neural circuits underlying touch and pain. The lab is currently seeking to understand a particular glutamate transporter that contributes to chronic pain, with the ultimate aim of generating new, nonaddictive therapies. A second major effort involves determining the role of vesicular glutamate packaging and release in behavior and in neurodegenerative disorders, including Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

What will funding from the Rita Allen Foundation allow you to do?
“Funding from the Rita Allen Foundation will support our investigation of circuits underlying persistent mechanical pain, which often becomes a debilitating condition. This grant will allow us to further explore our hypothesis about the role of the vesicular glutamate transporter 3 in this type of pain. Our long-term goal is to understand how beneficial pain becomes pathological and to use this knowledge to develop new therapeutic strategies. We are working hard to generate a body of work that is competitive for major funding and this grant support is absolutely key to our efforts.”

Reza Sharif-Naeini, McGill University (in conjunction with the American Pain Society). Dr. Sharif-Naeini is interested in mechanotransduction—the process through which cells convert a mechanical stimulus into an electrical signal—and in the role of mechanosensory neurons in pain transmission. He is Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology at McGill University, where he also earned his Ph.D. Dr. Sharif-Naeini’s lab focuses on identifying the neuronal circuits in the spinal cord engaged in controlling pain transmission. Results from these approaches will further our understanding of how pain signals are controlled in the spinal cord in healthy and chronic pain conditions. In addition, revealing these pathways may lead to the development of new therapeutic strategies in the treatment of chronic pain.

What will funding from the Rita Allen Foundation allow you to do?
“The funding from the Rita Allen Foundation is vital to my lab. It will enable me to launch an ambitious project that other agencies thought was overambitious. It will allow me to hire competent staff that will catapult this project. I can also worry less about the stress of finding grant money and focus on the science.”

How did you enter this career path? Was there anyone or anything that particularly inspired you?
“I started as a biochemist but sat in on a neuroscience lecture at the University of Montreal and decided to change my path completely. After my Master’s degree, I wasn’t sure whether I would continue a career in academia until I met my Ph.D. supervisor, Charles W. Bourque at the Center for Research in Neuroscience of McGill University. He brought my excitement for scientific curiosity back and I came to realize that this is what I was meant to do.”

What's your favorite science-related book?
“Bill Bryson’s Seeing Further, a farewell gift from my postdoc adviser Allan I. Basbaum from UCSF.”


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