Spotlight

Salk’s Sreekanth Chalasani wins 2021 NPA Gallagher Mentor Award

Salk Associate Professor Sreekanth Chalasani has won the 2021 National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) Gallagher Mentor Award. The announcement was made at the 2021 NPA Annual Conference, which took place April 15 and 16. Chalasani was one of eight finalists for the prestigious award.

According to the NPA, the award recognizes those who advocate for postdoctoral scholars; exhibit outstanding communication skills; embed diversity, equity and inclusion values in mentoring; demonstrate respect for the work and career paths of postdoctoral scholars; create productive working environments to enhance the postdoctoral experience; and show resilience and creativity as mentors during the pandemic.

At Salk, Chalasani has made a host of discoveries around the brain, and developed a technique called sonogenetics, which manipulates neurons using ultrasound and has vast implications for therapeutics.

“STEM careers often require one to navigate multiple stages successfully. Each of these stages are also very competitive, thus making mentorship critical to the entire journey,” says Chalasani, a member of Salk’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory.

He advises potential mentors to trust their instincts; be flexible; consistent; and true to their own values.

Uncommon sense teaching: practical insights in brain science to help students learn

Professor Terrence Sejnowski, head of Salk’s Computational Neurobiology Laboratory, director of the Crick-Jacobs Center and holder of the Francis Crick chair, has published a new book to improve teaching based on the latest research in neuroscience about how students learn. The book, called Uncommon Sense Teaching: Practical Insights in Brain Science to Help Students Learn, is accompanied by a Coursera massive open online course (MOOC) called “Uncommon Sense Teaching,” as a follow-up to Sejnowski’s popular MOOC “Learning How to Learn.”

San Diego Nathan Shock Center announces first grant awardees

The San Diego Nathan Shock Center (SD-NSC) of Excellence in the Basic Biology of Aging, a consortium between the Salk Institute, Sanford Burnham Prebys (SBP) and UC San Diego, recently announced the first class of pilot grant awardees. Six recipients from different institutions will receive up to $15,000 to pursue research that advances our understanding of how humans age, with the ultimate goal of extending the number of years of potentially healthy, disease-free life.

The six pilot grant awardees are: Ana Chucair-Elliot, staff scientist at Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation; Vanessa Delcroix, postdoctoral researcher at The Scripps Research Institute; Maria Clara Guida, staff scientist at SBP; Adam Konopka, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Lara Labarta Bajo, postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute; and Maria Mihaylova, assistant professor at The Ohio State University.

The awardees were named at SD-NSC’s first training workshop, held on March 26, 2021.

Susan Kaech awarded $300,000 grant in honor of The CART Fund founder Roger Ackerman

Congratulations to Professor Susan Kaech on being the recipient of a $300,000 grant in memory of The CART Fund founder Roger Ackerman. The CART Fund is a grassroots nonprofit that supports cutting-edge research and created by Rotarians dedicated to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

Postdoc receives Pathway to Independence Award

Congratulations to Laura Newman, a postdoctoral researcher in the Shadel lab, for being awarded an NIH Pathway to Independence award for a 5-year study of the role of mitochondrial/ER contacts in the regulation of mtDNA release from mitochondria, innate immune signaling, and responses to viral infection.

NOMIS Center for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis announces its 2021 NOMIS Fellows

Launched in 2008, the NOMIS Center for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis aims to shed light on the molecular mechanisms that cause infectious diseases, define key molecules involved in the body’s response to injury and infection, elucidate the rules of engagement between the body’s microbiome and immune system, and understand why inflammatory processes spin out of control under some circumstances.

Recently, NOMIS announced its 2021 NOMIS Fellows:

Dan Chen – Postdoctoral Fellow, Kaech Lab

Chen will direct her expertise in cancer research toward understanding the anti-tumor immune response to one of the deadliest forms of cancer: glioblastoma. Glioblastoma affects cells in the brain and nervous system, which makes it extremely difficult to treat with typical approaches such as chemotherapy.

Lidia Jiménez – Postdoctoral Fellow, Lemke Lab

Jiménez will be studying TAM receptors on macrophages in the thymus and the spleen. Both tissues have a high ratio of cell death due to normal physiological processes occurring within the tissue itself, and TAM receptors are known to play a crucial role in clearing dead cells and controlling immune homeostasis.

Andre Mu – Postdoctoral Fellow, Ayres Lab

Mu’s project will address why some patients develop severe illness while others seem to have no symptoms of disease despite the pathogens’ ability to infect, replicate and transmit. He aims to determine the compositional structure of gut microbiomes before and during infectious diseases in order to identify signature microbiome markers that may predispose a person to acquiring infections.

Jan Pencik – Postdoctoral Fellow, Shaw Lab

Pencik is focusing on non-small cell lung cancer, the most common type of lung cancer. His work will serve to identify some of the most critical proteins linked to a gene called STK11 (also known as LKB1) that regulate a loss of therapeutic efficacy, providing valuable insights for designing optimal therapeutic strategies tailored toward hard-to-treat non-small cell lung tumors.

Mentoring the Next Generation at Salk

Mentoring is incredibly valuable to anyone wanting to succeed in a new career, but is even more crucial for those entering or just getting started in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Mentoring opens doors to achievement and career enrichment; studies have shown that those who have mentors thrive in nearly all STEM settings.

Enabling innovative science that can solve the world’s challenges starts with actively training tomorrow’s mentors. That’s why Salk is committed to offering valuable mentoring resources to its early-career scientists to ensure they can succeed—now, and in the future. Whether it’s training mentors or providing young scientists the tools and mentorship they need to succeed, Salk is dedicated to mentoring in several ways:

Learning

Salk’s Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) facilitates “Entering Mentoring,” a six-week series based on curricula from the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research. The series is offered to various cohorts including recently appointed junior faculty, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and other scientific staff. It provides a safe group learning space to share and ponder challenging scenarios with colleagues, aimed at accelerating and supporting individuals in their journey toward independence and becoming an effective research mentor.

“Both formal and informal mentoring relationships are invaluable in the working, learning and training environment,” says Mallory Zaslav, vice president of Salk’s Office of Equity & Inclusion. “Effective mentoring relationships can expand the horizons of both the mentee and mentor by introducing new perspectives, advancing underrepresented populations, transferring knowledge and creating connections that may introduce opportunities for personal and professional growth.”

Connecting

Launched in February, the Institute’s Postdoctoral Mentoring Program works in partnership with Salk alumni and Salk Women & Science to provide a forum for postdoctoral trainees to engage directly with Salk supporters and alumni through professional development and networking opportunities. This program reflects and expands upon Salk’s culture of collaborative and continuous learning.

Leading

Salk actively encourages and enables faculty in their efforts to serve as effective mentors. The life experiences, thoughts and opinions of Salk’s diverse faculty of varied backgrounds are of great value to others. For example, in a recent article in Nature Portfolio, Assistant Professor Christina Towers shared her experiences as a mentee and mentor; challenged early-career scientists to find their mentors; and encouraged scientists no matter the stage of their career to consider becoming a mentor for the benefit of future scientists.

Loss of Salk colleague inspires action, change

The Salk Institute lost one of its brightest colleagues, Swati Tyagi, 34, a postdoctoral researcher in the Hetzer lab, when she was tragically killed on June 23 when a person driving a car struck her from behind while she was riding her bike. In the days following, Tyagi’s colleagues and friends established an emergency fund to help her family during the difficult time.

Tyagi’s death was one of a dozen bicycle-vehicle fatalities in San Diego in 2021. The deaths prompted fervent advocacy by bicyclist groups who urged government officials to improve the city’s infrastructure and make streets safer for bicyclists in order to prevent future tragedies.

In August, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria announced his administration would take several measures to improve bike safety, including: creating bike lanes more quickly, joining the National Association of City Transportation Officials to learn and adopt best practices, and working to reduce the time it takes to process a bike infrastructure permit.

Salk Receives INSIGHT Into Diversity Magazine’s 2021 Inspiring Programs in STEM Award

Salk’s Education Outreach program received the 2021 Inspiring Programs in STEM Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, the largest and oldest diversity and inclusion publication in higher education. The Inspiring Programs in STEM Award honors colleges and universities that encourage and assist students from underrepresented groups to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Salk will be featured, along with 78 other recipients, in the September 2021 issue of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.

INSIGHT Into Diversity selected Salk’s Education Outreach program for its continued efforts in delivering innovative, engaging STEM learning experiences to thousands of San Diego students of all ages, the majority of whom come from underrepresented and underserved communities.

Education Outreach serves San Diego County students of all ages through its core programs: Mobile Science Lab, Heithoff-Brody High School Summer Scholars, March of Dimes High School Science Day and the Ellen Potter Research Connections for Teachers Symposium. These programs are offered at no cost to students, teachers and schools, thereby reducing economic barriers to high-quality STEM education.

Dannielle Engle awarded prestigious pancreatic cancer research grant honoring Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Salk Assistant Professor Dannielle Engle was selected as the first recipient of the Lustgarten Foundation-AACR Career Development Award for Pancreatic Cancer Research in Honor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late Supreme Court Justice and women’s rights pioneer.

Engle will receive $300,000 to fund her pancreatic cancer research, which is focused on understanding how we can intercept the signals causing pancreatic cancer to metastasize and become so deadly.

Each year, more than 45,000 Americans lose their lives to pancreatic cancer—now the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths, with a five-year relative survival rate of 10 percent. Through these awards, the Lustgarten Foundation and the AACR seek to help close the gap in the number of early-career women and under-represented scientists applying for and receiving funding to conduct research leading to a better understanding and treatment of pancreatic cancer.

Learning about science, virtual edition: Education Outreach continues successful summer programs

Starting the summer of 2020, Salk’s Education Outreach programs went virtual in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, the team continued its mission of teaching and inspiring students to pursue careers in science, remaining flexible through uncertain times by offering virtual and hybrid versions of its two summer 2021 programs.

Heithoff-Brody High School Summer Scholars

This summer’s hybrid class was comprised of six scholars, including one who returned to the Stem Cell Core for a second summer after previously attending in 2019. The eight-week internship, generously made possible through an endowment established by the Heithoff Family Foundation, provides high school students the opportunity to gain experiences in scientific research and develop crucial skills needed to pursue a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Founded more than 40 years ago, the program fulfills Jonas Salk’s vision of introducing high school students to laboratory life and the possibility of a career in science.

This summer’s scholars dedicated 25 to 30 hours a week to the hybrid program. Up to 10 hours was spent performing research with their assigned mentors in Salk labs. Scholars spent their remaining time participating in virtual lab meetings and virtual seminars and completing independent projects.

Salk Introduction to Research Science & Communication

Created last summer in response to the need to provide students a virtual alternative to the Heithoff-Brody High School Summer Scholars, Salk Introduction to Research Science & Communication was such a success that this summer it was increased from a four-week to a five-week program.

Fifty students were selected from a pool of over 500 applicants from all over the country. The class consisted of two cohorts of students. The first group was comprised of exclusively San Diego Unified School District students who were funded by Level Up SD, an initiative of the San Diego Foundation. The second group was comprised of students from all across the country, including three students from North Carolina who were selected by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in appreciation of their three-year gift to the Heithoff-Brody High School Summer Scholars program.

Over the five weeks, students took part in scientific readings and data analysis, completed virtual lab simulations, learned about laboratory practices and participated in professional development opportunities.

To learn more about Education Outreach visit
www.salk.edu/education.

 

Salk professor on national committee to study implicit bias

Implicit bias, defined as “an unconscious favoritism towards or prejudice against people of a particular race, gender, or group that influences one’s actions or perceptions,” is garnering a good deal of societal interest lately, but it’s also the subject of a growing body of scientific research.

Salk Professor and neuroscientist Thomas Albright says everyone’s perceptions are framed by unconscious inferences, or biases. They are part of the way the human brain deals with the uncertainty of new information: Is that person running towards me shouting to warn me of danger, or to threaten me? Our brain tries to reduce uncertainty by relating the new experience to other experiences we’ve had: what social scientists call “priors.”

Often, our “priors” are based on incomplete or faulty information, which is what can lead us to behave in ways that may harm others. We’re usually not even aware of the unconscious beliefs we hold, which are based on countless previous experiences or societal influences.

One way we see this play out is in the legal system. Many people are wrongly accused of crimes based on unreliable eyewitness testimony, which can stem from eyewitness’ unconscious ideas about which kinds of people are more likely to commit crimes—people of a certain age, race or gender, for example. Albright says understanding that we all make unconscious inferences is the first step toward not acting on them in ways that cause harm. In 2020, the Albright lab published a paper in Nature Communications proposing a new method of doing police lineups that would help eliminate unconscious biases that shape people’s decisions without their awareness (see “Discoveries” in Winter 2020 issue).

More recently, Albright served on a committee of the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) to study implicit bias in detail. The NAS’ mission is to provide “independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.” As a member of the committee, Albright helped organize a two-day workshop on implicit bias in March 2021.

The workshop presentation and videos are available to the public on the National Academies’ website,
www.nationalacademies.org/events

Salk scientists awarded $10,000 to $100,000 by Kavli Small Equipment Grant program in 2021

The Kavli Foundation champions scientific research through its Small Equipment Grant program that provides scientists with unconstrained opportunities to drive greater discovery. The funding will support Salk faculty and research professors working in neuroscience and related fields to purchase or build equipment needed to further their research, ranging from $10,000 to $100,000.

Individual awardees include Salk faculty John Reynolds, Kenta Asahina, Sreekanth Chalasani and Xin Jin. Collaborative awardees include Eiman Azim and Martyn Goulding; as well a group effort led by Dannielle Engle, which includes Dmitry Lyumkis, Graham McVicker, Pallav Kosuri and Satchidananda Panda.

Institute receives Charity Navigator’s highest rating for tenth consecutive time

For the tenth consecutive time, the Salk Institute has earned the highest ranking—4 out of 4 stars—from Charity Navigator, America’s largest independent charity and nonprofit evaluator. Only three percent of the roughly 10,000 nonprofits evaluated have achieved this recognition ten consecutive times. The coveted ranking indicates the Salk Institute has demonstrated strong financial health and commitment to accountability and transparency, outperforming most other charities in America in regard to executing best fiscal practices and carrying out its mission in a financially efficient way.

“This recognition by Charity Navigator of Salk’s continued success achieving the highest level of fiscal accountability and transparency among our peers is exciting and something we are proud to receive once again,” says Salk Institute President Rusty Gage.

Charity Navigator’s data-driven analysis of the 1.5 million American charities has been covered by Forbes, Business Week and others for providing donors with a way to recognize nonprofits that provide greater accountability, transparency and concrete results.

“Our donors showed their faithful support of Salk science through an uncertain year, as our scientists and the world worked through the many challenges presented by a global pandemic,” says Rebecca Newman, Salk’s vice president of External Relations. “We are deeply gratified that the Charity Navigator rankings reflect our donors’ confidence in the Institute’s stewardship and trustworthiness.”

Since receiving its previous rating from Charity Navigator in 2019, the Salk Institute has made bold progress in pursuing ambitious solutions to the difficult challenges facing humanity, including climate change, aging and cancer.

Support for these initiatives included gifts of $30 million from the Bezos Earth Fund and $12.5 million from Hess Corporation, both in support of Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative. This scalable approach to help humanity deal with a warming planet aims to optimize plants to store more carbon and adapt to diverse climate conditions.

In addition, the NOMIS Foundation gave $9.5 million to Salk’s NOMIS Center for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis to grow and expand, while the center continues to be a leader in health and immunity research.

The Institute continues to make bold progress through its Conquering Cancer Initiative, which seeks to tackle six deadly cancers: colon, pancreatic, ovarian, lung, glioblastoma and triple-negative breast.

“I wish to congratulate Salk Institute for Biological Studies on attaining the coveted 4-star rating ten consecutive times. This designation sets Salk apart from its peers and demonstrates to the public its trustworthiness,” says Michael Thatcher, president and CEO of Charity Navigator.

Since 2002, Charity Navigator has used objective analysis to award only the most fiscally responsible organizations a 4-star rating: only a quarter of charities rated receive this distinction. In 2011, Charity Navigator added 17 metrics, focused on governance and ethical practices as well as measures of openness, to its ratings methodology. These Accountability and Transparency metrics, which account for 50 percent of a charity’s overall rating, reveal which charities operate in accordance with industry best practices and whether they are open with their donors and stakeholders.

Salk Professor Kay Tye Wins Blavatnik National Award for Young Scientists

Salk Professor and neuroscientist Kay Tye has been named one of three winners of the prestigious Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists. Tye, the laureate in the Life Sciences category, will receive $250,000 for her trailblazing work in studying the neural circuits and behaviors related to anxiety and social interaction.

Tye, who is a professor in Salk’s Systems Neurobiology Laboratory and holds the Wylie Vale Chair, seeks to understand the neural circuit basis of emotion that leads to motivated behaviors such as social interaction, reward-seeking and avoidance. Her lab’s findings may help to inform treatments for conditions such as anxiety, depression, addiction and impairments in social behavior.

The 2020 and 2021 Blavatnik National Laureates and Finalists will be honored at an awards ceremony on September 28, 2021, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Tye is the second Salk Blavatnik Life Sciences Laureate, the first being Salk Professor Janelle Ayres, who won the award in 2018.

The Blavatnik Family Foundation founded The Blavatnik Awards in 2007, and since that time has awarded more than $11.9 million and recognized 359 young scientists and engineers from 47 countries, working in 36 scientific and engineering disciplines.

Salk promotes Diana Hargreaves

Diana Hargreaves was promoted to the rank of associate professor after the latest round of faculty reviews determined she is a scientific leader who has made original, innovative and notable contributions to biological research.

The promotion was based on recommendations by Salk faculty and nonresident fellows, and approved by President Rusty Gage and the Institute’s Board of Trustees in April.

Hargreaves, who is a member of Salk’s Molecular and Cell Laboratory, and holder of the Richard Heyman and Anne Daigle Endowed Developmental Chair, studies how the diversity of cell types in our body is controlled by proteins, called epigenetic regulators, that selectively activate genes particular to each cell type, whether it be skin, liver, brain or others. She applies her knowledge of biochemistry and epigenomics to investigate epigenetic regulation in models of cancer, embryonic-stem-cell pluripotency, and immune cell function.

Among other honors, she was awarded the Pew-Stewart Scholar for Cancer Research in 2019 and the American Cancer Society Research Scholar Award in 2020 to support her work on a better understanding of the causes, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Institute appoints new Salk Fellow

The Salk Institute recently appointed neuroscientist Talmo Pereira to the Salk Fellows Program. Pereira, who begins at Salk this fall, comes from Princeton University, where he developed computational methods for quantifying animal behavior through motion tracking technology that leverages artificial intelligence (AI). Pereira is interested in building and using computational tools that leverage AI to solve biological problems that would not be tractable otherwise.

At Salk, he plans to develop new computational methods to quantify and model biological dynamics across a diverse set of application areas, including social behavior, motor control, plant morphology, and single cell states throughout development and disease.

“I am so grateful for the united efforts of the Salk community to identify and recruit a rising star as bright as Talmo Pereira,” says Salk Professor Kay Tye, who chaired the Salk Fellows Search Committee. “A true genius, Talmo is already forming collaborations in areas ranging from plant growth to social hierarchies, and adds profoundly to the diversity, depth, and dimension of our scientific community at Salk in terms of who he is as a person, who he is as a theoretician, who he is as a scientist, and the way his mind works.”

The Salk Fellows Program brings scientists from broad disciplines to the Institute to trigger innovation and perpetuate the collaborative spirit of the Institute. Most fellows come directly from a PhD or MD program and have expertise in a wide range of innovative technologies. The Institute welcomed its inaugural class of fellows from 2014 to 2016, and all three are now in tenure-track faculty positions at Salk or UC Berkeley.

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