Salk adds three new faculty members

Daniel Bayless joined Salk’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory on September 1 as an assistant professor. His research focuses on the neuronal basis of sex differences that lead to complex behaviors such as social approach, aggression, and mating in mice. He received his PhD from Tulane University and completed his postdoctoral research at Stanford University. At Salk, Bayless will focus on how life experiences and sex hormones affect social information processing that manifests differently across sexes.

Lena Mueller will join Salk’s plant biology faculty as an assistant professor in January 2024. She joins Salk from the University of Miami, where she is currently an assistant professor studying interactions between plants and fungi. These interactions are important for plant productivity in natural and agricultural settings and may help promote carbon sequestration in soil. Mueller received her PhD from the University of Zurich and completed her postdoctoral research at Cornell University. At Salk, she will continue to study peptide signaling mechanisms that govern development and maintenance of plant-fungus interactions.

Agnieszka (Aga) Kendrick joined Salk’s biochemistry and biophysics faculty on November 1 as an assistant professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory. She is a structural biologist who studies how cells recognize and transport cargo within the cell. Kendrick received her PhD from the University of Colorado, Denver, and completed her postdoctoral research at UC San Diego. Her work has implications for many aspects of the biology studied at Salk, from neurons to plants.

Assistant Professor Christina Towers receives NIH New Innovator Award

Towers received a five-year, $2.85 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s New Innovator Award from the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program. Towers is one of 58 researchers to receive the award this year.

With the award, Towers and her team will employ new tools and models to better understand cancer cells’ rapid and dynamic response to metabolic changes—all with the goal of preventing treatment resistance in cancer patients.

Investing in the future of innovation

Launched in 2006 from the forward-thinking minds of then-Board Chair Irwin Jacobs and his wife, Joan, Salk’s Innovation Grants is a vital program for supporting emerging science. The grants are designed to fund out-of-the-box ideas that hold significant promise but do not yet have the track record to gain support from more traditional funding sources. Awarded semiannually by peer review, Innovation Grants are critical for catalyzing emerging science with the power to redefine the future. The 2023 Summer Innovation Grants were awarded to:

Professor Edward Callaway and Assistant Professor Pallav Kosuri, who will create a new screening platform based on cutting-edge MERFISH technology to identify pieces of DNA called enhancers, which regulate gene expression in different cell types. By bringing down the cost of these screening tests by a factor of a hundred compared to current methods, the MERFISH-based platform will make it possible to explore gene control in thousands of different kinds of cells at once.

Associate Professor Kenta Asahina, who will use a thorough understanding of fruit fly genetics as a springboard to establish sweat bees as a novel model organism for exploring the evolutionary origins and brain basis of social behaviors.

Associate Professor Eiman Azim and Salk Fellow Talmo Pereira, who will create a computational model of how the brain produces behavior that takes into account what we know about the nervous system and structure of the body—brains, bones, and muscles. They hope this new approach opens doors for neuroscientists to study the relationship between the brain, body, and movement with higher accuracy than ever before.

Physician-scientist Jesse Dixon named Rita Allen Foundation Award Scholar

Assistant Professor Jesse Dixon was one of nine scientists the Rita Allen Foundation named to its 2023 class of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars. The distinction is given to biomedical scientists whose research holds exceptional promise for revealing new pathways to advance human health.

The selected scholars will receive grants of up to $110,000 annually for a maximum of five years to conduct innovative research on critical topics in cancer, immunology, neuroscience, and pain. Dixon and the other scholars were chosen for their bold approaches to basic scientific questions that address problems of global concern, as well as their potential for learning, leadership, and collaboration.

Two faculty members earn V Foundation awards for cancer research

Assistant Professors Christina Towers and Deepshika Ramanan were named V Scholars by the V Foundation for Cancer Research. They will each receive $600,000 over three years to fund their unique cancer research goals.

Towers was named to the first class of recipients of V Foundation’s A Grant of Her Own: The Women Scientists Innovation Award for Cancer Research, which was created to help counteract long-standing gender disparities in research. She is a member of Salk’s National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center, where she works to uncover the mechanisms that cancer cells use to recycle nutrients and power-generating mitochondria to grow in low-nutrient environments.

With her V Scholar Award, Towers will investigate these recycling mechanisms in pancreatic cancer. She will use mini pancreatic organs in the lab to study how treatment-resistant pancreatic cancer cell-recycling pathways can promote or block tumor growth.

Ramanan is a member of the Salk Cancer Center and the Institute’s NOMIS Center for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis, where she works to uncover the mechanisms that underlie cancer and autoimmune diseases. She studies how the maternal immune system changes during pregnancy and breastfeeding and affects immunity and inflammation in babies across multiple generations. (See Observations on p. 18.)

With her V Scholar Award, Ramanan will study the mechanisms by which breastmilk factors can shape intestinal microbes and immune cells and potentially protect generations from colorectal cancer. Her work will provide much-needed insight into immune cell-microbe-diet interactions and their role in cancer initiation and progression, in turn inspiring a future where breastmilk factors could be used to prevent or treat colorectal cancer.

Salk names St. Jude and Caltech researchers to Nonresident Fellows faculty

Douglas R. Green, co-leader of the Cancer Biology Program and Peter C. Doherty Endowed Chair of the Department of Immunology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and Stephen L. Mayo, a Bren Professor of Biology and Chemistry and Merkin Institute Professor at Caltech, have joined Salk as Nonresident Fellows.

Green seeks to understand the complex world of how cells eat, live, and die. His lab investigates fundamental molecular processes involved in cell survival and death, and how these processes operate in cellular contexts and disease states. He earned both his undergraduate degree in biology and his PhD in immunology from Yale University. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and has received numerous awards and recognitions for his research, including a National Cancer Institute Outstanding Investigator Award and the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal for Yale Alumni Achievement.

Mayo’s research focuses on the development of computational approaches to protein engineering—a field that has broad applications ranging from advanced biofuels to human therapeutics. He earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Pennsylvania State University and a PhD in chemistry from Caltech. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, received a National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship, and was recognized with the Pennsylvania State University Distinguished Alumni Award.

Salk’s Nonresident Fellows consist of eminent scientific advisors who assist in guiding the Institute’s leadership.

Salk postdoctoral researcher awarded HHMI Hanna H. Gray Fellowship

Louis Parham, a member of Assistant Professor Christina Towers’ lab, was among 25 early-career scientists who received fellowships from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Hanna H. Gray Fellows Program. The program provides each fellow with up to $1.5 million in support for up to eight years spanning postdoctoral training through transition to an early-career faculty position.

New Salk Institute NOMIS Fellows

Postdoctoral researchers Anna-Maria Globig, Jeremiah (Jake) Minich, and Yuan Sui have been awarded NOMIS fellowships. NOMIS fellowships support emerging, early-career researchers who, like other NOMIS researchers, demonstrate the potential to lead groundbreaking, high-risk basic research.

Globig, a member of Professor Susan Kaech’s lab, was recognized for her research on neuronal regulation of immune responses. Using murine models of viral infection and cancer, she will study how T cell-neuronal interactions instruct T cell exhaustion and memory differentiation.

Minich, a member of Research Professor Todd Michael’s lab, received the award for his research on the role of the gut microbiome in infant malnutrition.

Sui, a member of Professor Tony Hunter’s lab, was awarded a fellowship for his research on pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma.

Salk Institute mourns the loss of Margaret Faye Wilson

Former Salk Board Trustee and longtime supporter Margaret Faye Wilson died on July 10. She was a leader in the banking and retail industries, and served as a Trustee on the Institute’s Board from 2010 to 2019. Wilson was a generous donor to Salk over the years, including supporting Symphony at Salk, the Institute’s premier annual event.

Three trainees awarded Dan and Martina Lewis Biophotonics fellowships

Salk’s Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Center provides funding to support graduate students and postdoctoral researchers through the Dan and Martina Lewis Biophotonics Fellowship Program. Congratulations to this year’s awardees:

MK Duff is a graduate student in Associate Professor Axel Nimmerjahn’s lab and was awarded $60,000 toward stipend and graduate program fees for her project interrogating astrocyte-neuron interactions in the spinal cord.

Atousa Mehrani is a postdoctoral researcher in Associate Professor Dmitry Lyumkis’ lab. She was awarded $80,000 in salary and fringe support for her research on visualizing HIV protein-RNA packaging at the cellular plasma membrane using cryo-electron tomography.

Amanda Wacker is a graduate student in Assistant Professor Pallav Kosuri’s lab. She was awarded $60,000 of stipend and fee support toward her research developing a method for long-term continuous tracking of single-molecule protein-DNA interactions through DNA origami nanostructures.

Postdoctoral Researcher Zhibin Liang named 2023 STAT News Wunderkind

Liang was honored by STAT News, a life science news publication produced by Boston Globe Media, as a STAT Wunderkind—an award that recognizes the work of early-career scientists and clinicians. As a member of Research Professor Pamela Maher’s lab, Liang is uncovering the underlying mechanisms of the bioactive ingredients in plants to develop more effective therapeutics. He aims to use these natural products (plant chemicals) to treat incurable diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. He is also looking at how these active molecules prevent mitochondrial dysfunction in neurodegeneration and aging.

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