20 McGovern Rising Stars

Meet the future of neuroscience

The cutting-edge work of the McGovern Institute depends not only on our stellar line up of faculty, but the more than 400 postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, summer students, and staff who make up our community. This year, which marks the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the institute, we are highlighting the work of some of our young scientists. They are brilliant, innovative, and driven. Their passion for neuroscience is contagious.

These 20 McGovern “rising stars” — each from one of our 20 labs — represent the future of neuroscience.

Yasaman Bagherzadeh

Postdoctoral Fellow, Desimone Lab

After working with children with neurological disorders, Yasaman Bagherzadeh became determined to pursue a career in neuroscience. This pursuit would ultimately lead Yasaman 6000 miles from her hometown of Tehran, Iran to the lab of Robert Desimone at MIT. With Desimone, she studies how the brain pays attention and hopes what she learns will help people with ADHD and related disorders.

“I want to know how we can sustain our attention in a world filled with distractions.”

Using magnetoencephalography, a neuroimaging technique that measures tiny magnetic fluctuations at the surface of the head, she has found that people can actually improve their attention by observing real-time displays of their own brain waves and attempting to control them. A nationally ranked badminton player, Yasaman splits her time between the lab and the gym, but she remains focused on developing therapies to help people with a range of brain disorders.

Andrew Bahle

Graduate Student, Fee Lab

As a former musician who spent hours practicing and fine-tuning his craft, Andrew Bahle is intrigued by how baby birds learn to imitate the song of their father.

“It is magical to witness a young bird’s imitation of his father’s song crystallize out of hours of mistakes, babbling, and trial-and-error,” Andrew says.

As a graduate student in Michale Fee’s lab, Andrew uses tiny, silicon probes and bird-sized microscopes to record brain activity while young zebra finches learn to sing their tutor’s song. He hopes to learn how and where in the brain the memory of this song is stored because it may shed light on the brain circuits involved in imitation. Understanding these circuits may also help us understand how humans work towards long-term goals — like learning to play Flight of the Bumblebee on a piano or pursuing a PhD at MIT.

Victoria Beja-Glasser

Graduate Student, Feng Lab | 2020-2021 Friends of the McGovern Institute Fellow

What makes some people vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease (AD) while others escape this irreversible and progressive brain disorder? Based on large-scale genetic studies, Victoria Beja-Glasser believes a clue may lie in a little-known gene called ABCA7. When mutated, it increases the risk for AD, especially in non-Caucasian populations.

After graduating from Mount Holyoke with a degree in neuroscience and four years as a forward on their NCAA field hockey team, Victoria joined Guoping Feng’s lab to pursue her interest in age-related brain disorders. She honed in on ABCA7 because few people have studied the gene and because she can study its effects in multiple species.

“This gene is highly conserved,” she explains, which means it has remained essentially unchanged throughout evolution.“So if we find something in a mouse model, there’s a good chance we can shed light on its role in humans.”

Jenelle Feather

Graduate Student, McDermott Lab | 2020-2021 Friends of the McGovern Institute Fellow

Jenelle Feather is so enchanted by the cochlea — a bony labyrinth in the inner ear that transforms sound vibrations into nerve impulses — that she wears a handcrafted silver cochlea pendant around her neck.

I’ve always been curious about how humans perceive the world,” she says. Her particular interest lies in what happens after the cochlea transforms sound waves into nerve signals. “I want to understand how the brain interprets this transformed representation of incoming sound,” she says.

Jenelle is specifically interested in auditory textures — sounds that are composed of many similar elements, but are perceived as single noise — like rain, wind, and fire. As a graduate student in Josh McDermott’s lab, Jenelle discovered that computational models of auditory systems capture human texture perception fairly well, but stumble on other domains like speech perception. She is now building artificial neural networks that more accurately mimic how humans perceive sound.

Dipon Ghosh

Postdoctoral Fellow, Horvitz Lab

It was the mystery of the unknown that originally attracted Dipon Ghosh to biology in college, and it is a mysterious behavior of the microscopic roundworm C. elegans that now drives his postdoctoral studies in H. Robert Horvitz’s lab.

C. elegans do not possess eyes or the light-sensitive photoreceptors that humans use to see colors, yet Dipon discovered that these worms can somehow decide whether to eat or avoid bacteria based on color. He identified two genes that worms use to “sense” colors and found that corresponding genes exist in other species, including humans, and are involved in how cells respond to stresses, including light. Dipon believes the worm might tap into this ancient stress response to detect — and avoid — pigments associated with toxic bacteria.

Dipon’s curiosity might reveal new roles for retinal cells — including how they protect themselves against damage caused by light — and perhaps also a more vivid picture of how we experience color.

Yena Han

Graduate Student, Poggio Lab | 2020-2021 Lore Harp McGovern Fellow

How is it that we recognize an apple whether it’s green or red, on a tree, or in a bowl with other fruit? Seems obvious to us, but machine vision systems struggle to recognize objects under varying conditions.

Yena wants to understand why humans are so good at recognizing objects, even after seeing an object only once. In the Poggio lab, she is applying her electrical engineering and computer science background toward developing more human-like computer vision systems.

“Consider how children learn,” she explains. “They’re presented with a stream of unfamiliar objects and yet they learn to recognize them quickly, under all kinds of conditions. My goal is to engineer computer models that mimic this kind of human behavior.”

Yena is well on her way, having already engineered a model that outperforms other machine vision systems in seeing the world the way humans do.

Anna Ivanova

Graduate Student, Fedorenko Lab

Ever since she was a child growing up in Moscow, Anna Ivanova has been intrigued by language. In high school, she could speak four languages including her native Russian, but it was in college that she began to wonder how language is represented in the brain.

To explore this question, she joined the lab of Ev Fedorenko, known for having discovered a brain network specialized for language. Anna wondered, is this same network involved in other cognitive functions?

Do words in a book evoke the same brain response as images with similar meaning?

Using neuroimaging techniques, Anna has found that the language system in the brain is recruited, but not required, to process the meaning of an image or a scene. These results suggest that we can think — or find meaning in the world — without language. But how these meaningful concepts are represented in the brain, is a mystery that Anna hopes to solve in her next chapter.

Shannon Johnson

Graduate Student, Boyden Lab | 2020-2021 K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Center for Molecular Therapeutics Fellow

Shannon Johnson wants to build tools that help people. Perhaps this is why she was drawn to the lab of Ed Boyden, who is best known for developing revolutionary neuroscience tools like optogenetics and expansion microscopy. From volunteering at community science events to rethinking the American education system, Shannon believes science should be accessible to all. And as a graduate student in Ed Boyden’s lab, she builds tools that help scientists access the inner workings of living neurons.

“The current tools used to image neural activity are analogous to black and white silent films,” she explains. “We want to build technologies that provide more of an HD movie experience.”

In just two years, Shannon has done just that. Together with her colleagues, she created a molecular tool that provides unprecedented access to living cells. By engineering protein-based sensors to cluster in living neurons, her tool creates a glittering map of activity within the cell.

Heather Kosakowski

Graduate Student, Kanwisher and Saxe Labs

Why do people do bad things?

This is the question that gnawed at Heather Kosakowski, who endured a difficult childhood, including years in the foster care system followed by a stint with the Marines. But it was the moment her daughter Hannah was born that inspired Heather to really explore this question, using the tools of cognitive neuroscience.

“The only way to understand what happens when things go wrong in the brain,” Heather says, “is to understand what happens when they go right.”

In the Saxe lab, Heather scans babies as young as two weeks, looking for signatures of the social brain. Using a miniature MRI coil custom-tailored for smaller heads, Heather is the first scientist to discover that infants have brain regions that selectively respond to faces, bodies, and scenes. Her work provides an unprecedented glimpse into the newborn mind and the functional organization of the human brain.

Alim Ladha

Graduate Student, Zhang Lab | 2019-2020 Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research Fellow

Long before he knew he wanted to become an engineer, Alim Ladha spent hours taking apart Xbox controllers to figure out how they work. Today, as a graduate student in Feng Zhang’s lab, Alim tinkers with genetic code rather than computer circuits and motherboards. And his efforts may very well lead to a breakthrough in testing for COVID-19.

Alim has adapted the CRISPR gene editing technology to detect trace amounts of the COVID-19 virus.

The new CRISPR-based research tool, developed with Feng Zhang and McGovern Fellows Jonathan Gootenberg and Omar Abudayyeh, delivers results in an hour in a one-step reaction, advancing the technology closer to an at-home testing tool.

“Our dream is to see someone who has never used a pipette before perform a COVID test in the comfort of their own kitchen,” Alim says. “Thanks to all of the amazing support we have received, this dream has the very real opportunity to become a reality.”

Nan Li

Research Scientist, Jasanoff Lab

Nan Li wants to see the neurons, circuits and whole brain regions that make us who we are. As a research scientist in Alan Jasanoff’s lab, she’s building the tools to make this happen.

“The world isn’t one-dimensional. Shouldn’t the images of our brains also be dynamic and three-dimensional?”

Nan has developed molecular functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) strategies with a specialized sensor that tracks how dopamine influences nearby and distant brain regions. Where traditional fMRI reveals general brain activity based on blood flow, Nan’s sensor tells us which type of cells in the brain become active and where the neurotransmitter travels throughout the brain — providing a more comprehensive and detailed picture of the brain’s activity.


Tiago Marques

Postdoctoral Researcher, DiCarlo Lab

Most self-driving cars are stumped by harsh weather. A stop sign partially obscured by snow may cause an autonomous vehicle to misbehave in unexpected ways, but humans somehow effortlessly slow their own vehicles to a stop.

As a postdoc in the DiCarlo lab, Tiago Marques is developing computational models that, like our brains, can adapt to a wide range of challenging scenarios — such as obeying traffic rules regardless of the weather. He combines engineering and neuroscience approaches to tweak existing AI models of vision to behave more like we do. Tiago engineers artificial neurons to “see” objects in the same way actual neurons do (as shown above), making his models less likely to be fooled under challenging circumstances.

“We are our brains,” he says. “By developing models that better resemble human vision, we are advancing our understanding of what makes us unique.”

Nicolas Meirhaeghe

Graduate Student, Jazayeri Lab

Imagine tossing a ping pong ball into the air with one hand and catching it with the other. After practicing it a few times, imagine doing it again with your eyes closed. There’s a good chance you’ll catch the ball, even without looking at it. This is the type of oddity Nicolas Meirhaeghe studies as a graduate student in Mehrdad Jazayeri’s lab.

Nico’s work explores how we plan and perform movements in the face of uncertainty.

In particular, he tries to understand how information coming from the outside world through our senses gets combined with our internal expectations when we practice the same movement over and over again. He also studies how complex patterns of neural activity change when inexperienced individuals progressively turn into experts, and learn to rely less on what they see, and more on what they expect.


Arghya Mukherjee

Postdoctoral Associate, Halassa Lab

As a child growing up in an Indian coal mining city with significant socioeconomic disparities, Arghya Mukherjee became very interested in how our environment shapes the decisions we make in life. This interest led him directly to Mike Halassa’s lab, where he studies the brain circuits involved in decision-making and how these circuits go awry in people with schizophrenia.

“Once we identify these circuits, we can fix them.”

An approach, Arghya says, that is much more precise than bathing the brain in drugs that were developed more than fifty years ago.

Arghya has identified two brain circuits — one that stabilizes activity in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for planning action) and the other that allows us to be flexible with our decisions and action plans. Arghya won’t rest until he’s found a way to manipulate these circuits and help people suffering from this debilitating psychiatric disorder.

Jimin Park

Graduate Student, Anikeeva Lab

When Jimin Park first joined Polina Anikeeva’s lab, he didn’t know the difference between a mouse and a rat. He was a materials scientist who used electrochemical techniques to build energy devices and metal implants for broken bones — but the brain was new territory.

“Fixing bones is very different than fixing the brain,” he says. “I had to learn everything new, from mouse surgeries to choosing materials that work in the brain. I also had to learn patience.”

Fortunately, Jimin is a remarkably quick study. Tapping into his electrochemical expertise, he created fibers that are compatible with delicate brain tissue and can generate nitric oxide on demand in the brain. Nitric oxide is an important signaling molecule in the body, but its precise role has been difficult to pin down, until now.

Jimin’s fibers — and his patience — have provided researchers with a tool to study how this gas influences the nervous, circulatory, and immune systems.

Quique Toloza

Graduate Student, Harnett Lab

Quique Toloza studied physics, biology and Spanish literature in college, but it was a series of neuroscience classes that really ignited his imagination.

“Using tools developed to solve problems in physics is a beautiful way to study the rich behaviors and emergent dynamics of the brain. I think that’s the coolest natural phenomenon you could possibly study.”

Quique has since found his niche as a graduate student in Mark Harnett’s lab studying the powerful processing capabilities of individual neurons — specifically dendrites, the elaborate tree-like branching structures that receive signals from other neurons.

His computational models, combined with experiments performed in the lab, are revealing how the complex calculations made by individual dendrites contribute to the unique computational power of the human brain. While he draws heavily from his background in physics, two secret ingredients also power his work: black
metal (the music, not the material) and lightsaber battles with his lab mates.

Setayesh Radkani

Graduate Student, Saxe and Jazayeri Labs

Why do people cheat? And how should they be punished? These are the questions that Setayesh Radkani explored in an ethics class in college, and the results took her by surprise.

“It turns out that there are many different reasons people cheat,” she says, adding that some cheat to be perceived as the best in the class while others cheat to avoid the potentially dire consequences of failing a class. “This makes the path to punishment quite complicated.”

Setayesh joined Rebecca Saxe’s lab to further explore the question of punishment through a cognitive neuroscience lens.

Whom do we punish? And why? What processes operate inside the mind and brain when we make moral decisions?

Setayesh is also using the tools of computational neuroscience in Mehrdad Jazayeri’s lab to learn how the social and moral mind is structured. In the end, she hopes these experiments will enrich our understanding of human nature.

Liron Rozenkrantz

Postdoctoral Fellow, Gabrieli Lab | Simons Postdoctoral Fellow

Liron Rozenkrantz is fascinated by the placebo effect — so fascinated, in fact, that she moved her family from Israel to Cambridge to explore this phenomenon with cognitive neuroscientist John Gabrieli.

“The moment I learned that the brain is not a passive organ, that it actively generates how we view the world,” she says, “was a complete game changer for me. This means that expectations we hold can actually shape the reality we perceive!”

Liron is exploring how our beliefs and expectations influence our perception of the world.

Using brain imaging technologies together with sophisticated behavioral investigations, she hopes to learn whether we can actually harness these beliefs to improve our lives. Liron is particularly enthusiastic about the relevance of her research to the world today. In the so-called post-truth era, how we view reality may be more important than ever.

Helen Schwerdt

Research Scientist, Graybiel Lab

When she’s not wandering deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, you will find Helen Schwerdt tinkering with microscopic fibers in Ann Graybiel’s lab. A research scientist with a background in electrical engineering, Helen builds ultrathin probes that target brain microstructures with pinpoint accuracy.

Neurons communicate with both electrical and chemical signals, yet brain activity is often studied with tools that measure only electrical signals.

Helen’s probes detect both signals, in multiple brain locations — at the very same time.

“We know that chemical signals precede and regulate electrical activity,” she says, “so understanding the relationship between the two is important if we want to understand the healthy and diseased brain.”

Helen has zeroed in on Parkinson’s disease, a brain disorder marked by a massive loss of dopamine and abnormal increases in electrical signaling. By tracking these aberrant signals over time, Helen’s probes may help finally crack the code of this debilitating disease.

Sugandha Sharma

Graduate Student, Fiete and Tenenbaum Labs

As a graduate student in Ila Fiete’s lab, Sugandha (Su) Sharma uses mathematical tools to study how the brain helps us navigate the world.

“It’s fascinating that the same brain regions that help us navigate through a city, can also help us infer relationships in family trees and social hierarchies,” says Su.

The brain continuously computes the body’s position in space and makes adjustments to that estimate as we move about. Su is particularly interested in how the brain extrapolates information from one spatial environment to navigate new and different environments.

Our ability to navigate a labyrinth depends on a so-called “cognitive map,” or a mental representation of our physical environment. Su studies how this map is learned and organized in the brain so that we can quickly and efficiently find our way in the physical — and social — world.