McGovern Fellows recognized with life sciences innovation award

McGovern Institute Fellows Omar Abudayyeh and Jonathan Gootenberg have been named the inaugural recipients of the Termeer Scholars Awards, which recognize “emerging biomedical researchers that represent the future of the biotechnology industry.” The Termeer Foundation is a nonprofit organization focused on connecting life science innovators and catalyzing the creation of new medicines.

“The Termeer Foundation is committed to championing emerging biotechnology leaders and finding people who want to solve the biggest problems in human health,” said Belinda Termeer, president of the Termeer Foundation. “By supporting researchers like Omar and Jonathan, we plant the seeds for future success in individuals who are preparing to make significant contributions in academia and industry.”

The Abudayyeh-Gootenberg lab is developing a suite of new tools to enable next-generation cellular engineering, with uses in basic research, therapeutics and diagnostics. Building off the revolutionary biology of natural biological systems, including mobile genetic elements and CRISPR systems, the team develops new approaches for understanding and manipulating genomes, transcriptomes and cellular fate. The technologies have broad applications, including in oncology, aging and genetic disease.

These tools have been adopted by researchers over the world and formed the basis for four companies that Abudayyeh and Gootenberg have co-founded. They will receive a $50,000 grant to support professional development, knowledge advancement and/or stakeholder engagement and will become part of The Termeer Foundation’s signature Network of Termeer Fellows (first-time CEOs and entrepreneurs) and Mentors (experienced industry leaders).

“The Termeer Foundation is working to improve the long odds of biotechnology by identifying and supporting future biotech leaders; if we help them succeed as leaders, we can help their innovations reach patients,” said Alan Waltws, co-founder of the Termeer Foundation. “While our Termeer Fellows program has supported first time CEOs and entrepreneurs for the past five years, our new Termeer Scholars program will provide much needed support to the researchers whose innovative ideas represent the future of the biotechnology industry – researchers like Omar and Jonathan.”

Abudayyeh and Gootenberg were honored at the Termeer Foundation’s annual dinner in Boston on June 16, 2022.

New research center focused on brain-body relationship established at MIT

The inextricable link between our brains and our bodies has been gaining increasing recognition among researchers and clinicians over recent years. Studies have shown that the brain-body pathway is bidirectional — meaning that our mental state can influence our physical health and vice versa. But exactly how the two interact is less clear.

A new research center at MIT, funded by a $38 million gift to the McGovern Institute for Brain Research from philanthropist K. Lisa Yang, aims to unlock this mystery by creating and applying novel tools to explore the multidirectional, multilevel interplay between the brain and other body organ systems. This gift expands Yang’s exceptional philanthropic support of human health and basic science research at MIT over the past five years.

“Lisa Yang’s visionary gift enables MIT scientists and engineers to pioneer revolutionary technologies and undertake rigorous investigations into the brain’s complex relationship with other organ systems,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif.  “Lisa’s tremendous generosity empowers MIT scientists to make pivotal breakthroughs in brain and biomedical research and, collectively, improve human health on a grand scale.”

The K. Lisa Yang Brain-Body Center will be directed by Polina Anikeeva, professor of materials science and engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT and an associate investigator at the McGovern Institute. The center will harness the power of MIT’s collaborative, interdisciplinary life sciences research and engineering community to focus on complex conditions and diseases affecting both the body and brain, with a goal of unearthing knowledge of biological mechanisms that will lead to promising therapeutic options.

“Under Professor Anikeeva’s brilliant leadership, this wellspring of resources will encourage the very best work of MIT faculty, graduate fellows, and research — and ultimately make a real impact on the lives of many,” Reif adds.

microscope image of gut
Mouse small intestine stained to reveal cell nucleii (blue) and peripheral nerve fibers (red).
Image: Polina Anikeeva, Marie Manthey, Kareena Villalobos

Center goals  

Initial projects in the center will focus on four major lines of research:

  • Gut-Brain: Anikeeva’s group will expand a toolbox of new technologies and apply these tools to examine major neurobiological questions about gut-brain pathways and connections in the context of autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and affective disorders.
  • Aging: CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang, the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and investigator at the McGovern Institute, will lead a group in developing molecular tools for precision epigenomic editing and erasing accumulated “errors” of time, injury, or disease in various types of cells and tissues.
  • Pain: The lab of Fan Wang, investigator at the McGovern Institute and professor of brain and cognitive sciences, will design new tools and imaging methods to study autonomic responses, sympathetic-parasympathetic system balance, and brain-autonomic nervous system interactions, including how pain influences these interactions.
  • Acupuncture: Wang will also collaborate with Hilda (“Scooter”) Holcombe, a veterinarian in MIT’s Division of Comparative Medicine, to advance techniques for documenting changes in brain and peripheral tissues induced by acupuncture in mouse models. If successful, these techniques could lay the groundwork for deeper understandings of the mechanisms of acupuncture, specifically how the treatment stimulates the nervous system and restores function.

A key component of the K. Lisa Yang Brain-Body Center will be a focus on educating and training the brightest young minds who aspire to make true breakthroughs for individuals living with complex and often devastating diseases. A portion of center funding will endow the new K. Lisa Yang Brain-Body Fellows Program, which will support four annual fellowships for MIT graduate students and postdocs working to advance understanding of conditions that affect both the body and brain.

Mens sana in corpore sano

“A phrase I remember reading in secondary school has always stuck with me: ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body,’” says Lisa Yang, a former investment banker committed to advocacy for individuals with visible and invisible disabilities. “When we look at how stress, nutrition, pain, immunity, and other complex factors impact our health, we truly see how inextricably linked our brains and bodies are. I am eager to help MIT scientists and engineers decode these links and make real headway in creating therapeutic strategies that result in longer, healthier lives.”

“This center marks a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for labs like mine to conduct bold and risky studies into the complexities of brain-body connections,” says Anikeeva, who works at the intersection of materials science, electronics, and neurobiology. “The K. Lisa Yang Brain-Body Center will offer a pathbreaking, holistic approach that bridges multiple fields of study. I have no doubt that the center will result in revolutionary strides in our understanding of the inextricable bonds between the brain and the body’s peripheral organ systems, and a bold new way of thinking in how we approach human health overall.”

A voice for change — in Spanish

Jessica Chomik-Morales had a bicultural childhood. She was born in Boca Raton, Florida, where her parents had come seeking a better education for their daughter than she would have access to in Paraguay. But when she wasn’t in school, Chomik-Morales was back in that small, South American country with her family. One of the consequences of growing up in two cultures was an early interest in human behavior. “I was always in observer mode,” Chomik-Morales says, recalling how she would tune in to the nuances of social interactions in order to adapt and fit in.

Today, that fascination with human behavior is driving Chomik-Morales as she works with MIT professor of cognitive science Laura Schulz and Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and McGovern Institute for Brain Research investigator Nancy Kanwisher as a post-baccalaureate research scholar, using functional brain imaging to investigate how the brain recognizes and understands causal relationships. Since arriving at MIT last fall, she’s worked with study volunteers to collect functional MRI (fMRI) scans and used computational approaches to interpret the images. She’s also refined her own goals for the future.

Jessica Chomik-Morales (right) with postdoctoral associate Héctor De Jesús-Cortés. Photo: Steph Stevens

She plans to pursue a career in clinical neuropsychology, which will merge her curiosity about the biological basis of behavior with a strong desire to work directly with people. “I’d love to see what kind of questions I could answer about the neural mechanisms driving outlier behavior using fMRI coupled with cognitive assessment,” she says. And she’s confident that her experience in MIT’s two-year post-baccalaureate program will help her get there. “It’s given me the tools I need, and the techniques and methods and good scientific practice,” she says. “I’m learning that all here. And I think it’s going to make me a more successful scientist in grad school.”

The road to MIT

Chomik-Morales’s path to MIT was not a straightforward trajectory through the U.S. school system. When her mom, and later her dad, were unable to return to the U.S., she started eight grade in the capital city of Asunción. It did not go well. She spent nearly every afternoon in the principal’s office, and soon her father was encouraging her to return to the United States. “You are an American,” he told her. “You have a right to the educational system there.”

Back in Florida, Chomik-Morales became a dedicated student, even while she worked assorted jobs and shuffled between the homes of families who were willing to host her. “I had to grow up,” she says. “My parents are sacrificing everything just so I can have a chance to be somebody. People don’t get out of Paraguay often, because there aren’t opportunities and it’s a very poor country. I was given an opportunity, and if I waste that, then that is disrespect not only to my parents, but to my lineage, to my country.”

As she graduated from high school and went on to earn a degree in cognitive neuroscience at Florida Atlantic University, Chomik-Morales found herself experiencing things that were completely foreign to her family. Though she spoke daily with her mom via WhatsApp, it was hard to share what she was learning in school or what she was doing in the lab. And while they celebrated her academic achievements, Chomik-Morales knew they didn’t really understand them. “Neither of my parents went to college,” she says. “My mom told me that she never thought twice about learning about neuroscience. She had this misconception that it was something that she would never be able to digest.”

Chomik-Morales believes that the wonders of neuroscience are for everybody. But she also knows that Spanish speakers like her mom have few opportunities to hear the kinds of accessible, engaging stories that might draw them in. So she’s working to change that. With support from the McGovern Institute, the National Science Foundation funded Science and Technology Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines, Chomik-Morales is hosting and producing a weekly podcast called “Mi Última Neurona” (“My Last Neuron”), which brings conversations with neuroscientists to Spanish speakers around the world.

Listeners hear how researchers at MIT and other institutions are exploring big concepts like consciousness and neurodegeneration, and learn about the approaches they use to study the brain in humans, animals, and computational models. Chomik-Morales wants listeners to get to know neuroscientists on a personal level too, so she talks with her guests about their career paths, their lives outside the lab, and often, their experiences as immigrants in the United States.

After recording an interview with Chomik-Morales that delved into science, art, and the educational system in his home country of Peru, postdoc Arturo Deza thinks “Mi Última Neurona” has the potential to inspire Spanish speakers in Latin America, as well immigrants in other countries. “Even if you’re not a scientist, it’s really going to captivate you and you’re going to get something out of it,” he says. To that point, Chomik-Morales’s mother has quickly become an enthusiastic listener, and even begun seeking out resources to learn more about the brain on her own.

Chomik-Morales hopes the stories her guests share on “Mi Última Neurona” will inspire a future generation of Hispanic neuroscientists. She also wants listeners to know that a career in science doesn’t have to mean leaving their country behind. “Gain whatever you need to gain from outside, and then, if it’s what you desire, you’re able to go back and help your own community,” she says. With “Mi Última Neurona,” she adds, she feels she is giving back to her roots.

Lindsay Case and Guangyu Robert Yang named 2022 Searle Scholars

MIT cell biologist Lindsay Case and computational neuroscientist Guangyu Robert Yang have been named 2022 Searle Scholars, an award given annually to 15 outstanding U.S. assistant professors who have high potential for ongoing innovative research contributions in medicine, chemistry, or the biological sciences.

Case is an assistant professor of biology, while Yang is an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences and electrical engineering and computer science, and an associate investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. They will each receive $300,000 in flexible funding to support their high-risk, high-reward work over the next three years.

Lindsay Case

Case arrived at MIT in 2021, after completing a postdoc at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in the lab of Michael Rosen. Prior to that, she earned her PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, working in the lab of Clare Waterman at the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.

Situated in MIT’s Building 68, Case’s lab studies how molecules within cells organize themselves, and how such organization begets cellular function. Oftentimes, molecules will assemble at the cell’s plasma membrane — a complex signaling platform where hundreds of receptors sense information from outside the cell and initiate cellular changes in response. Through her experiments, Case has found that molecules at the plasma membrane can undergo a process known as phase separation, condensing to form liquid-like droplets.

As a Searle Scholar, Case is investigating the role that phase separation plays in regulating a specific class of signaling molecules called kinases. Her team will take a multidisciplinary approach to probe what happens when kinases phase separate into signaling clusters, and what cellular changes occur as a result. Because phase separation is emerging as a promising new target for small molecule therapies, this work will help identify kinases that are strong candidates for new therapeutic interventions to treat diseases such as cancer.

“I am honored to be recognized by the Searle Scholars Program, and thrilled to join such an incredible community of scientists,” Case says. “This support will enable my group to broaden our research efforts and take our preliminary findings in exciting new directions. I look forward to better understanding how phase separation impacts cellular function.”

Guangyu Robert Yang

Before coming to MIT in 2021, Yang trained in physics at Peking University, obtained a PhD in computational neuroscience at New York University with Xiao-Jing Wang, and further trained as a postdoc at the Center for Theoretical Neuroscience of Columbia University, as an intern at Google Brain, and as a junior fellow at the Simons Society of Fellows.

His research team at MIT, the MetaConscious Group, develops models of mental functions by incorporating multiple interacting modules. They are designing pipelines to process and compare large-scale experimental datasets that span modalities ranging from behavioral data to neural activity data to molecular data. These datasets are then be integrated to train individual computational modules based on the experimental tasks that were evaluated such as vision, memory, or movement.

Ultimately, Yang seeks to combine these modules into a “network of networks” that models higher-level brain functions such as the ability to flexibly and rapidly learn a variety of tasks. Such integrative models are rare because, until recently, it was not possible to acquire data that spans modalities and brain regions in real time as animals perform tasks. The time is finally right for integrative network models. Computational models that incorporate such multisystem, multilevel datasets will allow scientists to make new predictions about the neural basis of cognition and open a window to a mathematical understanding the mind.

“This is a new research direction for me, and I think for the field too. It comes with many exciting opportunities as well as challenges. Having this recognition from the Searle Scholars program really gives me extra courage to take on the uncertainties and challenges,” says Yang.

Since 1981, 647 scientists have been named Searle Scholars. Including this year, the program has awarded more than $147 million. Eighty-five Searle Scholars have been inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. Twenty scholars have been recognized with a MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “genius grant,” and two Searle Scholars have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The Searle Scholars Program is funded through the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust and administered by Kinship Foundation.

Seven from MIT elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences for 2022

Seven MIT faculty members are among more than 250 leaders from academia, the arts, industry, public policy, and research elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the academy announced Thursday.

One of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies, the academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. Members contribute to academy publications, as well as studies of science and technology policy, energy and global security, social policy and American institutions, the humanities and culture, and education.

Those elected from MIT this year are:

  • Alberto Abadie, professor of economics and associate director of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society
  • Regina Barzilay, the School of Engineering Distinguished Professor for AI and Health
  • Roman Bezrukavnikov, professor of mathematics
  • Michale S. Fee, the Glen V. and Phyllis F. Dorflinger Professor and head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
  • Dina Katabi, the Thuan and Nicole Pham Professor
  • Ronald T. Raines, the Roger and Georges Firmenich Professor of Natural Products Chemistry
  • Rebecca R. Saxe, the John W. Jarve Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences

“We are celebrating a depth of achievements in a breadth of areas,” says David Oxtoby, president of the American Academy. “These individuals excel in ways that excite us and inspire us at a time when recognizing excellence, commending expertise, and working toward the common good is absolutely essential to realizing a better future.”

Since its founding in 1780, the academy has elected leading thinkers from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Maria Mitchell and Daniel Webster in the 19th century, and Toni Morrison and Albert Einstein in the 20th century. The current membership includes more than 250 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners.

Aging Brain Initiative awards fund five new ideas to study, fight neurodegeneration

Neurodegenerative diseases are defined by an increasingly widespread and debilitating death of nervous system cells, but they also share other grim characteristics: Their cause is rarely discernible and they have all eluded cures. To spur fresh, promising approaches and to encourage new experts and expertise to join the field, MIT’s Aging Brain Initiative (ABI) this month awarded five seed grants after a competition among labs across the Institute.

Founded in 2015 by nine MIT faculty members, the ABI promotes research, symposia, and related activities to advance fundamental insights that can lead to clinical progress against neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, with an age-related onset. With an emphasis on spurring research at an early stage before it is established enough to earn more traditional funding, the ABI derives support from philanthropic gifts.

“Solving the mysteries of how health declines in the aging brain and turning that knowledge into effective tools, treatments, and technologies is of the utmost urgency given the millions of people around the world who suffer with no meaningful treatment options,” says ABI director and co-founder Li-Huei Tsai, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “We were very pleased that many groups across MIT were eager to contribute their expertise and creativity to that goal. From here, five teams will be able to begin testing their innovative ideas and the impact they could have.”

To address the clinical challenge of accurately assessing cognitive decline during Alzheimer’s disease progression and healthy aging, a team led by Thomas Heldt, associate professor of electrical and biomedical engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, proposes to use artificial intelligence tools to bring diagnostics based on eye movements during cognitive tasks to everyday consumer electronics such as smartphones and tablets. By moving these capabilities to common at-home platforms, the team, which also includes EECS Associate Professor Vivian Sze, hopes to increase monitoring beyond what can only be intermittently achieved with high-end specialized equipment and dedicated staffing in specialists’ offices. The team will pilot their technology in a small study at Boston Medical Center in collaboration with neurosurgeon James Holsapple.

Institute Professor Ann Graybiel’s lab in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research will test the hypothesis that mutations on a specific gene may lead to the early emergence of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) pathology in the striatum. That’s a a brain region crucial for motivation and movement that is directly and severely impacted by other neurodegenerative disorders including Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, but that has largely been unstudied in Alzheimer’s. By editing the mutations into normal and AD-modeling mice, Research Scientist Ayano Matsushima and Graybiel hope to determine whether and how pathology, such as the accumulation of amyloid proteins, may result. Determining that could provide new insight into the progression of disease and introduce a new biomarker in a region that virtually all other studies have overlooked.

Numerous recent studies have highlighted a potential role for immune inflammation in Alzheimer’s disease. A team led by Gloria Choi, the Mark Hyman Jr. Associate Professor in BCS and The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, will track one potential source of such activity by determining whether the brain’s meninges, which envelop the brain, becomes a means for immune cells activated by gut bacteria to circulate near the brain, where they may release signaling molecules that promote Alzheimer’s pathology. Working in mice, Choi’s lab will test whether such activity is prone to increase in Alzheimer’s and whether it contributes to disease.

A collaboration led by Peter Dedon, the Singapore Professor in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering, will explore whether Alzheimer’s pathology is driven by dysregulation of transfer RNAs (tRNAs) and the dozens of natural tRNA modifications in the epitranscriptome, which play a key role in the process by which proteins are assembled based on genetic instructions. With Benjamin Wolozin of Boston University, Sherif Rashad of Tohoku University in Japan, and Thomas Begley of the State University of New York at Albany, Dedon will assess how the tRNA pool and epitranscriptome may differ in Alzheimer’s model mice and whether genetic instructions mistranslated because of tRNA dysregulation play a role in Alzheimer’s disease.

With her seed grant, Ritu Raman, the d’Arbeloff Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, is launching an investigation of possible disruption of intercellular messages in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a terminal condition in which motor neuron causes loss of muscle control. Equipped with a new tool to finely sample interstitial fluid within tissues, Raman’s team will be able to monitor and compare cell-cell signaling in models of the junction between nerve and muscle. These models will be engineered from stem cells derived from patients with ALS. By studying biochemical signaling at the junction the lab hopes to discover new targets that could be therapeutically modified.

Major support for the seed grants, which provide each lab with $100,000, came from generous gifts by David Emmes SM ’76; Kathleen SM ’77, PhD ’86 and Miguel Octavio; the Estate of Margaret A. Ridge-Pappis, wife of the late James Pappis ScD ’59; the Marc Haas Foundation; and the family of former MIT President Paul Gray ’54, SM ’55, ScD ‘60, with additional funding from many annual fund donors to the Aging Brain Initiative Fund.

Three from MIT awarded 2022 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans

MIT graduate student Fernanda De La Torre, alumna Trang Luu ’18, SM ’20, and senior Syamantak Payra are recipients of the 2022 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans.

De La Torre, Luu, and Payra are among 30 New Americans selected from a pool of over 1,800 applicants. The fellowship honors the contributions of immigrants and children of immigrants by providing $90,000 in funding for graduate school.

Students interested in applying to the P.D. Soros Fellowship for future years may contact Kim Benard, associate dean of distinguished fellowships in Career Advising and Professional Development.

Fernanda De La Torre

Fernanda De La Torre is a PhD student in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. With Professor Josh McDermott, she studies how we integrate vision and sound, and with Professor Robert Yang, she develops computational models of imagination.

De La Torre spent her early childhood with her younger sister and grandmother in Guadalajara, Mexico. At age 12, she crossed the Mexican border to reunite with her mother in Kansas City, Missouri. Shortly after, an abusive home environment forced De La Torre to leave her family and support herself throughout her early teens.

Despite her difficult circumstances, De La Torre excelled academically in high school. By winning various scholarships that would discretely take applications from undocumented students, she was able to continue her studies in computer science and mathematics at Kansas State University. There, she became intrigued by the mysteries of the human mind. During college, De La Torre received invaluable mentorship from her former high school principal, Thomas Herrera, who helped her become documented through the Violence Against Women Act. Her college professor, William Hsu, supported her interests in artificial intelligence and encouraged her to pursue a scientific career.

After her undergraduate studies, De La Torre won a post-baccalaureate fellowship from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, where she worked with Professor Tomaso Poggio on the theory of deep learning. She then transitioned into the department’s PhD program. Beyond contributing to scientific knowledge, De La Torre plans to use science to create spaces where all people, including those from backgrounds like her own, can innovate and thrive.

She says: “Immigrants face many obstacles, but overcoming them gives us a unique strength: We learn to become resilient, while relying on friends and mentors. These experiences foster both the desire and the ability to pay it forward to our community.”

Trang Luu

Trang Luu graduated from MIT with a BS in mechanical engineering in 2018, and a master of engineering degree in 2020. Her Soros award will support her graduate studies at Harvard University in the MBA/MS engineering sciences program.

Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Luu was 3 when her family immigrated to Houston, Texas. Watching her parents’ efforts to make a living in a land where they did not understand the culture or speak the language well, Luu wanted to alleviate hardship for her family. She took full responsibility for her education and found mentors to help her navigate the American education system. At home, she assisted her family in making and repairing household items, which fueled her excitement for engineering.

As an MIT undergraduate, Luu focused on assistive technology projects, applying her engineering background to solve problems impeding daily living. These projects included a new adaptive socket liner for below-the-knee amputees in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Thailand; a walking stick adapter for wheelchairs; a computer head pointer for patients with limited arm mobility, a safer makeshift cook stove design for street vendors in South Africa; and a quicker method to test new drip irrigation designs. As a graduate student in MIT D-Lab under the direction of Professor Daniel Frey, Luu was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. In her graduate studies, Luu researched methods to improve evaporative cooling devices for off-grid farmers to reduce rapid fruit and vegetable deterioration.

These projects strengthened Luu’s commitment to innovating new technology and devices for people struggling with basic daily tasks. During her senior year, Luu collaborated on developing a working prototype of a wearable device that noninvasively reduces hand tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease or essential tremor. Observing patients’ joy after their tremors stopped compelled Luu and three co-founders to continue developing the device after college. Four years later, Encora Therapeutics has accomplished major milestones, including Breakthrough Device designation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Syamantak Payra

Hailing from Houston, Texas, Syamantak Payra is a senior majoring in electrical engineering and computer science, with minors in public policy and entrepreneurship and innovation. He will be pursuing a PhD in engineering at Stanford University, with the goal of creating new biomedical devices that can help improve daily life for patients worldwide and enhance health care outcomes for decades to come.

Payra’s parents had emigrated from India, and he grew up immersed in his grandparents’ rich Bengali culture. As a high school student, he conducted projects with NASA engineers at Johnson Space Center, experimented at home with his scientist parents, and competed in spelling bees and science fairs across the United States. Through these avenues and activities, Syamantak not only gained perspectives on bridging gaps between people, but also found passions for language, scientific discovery, and teaching others.

After watching his grandmother struggle with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and losing his baby brother to brain cancer, Payra devoted himself to trying to use technology to solve health-care challenges. Payra’s proudest accomplishments include building a robotic leg brace for his paralyzed teacher and conducting free literacy workshops and STEM outreach programs that reached nearly a thousand underprivileged students across the Greater Houston Area.

At MIT, Payra has worked in Professor Yoel Fink’s research laboratory, creating digital sensor fibers that have been woven into intelligent garments that can assist in diagnosing illnesses, and in Professor Joseph Paradiso’s research laboratory, where he contributed to next-generation spacesuit prototypes that better protect astronauts on spacewalks. Payra’s research has been published by multiple scientific journals, and he was inducted into the National Gallery of America’s Young Inventors.

David Ginty named winner of 2022 Scolnick Prize

Harvard neurobiologist David Ginty, winner of the 2022 Scolnick Prize.

The McGovern Institute for Brain Research announced today that Harvard neurobiologist David D. Ginty has been selected for the 2022 Edward M. Scolnick Prize in Neuroscience. Ginty, who is the Edward R. and Anne G. Lefler Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, is being recognized for his fundamental discoveries into the neural mechanisms underlying the sense of touch. The Scolnick Prize is awarded annually by the McGovern Institute for outstanding advances in neuroscience.

“David Ginty has made seminal contributions in basic research that also have important translational implications,” says Robert Desimone, McGovern Institute Director and chair of the selection committee. “His rigorous research has led us to understand how the peripheral nervous system encodes the overall perception of touch, and how molecular mechanisms underlying this can fail in disease states.”

Ginty obtained his PhD in 1989 with Edward Seidel where he studied cell proliferation factors. He went on to a postdoctoral fellowship researching nerve growth factor with John Wagner at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and, upon Wagner’s departure to Cornell, transferred to Michael Greenberg’s lab at Harvard Medical School. There, he dissected intracellular signaling pathways for neuronal growth factors and neurotransmitters and developed key antibody reagents to detect activated forms of transcription factors. These antibody tools are now used by labs around the world in the research of neuronal plasticity and brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.

In 1995, Ginty started his own laboratory at Johns Hopkins University with a focus on the development and functional organization of the peripheral nervous system. Ginty’s group created and applied the latest genetic engineering techniques in mice to uncover how the peripheral nervous system develops and is organized at the molecular, cellular and circuit levels to perceive touch. Most notably, using gene targeting combined with electrophysiological, behavioral and anatomical analyses, the Ginty lab untangled properties and functions of the different types of touch neurons, termed low- and high-threshold mechanoreceptors, that convey distinct aspects of stimulus information from the skin to the central nervous system. Ginty and colleagues also discovered organizational principles of spinal cord and brainstem circuits dedicated to touch information processing, and that integration of signals from the different mechanoreceptor types begins within spinal cord networks before signal transmission to the brain.

In 2013, Ginty joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School where his team applied their genetic tools and techniques to probe the neural basis of touch sensitivity disorders. They discovered properties and functions of peripheral sensory neurons, spinal cord circuits, and ascending pathways that transmit noxious, painful stimuli from the periphery to the brain. They also asked whether abnormalities in peripheral nervous system function lead to touch over-reactivity in cases of autism or in neuropathic pain caused by nerve injury, chemotherapy, or diabetes, where even a soft touch can be aversive or painful. His team found that sensory abnormalities observed in several mouse models of autism spectrum disorder could be traced to peripheral mechanosensory neurons. They also found that reducing the activity of peripheral sensory neurons prevented tactile over-reactivity in these models and even, in some cases, lessened anxiety and abnormal social behaviors. These findings provided a plausible explanation for how sensory dysfunction may contribute to physiological and cognitive impairments in autism. Importantly, this laid the groundwork for a new approach and initiative to identify new potential therapies for disorders of touch and pain.

Ginty was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in 2000 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2015 and the National Academy of Sciences in 2017. He shared Columbia University’s Alden W. Spencer Prize with Ardem Patapoutian in 2017 and was awarded the Society for Neuroscience Julius Axelrod Prize in 2021. Ginty is also known for exceptional mentorship. He directed the neuroscience graduate program at Johns Hopkins from 2006 to 2013 and now serves as the associate director of Harvard’s neurobiology graduate program.

The McGovern Institute will award the Scolnick Prize to Ginty on Wednesday, June 1, 2022. At 4:00 pm he will deliver a lecture entitled “The sensory neurons of touch: beauty is skin deep,” to be followed by a reception at the McGovern Institute, 43 Vassar Street (building 46, room 3002) in Cambridge. The event is free and open to the public; registration is required.

School of Science announces 2022 Infinite Expansion Awards

The MIT School of Science has announced eight postdocs and research scientists as recipients of the 2022 Infinite Expansion Award.

The award, formerly known as the Infinite Kilometer Award, was created in 2012 to highlight extraordinary members of the MIT science community. The awardees are nominated not only for their research, but for going above and beyond in mentoring junior colleagues, participating in educational programs, and contributing to their departments, labs, and research centers, the school, and the Institute.

The 2022 School of Science Infinite Expansion winners are:

  • Héctor de Jesús-Cortés, a postdoc in the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, nominated by professor and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) head Michale Fee, professor and McGovern Institute for Brain Research Director Robert Desimone, professor and Picower Institute Director Li-Huei Tsai, professor and associate BCS head Laura Schulz, associate professor and associate BCS head Joshua McDermott, and professor and BCS Postdoc Officer Mark Bear for his “awe-inspiring commitment of time and energy to research, outreach, education, mentorship, and community;”
  • Harold Erbin, a postdoc in the Laboratory for Nuclear Science’s Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Fundamental Interactions (IAIFI), nominated by professor and IAIFI Director Jesse Thaler, associate professor and IAIFI Deputy Director Mike Williams, and associate professor and IAIFI Early Career and Equity Committee Chair Tracy Slatyer for “provid[ing] exemplary service on the IAIFI Early Career and Equity Committee” and being “actively involved in many other IAIFI community building efforts;”
  • Megan Hill, a postdoc in the Department of Chemistry, nominated by Professor Jeremiah Johnson for being an “outstanding scientist” who has “also made exceptional contributions to our community through her mentorship activities and participation in Women in Chemistry;”
  • Kevin Kuns, a postdoc in the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, nominated by Associate Professor Matthew Evans for “consistently go[ing] beyond expectations;”
  • Xingcheng Lin, a postdoc in the Department of Chemistry, nominated by Associate Professor Bin Zhang for being “very talented, extremely hardworking, and genuinely enthusiastic about science;”
  • Alexandra Pike, a postdoc in the Department of Biology, nominated by Professor Stephen Bell for “not only excel[ing] in the laboratory” but also being “an exemplary citizen in the biology department, contributing to teaching, community, and to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in the department;”
  • Nora Shipp, a postdoc with the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, nominated by Assistant Professor Lina Necib for being “independent, efficient, with great leadership qualities” with “impeccable” research; and
  • Jakob Voigts, a research scientist in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, nominated by Associate Professor Mark Harnett and his laboratory for “contribut[ing] to the growth and development of the lab and its members in numerous and irreplaceable ways.”

Winners are honored with a monetary award and will be celebrated with family, friends, and nominators at a later date, along with recipients of the Infinite Mile Award.

Five MIT faculty elected 2021 AAAS Fellows

Five MIT faculty members have been elected as fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The 2021 class of AAAS Fellows includes 564 scientists, engineers, and innovators spanning 24 scientific disciplines who are being recognized for their scientifically and socially distinguished achievements.

Mircea Dincă is the W. M. Keck Professor of Energy in the Department of Chemistry. His group’s research focuses on addressing challenges related to the storage and consumption of energy, and global environmental concerns. Central to these efforts are the synthesis of novel organic-inorganic hybrid materials and the manipulation of their electrochemical and photophysical properties, with a current emphasis on porous materials and extended one-dimensional van der Waals materials.

Guoping Feng is the James W. and Patricia T. Poitras Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, associate director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, director of Model Systems and Neurobiology at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, and an institute member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. His research is devoted to understanding the development and function of synapses in the brain and how synaptic dysfunction may contribute to neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders. By understanding the molecular, cellular, and circuitry mechanisms of these disorders, Feng hopes his work will eventually lead to the development of new and effective treatments for the millions of people suffering from these devastating diseases.

David Shoemaker is a senior research scientist with the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. His work is focused on gravitational-wave observation and includes developing technologies for the detectors (LIGO, LISA), developing proposals for new instruments (Cosmic Explorer), managing the teams to build them and the consortia which exploit the data (LIGO Scientific Collaboration, LISA Consortium), and supporting the overall growth of the field (Gravitational-Wave International Committee).

Ian Hunter is the Hatsopoulos Professor of Mechanical Engineering and runs the Bioinstrumentation Lab at MIT. His main areas of research are instrumentation, microrobotics, medical devices, and biomimetic materials. Over the years he and his students have developed many instruments and devices including: confocal laser microscopes, scanning tunneling electron microscopes, miniature mass spectrometers, new forms of Raman spectroscopy, needle-free drug delivery technologies, nano- and micro-robots, microsurgical robots, robotic endoscopes, high-performance Lorentz force motors, and microarray technologies for massively parallel chemical and biological assays.

Evelyn N. Wang is the Ford Professor of Engineering and head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Her research program combines fundamental studies of micro/nanoscale heat and mass transport processes with the development of novel engineered structures to create innovative solutions in thermal management, energy, and water harvesting systems. Her work in thermophotovoltaics was named to Technology Review’s lists of Biggest Clean Energy Advances, in 2016, and Ten Breakthrough Technologies, in 2017, and to the Department of Energy Frontiers Research Center’s Ten of Ten awards. Her work extracting water from air has won her the title of 2017 Foreign Policy’s Global ReThinker and the 2018 Eighth Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water.