Society for Neuroscience Celebrates Committed Women Mentors and Unique Early-Career Researchers
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) will present four awards to leading researchers who have made significant contributions to the advancement of women in neuroscience and early-career researchers who have demonstrated great originality and creativity in their work. The awards will be presented during SfN’s Awards Announcement Week 2020.
“SfN is honored to recognize this stellar group of neuroscientists for both their groundbreaking research and their leadership in advancing women in neuroscience,” said SfN President Barry Everitt, PhD. “These women are dedicated to both innovative, creative approaches to scientific questions and mentoring, advocating, and being role models for young female and minority scientists. They have all already made significant contributions to their fields, developing new tools for research or therapeutic approaches.”
Bernice Grafstein Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Mentoring: Carmen Maldonado-Vlaar and Barbara Shinn-Cunningham
The Bernice Grafstein Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Mentoring recognizes individuals dedicated to developing the careers of female neuroscientists. Supported by an endowment from Bernice Grafstein, PhD, the first female president of SfN, the award recognizes leaders who have aided the early careers of women neuroscientists and facilitated their retention in the field. Honorees share a $2,500 cash prize.
Carmen S. Maldonado-Vlaar, PhD, is a professor in the department of biology at the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Pedra Campus whose research combines molecular, behavioral, and neuroanatomical approaches to study cocaine addiction. Using direct brain microinfusions, intravenous cocaine self-administration protocols, and novel protocols in rats, she investigates neurochemical and molecular substrates of cocaine dependence and hopes to discover potential cellular targets for treatments.
In addition to her research, Maldonado-Vlaar has devoted countless hours to mentoring diverse female neuroscientists at all levels, from undergraduate students to faculty members. She has mentored more than 100 undergraduate students, all of whom were Latinx and more than 70 percent women. Two-thirds of the graduate students trained in her lab have been Latinas and her mentorship has had a huge impact on Puerto Rican women pursuing neuroscience research. She leads and actively participates in many programs aimed at promoting increased access of women and members of underrepresented groups to careers in neuroscience such as the Marine Biological Laboratory Summer Program in Neuroscience, Ethics, and Survival (SPINES); the Training Advisory Committee (TAC) for Diversity Program in Neuroscience (DPN) from the American Psychological Association; and the Neuroscience Research Opportunities to Increase Diversity (NeuroID) Training grant for undergraduate students in neuroscience funded by the BP-ENDURE program from National Institutes of Health. She also established the Center for Undergraduate Research and Learning (CRIIAS, by its Spanish acronym) at her institution. She is a popular and sought-after mentor thanks to her combination of demanding scientific rigor while understanding and relating to the challenges faced by female, minority students.
Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, PhD, is the founding director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Neuroscience Institute and a professor of psychology, biomedical engineering, and electrical and computer engineering. She uses a wide variety of tools — including electroencephalography and functional magnetic resonance imaging as well as clever research paradigms — to tackle the question of how we listen in complex environments, such as noisy restaurants. She is a leader in the field of auditory neuroscience and can be credited with moving the field beyond the sensory stimulation of hearing and towards embracing the neurobiological processes of listening.
Shinn-Cunningham is also dedicated to mentoring and, in particular, to fostering the advancement of female neuroscientists. She has enthusiastically mentored 28 graduate students and 24 post-doctoral scholars and is known for her openness to discuss work-life balance as a female scientist and mother. She is committed to elevating women in science, going out of her way to ensure her trainees and other women are given platforms to show their work, such as giving talks or leading conference sessions. She is approachable, understanding, and inclusive, while also providing critical feedback and emphasizing rigorous science. Many of her former mentees continue to reach out to Shinn-Cunningham for advice or inspiration.
Louise Hanson Marshall Special Recognition Award: Courtney Miller and Ghazaleh Sadri-Vakili
The Louise Hanson Marshall Special Recognition Award honors an individual who has significantly promoted the professional development of women in neuroscience through teaching, organizational leadership, public advocacy, or other efforts not necessarily research-related.
Courtney Miller, PhD, is an associate professor in the departments of molecular medicine and neuroscience at the Scripps Research Institute. She has already contributed significantly to the field of drug addiction and memory and received the highly prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) in 2016. Her graduate work revealed the reconsolidation of memories related to drug addiction (such as the place the drug is taken) and how they may be manipulated, arguably one of the decade’s most important findings in the field of addiction. As a postdoctoral fellow, she pushed the field of epigenetics to question the nature of DNA methylation and its stability. Her lab now takes a unique approach to developing treatments for addiction and PTSD by targeting memory storage, and she has already filed a patent for a treatment and is planning clinical trials.
Ghazaleh Sadri-Vakili, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Neuroepigenetics laboratory at MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease (MIND). Her lab focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Huntington’s Disease, and X-linked dystonia Parkinsonism (XDP). Dr. Sadri-Vakili’s research using patient post-mortem brain and biofluids have identified novel targets for the development of biomarkers and therapies for neurodegenerative disease. Her efforts focused on anti-inflammatory therapies in ALS mouse models has prompted initiation of a phase 2 clinical trial in ALS patients. As an innovative thinker and collaborative scientist, she has rapidly ascended to become an expert in the field of ALS research and is currently the Scientific Advisor at the Mass General Healey Center for ALS. In this role she provides scientific and operational expertise on evaluating therapies for the treatment of ALS. As the Director of Research Programs in the Department of Neurology at Mass General Hospital she continues her commitment to mentoring and developing the next generation of scientists with the goal of promoting and retaining women and under-represented groups in the field of neuroscience.
Miller and Sadri-Vakili have been working together to promote women in science for over a decade, most notably through their creation of the Professional Women’s Nexus or PWN. In 2007, they began PWN to provide a network, weekly blog, and forum for the up-and-coming generation of female scientists so that members could benefit from each other’s experience, advice, and connections. The group celebrates the achievements of each member and works hard to overcome stereotypes and encourage self-promotion. It now has over 750 members — mostly neuroscientists but also astrophysicists, writers, artists, marketing directors, and patent attorneys — across the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East. Miller and Sadri-Vakili’s most impactful event may be the “PWN at SfN” satellite meeting they have organized for the last eleven years. Last year, in Chicago, over 500 attendees had an opportunity to meet with top leaders from academia, industry, the NIH, and foundations, as well as journal editors. By putting their time, energy, and own funds into PWN, both Miller and Sadri-Vakili are making great contributions to this generation of female scientists and engaging younger women in the field.
Mika Salpeter Lifetime Achievement Award: Kristen Harris and Yasmin Hurd
The Mika Salpeter Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes neuroscientists with outstanding achievements in research who have significantly promoted the professional advancement of women in neuroscience. The awardees share a $5,000 prize.
Kristen Harris, PhD, a professor in the department of neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, pioneered techniques for serial electron microscopy that have had a profound effect on the field of neurobiology. When she realized the limitations of two-dimensional electron microscopy (EM), she developed a software program for the reconstruction of serial EM images, allowing efficient analysis of hundreds of serial sections, as opposed to a handful when done manually. Today the software, called Reconstruct, is free and widely used for three-dimensional reconstructions of morphological data. She has published a large body of careful, detailed analyses of synapse structure; hardly a neuroscience textbook published today does not include one of her beautiful three-dimensional images of dendrites. Her innovation and techniques have led to new understanding of synaptic structure under both normal conditions and in response to long-term potentiation, a cellular mechanism for learning and memory.
Not only does she go out of her way to make her methods, resources, and teaching available to the neuroscience community, Harris works hard to promote and support the professional advancement of women in neuroscience. She served in the Association for Women in Science for nearly two decades, was a member of Women in Science (WIN) from 1997 to 2004, and fostered the WIN merger into the Society for Neuroscience. She knew Mika Salpeter personally and thought of her as a mentor. She has also personally mentored over 85 students and postdoctoral fellows, many of them women, and actively promotes and fights for diversity in her lab and in the field of neuroscience.
Yasmin Hurd, PhD, the director of the Addiction Institute of Mount Sinai, has made groundbreaking advances into the understanding of how drugs of abuse alter the brain, via epigenetic and cellular mechanisms, to cause addiction. Her work has revealed the effects of exposure to drugs early in life, whether prenatally or during adolescence, and how it increases vulnerability to addiction later in life. She was a trail blazer in cannabis studies and also led the field in the understanding of opioid peptides in drug abuse. She also conducts a truly translational neuroscience program, moving her work from animal models to clinical trials.
Hurd also champions under-represented groups in science and medicine. In addition to mentoring numerous women and minority graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, as director of Mount Sinai’s MD-PhD program she significantly increased recruitment of women and minority candidates. She has also sat on many boards and committees aiming to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion. As just a few examples, she was the founding director of Diversity in Biomedical Research Committee at Mount Sinai, has been both the vice-chair and chair of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology Minority Task Force, and sits on steering committee of the ALBA network, a network promoting equality and diversity in brain sciences. Additionally, she helped develop outreach programs in local schools in Harlem and is an ambassador for female scientists around the globe.
Janett Rosenberg Trubatch Career Development Award: Markita Landry and Annabelle Singer
The Janett Rosenberg Trubatch Career Development Award recognizes early-career professionals who have demonstrated originality and creativity in their research and promotes successful academic transitions prior to tenure. Supported by the Trubatch Family, the awardees receive a $2,000 prize.
Markita Landry, PhD, assistant professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at the University of California Berkeley, is a creative, innovative, and prolific young researcher known for developing clever new biochemical technologies. Her work pushes the boundaries of chemistry, biology, and medicine and merges single-molecule biophysics and nanomaterials research to develop tools to image and genetically edit biological systems. She has developed probes that can measure chemical communication between neurons, such as dopamine and serotonin release and reuptake, in brain tissue. Landry has also used nanomaterials to express foreign genes in plants without transgenic DNA integrating into the plant genome, thus side-stepping GMO restrictions. Her work and ideas promise to contribute significant advances in chemistry and the life sciences and she has been awarded the Emerging Leader in Molecular Spectroscopy Award and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award at the Scientific Interface, among many other honors.
Annabelle Singer, PhD, assistant professor at Georgia Tech, takes a unique approach to scientific questions that has already led to groundbreaking insights into the interaction between neural activity and immune function, providing a new therapeutic avenue for Alzheimer’s disease. Among many innovative projects, she discovered that flickering auditory and visual stimulation rhythmic neural activity at specific frequencies not only in sensory areas but also memory circuits. These oscillations trigger biochemical signals that mobilize the brain’s immune cells to help clean up molecular hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, like amyloid and hyperphosphorylated tau. Repeated stimulation also improved memory in Alzheimer’s mouse models. Because of the noninvasive nature of the stimulation, it is a promising candidate for treatment and is currently in clinical trials. Her original and important work has already been recognized with the Packard Fellowship, selection to National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences symposia, and speaking roles at the SfN annual meeting.
The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) is an organization of nearly 36,000 basic scientists and clinicians who study the brain and the nervous system.