Society for Neuroscience Early Career Awards
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) will honor seven early-career researchers who have demonstrated great originality and creativity in their work, which spans from nanometer scale maps of neuronal circuits controlling movements, to the interaction between brain waves and social behaviors and metabolic changes. The awards will be presented during Neuroscience 2021, SfN's annual meeting and the world's largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.
“Many of these early-career researchers have already demonstrated great innovation by developing novel methods to approach critical questions in neuroscience,” said SfN president Barry Everitt. “Some are changing paradigms in our field with unexpected discoveries and research that pushes the boundary of neuroscience as a field. The researchers recognized by this year’s early career awards will undoubtedly continue to make important contributions to our understanding of the molecular, cellular, and network dynamics that underlie complex behaviors,” said Everitt.
Jennifer N. Bourne Prize in Brain Ultrastructure: Cordelia Imig and Wei-Chung Lee
The newly established Jennifer N. Bourne Prize in Brain Ultrastructure recognizes early career neuroscientists for outstanding work that advances our understanding of brain structure and function at the nanometer scale. Named for Jennifer N. Bourne, PhD, an electron microscopist and core facility director who studied the structural plasticity of synapses and died suddenly in 2021, the award recognizes researchers who are within their first five years of academic appointments. The award is funded by Kristen M. Harris, PhD. Award recipients split a $5,000 prize. Cordelia Imig, an assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Copenhagen, is a creative and tenacious neuroscientist who combines electron microscopy, cell culturing, and genetics to study fundamental structural and functional aspects of secretory vesicles, the small bubblelike structures used by neurons and other cell types to contain and release signaling molecules such as neurotransmitters or hormones. Her graduate work redefined and fused longstanding concepts of synaptic vesicle biology. By combining high-pressure freezing and electron microscopy for the analysis of several lines of transgenic mice lacking key synaptic proteins, she revealed that what were previously considered to be independents steps of vesicle signaling were all part of the same process. As a postdoc, she combined optogenetics with cryofixation in a “flash-and-freeze” technique, to reveal synaptic vesicle recycling with high spatio-temporal resolution in complex brain tissue. As an assistant professor, she continues to investigate ultrastructural properties of neurosecretory cells by studying synapse-like signaling mechanisms along the gut-brain axis using organoid cultures and correlative light and electron microscopy.
Wei-Chung Allen Lee, assistant professor of neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, has pioneered sophisticated microscopy techniques and novel image processing methods to understand the architecture of neuronal circuits at nanometer scale. With advanced approaches his team develops, they have generated a three-dimensional map of all the motor neurons that control leg and wing movements in the fly, reconstructed motor axons from leg muscles to the central nervous system, and comprehensively cataloged mechanosensory neurons in the fly leg allowing new cell types and their connectivity to be uncovered. As a postdoctoral fellow, Lee developed methods to combine the recording of cellular activity in the living mouse brain with large-scale electron microscopy. Through this, he demonstrated excitatory cells connected to other excitatory cells with similar functions, whereas they connected to inhibitory cells randomly. This suggests specific excitatory cortical connectivity amplifies signals, whereas inhibitory connectivity provides gain control. Now, as an assistant professor, Lee continues developing automated large-scale ultrastructural data collection to understand how neurons make precise and specific connections with one another, having already produced a synapse-resolution dataset of the fly counterpart to the spinal cord.
Donald B. Lindsley Prize in Behavioral Neuroscience: Saurabh Vyas
Supported by The Grass Foundation, the Donald B. Lindsey Prize in Behavioral Neuroscience recognizes an outstanding PhD thesis in the area of general behavioral neuroscience. The award was established in 1979 in honor of Donald B. Lindsley, an early trustee of the Grass Foundation, and grants recipients a $5,000 prize.
During his graduate training in bioengineering at Stanford University, Saurabh Vyas used brain-computer interfaces, neural population electrophysiology, and dynamical systems theory to explore how practicing a movement in the mind can speed up subsequent attempts of learning how to actually perform that movement. To do this, Vyas first taught rhesus monkeys to move a computer cursor on a screen by either moving their arm (which was tracked by an infrared sensor) or through a brain-computer interface. The brain-computer interface constituted an implant in the motor cortex that measured activity from many individual neurons. Together with statistical signal processing algorithms, this interface allowed monkeys to move a cursor on the screen with only their thoughts. Vyas then changed the set up so that when the monkeys moved the cursor in either context, its path would be turned by 45 degrees. To move the cursor upwards, monkeys needed to learn to compensate for the 45-degree turn. Vyas found that if monkeys had learned to make this adjustment when using the brain-computer interface, then they would more quickly adapt to the 45-degree turn when driving the cursor with their actual arms. These findings suggest an avenue for neurorehabilitation through brain-computer interfaces when overt movement is not possible.
Next, Vyas explored how large populations of neurons cooperate to perform computations to prepare and generate arm movements during motor learning. By recording the activity of a few hundred neurons in motor cortex, he was able to establish a causal relationship between the neural activity in motor cortex immediately prior to a movement (so-called preparatory activity) and learning, including identifying the neural mechanism that facilitates transfer of learning (such as from brain-computer interface to arm movement). Altogether, his graduate work revealed that neural activity before the onset of movement, or even in the absence of actual movement, play a fundamental role in motor learning. Vyas continues to study the neural control of movement as a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University in New York.
Nemko Prize in Cellular or Molecular Neuroscience: David Tingley
The Nemko Prize in Cellular or Molecular Neuroscience, supported by The Nemko Family, recognizes a young neuroscientist's outstanding PhD thesis advancing understanding of molecular, genetic, or cellular mechanisms underlying higher brain function and cognition. Recipients receive a $2,500 prize.
David Tingley completed his thesis at the New York University Neuroscience Center, where he took a unique approach to studying a longstanding question in the field: how does the brain evaluate the body’s position relative to landmarks in the environment? The brain’s cognitive map is thought to be constructed by the hippocampus, but how this abstract map is translated into information that helps the animal choose where to move is largely unknown. Instead of taking the typical approach of focusing only on the activity patterns of hippocampal neurons, Tingley also monitored the activity of the neurons that directly receive that information, the lateral septal neurons. By monitoring both hippocampal and lateral septal neuronal activity in a freely behaving rat, he uncovered a unique method of information transfer in the brain. Tingley observed that the timing or “phase” of the action potential of the lateral septal neurons relative to a specific brain wave reliably correlated with the animal’s spatial position. He found no such correlation with the firing patterns of the neurons. Tingley’s work was therefore the first demonstration of ‘phase-only’ coding in the mammalian brain and an important demonstration of how brain circuits use brain rhythms as a key feature of information transmission.
In subsequent work, Tingley explored how the lateral septal neurons respond to a specific brain wave pattern seen in the hippocampus during sleep. By taking blood samples every few hours, he correlated the memory-associated brain wave pattern to blood sugar changes in the body and showed how a particular brain network pattern can affect a metabolic pathway. Tingley will continue this work, which offers a mechanism for the link between sleep disruption and blood-glucose dysregulation seen in type 2 diabetes and obesity, as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School.
Peter and Patricia Gruber International Research Award: Azahara Oliva and Mehmet Neset Ozel
The Peter and Patricia Gruber International Research Award in Neuroscience recognizes two young neuroscientists for outstanding research and educational pursuit in an international setting. Recipients each receive $25,000 prize. The prize is supported by The Gruber Foundation.
Azahara Oliva is an assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University in New York. Her international career studying brain circuitry underlying social behavior has taken her from labs in Spain, to Hungary, and the United States. As a graduate student, Azahara explored the role of different populations of neurons in the hippocampus during waking and sleeping states of the rat. As a postdoctoral fellow, she used electrophysiology and optogenetics in mice to study how different populations of neurons coordinate their activity when the animals recognize fellow species members. She found that groups of neurons in the hippocampus encode the identity of other mice and the same groups of neurons are reactivated during a brain oscillatory pattern known to be critical for memory. Artificially creating this brain pattern via optogenetic techniques prolonged how long the mice would remember other mice, while disrupting it impaired the ability to remember them. This was the first evidence that this brain oscillatory pattern and associated neural activity replay general features of hippocampal-dependent memory, such as social information, and opens the door to novel approaches to treating neuropsychiatric disease. As an assistant professor, she continues her work on the cellular and circuit-based mechanisms that underlie social behaviors and sleep by expanding her investigations to brain regions outside the hippocampus. She plans to study these behaviors in the lab with both healthy and disease-model mice and in more natural settings that resemble the natural habitat of the animals.
Mehmet Neset Ozel is a postdoctoral associate at New York University whose international research career studying developmental neuroscience and synapse formation has spanned Turkey, Germany, and the U.S. As a graduate student, he developed an experimental method that enabled high-resolution imaging of eye-to-brain neural connections in the developing fly brain. By monitoring these connections over long periods of development with two-photon live imaging, he was able to characterize how lightsensing neurons called photoreceptors grow and extend their shape to make connections with other neurons. As a postdoctoral fellow, he has created an atlas of neurons in the fly optic lobes over the entire developmental course of the fly brain using single-cell mRNA sequencing and thereby created a critical resource for the field by resolving the gene expression profiles of over 200 neuronal types. In addition to discovering several new neural types and subtypes, he found that similar neurons with indistinguishable gene expression in adult brains may nevertheless have very different connectivity due to their developmental history. His current research focuses on identifying the combinations of transcription factors, proteins that regulate gene expression, that are sufficient to encode the unique identity of each neuron in the visual circuit. By combining single-cell genomics with computational network inference, he is also deciphering the gene regulatory networks downstream of these transcription factors that control the synapse-specific wiring of the brain.
Young Investigator Award: Nuo Li
The Young Investigator Award recognizes the outstanding achievements and contributions by a young neuroscientist who leads an independent research group. The $15,000 prize is supported by Sunovion Pharmaceuticals.
Nuo Li is an assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. His innovative research explores how the structure and dynamics of neural circuits give rise to cognitive brain functions and movement. For his graduate work, he studied how the primate brain recognizes objects despite variations in their appearance on the retina. By monitoring hundreds of neurons that process visual stimuli in monkeys that were viewing different virtual scenes, he showed that the brain can learn that one object can be associated with multiple visual representations when those representations occur close together in time. As a postdoctoral associate, Li examined how neural circuits in the mouse brain process sensory information. Using behavioral, optogenetic, and electrophysiological approaches, he identified a part of the premotor cortex that reads sensory input and plays a role in planning movements and thereby established a frontal cortical brain region important for decision-making and motor planning. He then examined the circuit mechanisms underlying action selection in the premotor cortex by developing a method to record from specific cell types.
In his own lab at Baylor, Li has identified a novel brain circuit that support motor and cognitive function, including a hindbrain structure that contributes to cognitive processes by interacting with the front cortex. This provided the direct evidence for a nonmotor function of the cerebellum. He continues to study brain activity during movement planning, with an aim to understand abnormal or maladaptive motor and cognitive behaviors.
The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) is an organization of basic scientists and clinicians who study the brain and the nervous system.