Analysis

37 Scientists Who Could Change the World

Pew’s 2016 biomedical scholars and fellows conduct innovative work to advance human health

Pew Scholars 2016

A new group of young researchers is blazing a path of groundbreaking science. On June 9, The Pew Charitable Trusts announced the 2016 class of Pew biomedical scholars, Latin American fellows and Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research. From pioneering pancreatic cancer treatments to combating future Ebola outbreaks, these 37 scientists are on a mission to change the world. Each year Pew identifies promising scientists who are engaged in innovative work and gives them multiyear grants to encourage informed risk-taking and collaboration among researchers.

For more than 30 years, Pew’s biomedical research programs have supported young scientists across the U.S. and Latin America in an effort to help advance scientific discovery and improve human health. The programs have grown in recent years: In 2016, five of the biomedical scholars were selected for their dedication to studying the human brain as it ages, with support from the Kathryn W. Davis Peace by Pieces fund. And in 2014, the Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research program was launched in collaboration with the Alexander and Margaret Stewart Trust; five new Pew-Stewart scholars were announced this year. Learn more about the biomedical program and meet a few of Pew’s current and former scholars and fellows on video. Also, see the bios (below) of our 2016 scientists and the work they will be undertaking.

Biochemistry

Wendy R. Gordon, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Gordon will probe how disease can alter the response of cells to mechanical forces within their environment. This work could lead to new treatments and diagnostics for disorders that alter cellular tension, such as cancer. She is an assistant professor of biochemistry, molecular biology, and biophysics at the University of Minnesota.

Peter W. Lewis, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Lewis will analyze how modifications to specific proteins, called histones, alter gene activity and how these modifications are maintained as cells divide. He is an assistant professor of biomolecular chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Bioengineering

Lei S. Qi, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Qi will work on programming immune cells to recognize and target tumors by thwarting cancer’s evasive techniques. This approach is a novel method for designing cell-based immunotherapies to treat various human cancers. He is an assistant professor of bioengineering and of chemical and systems biology at Stanford University.

Mikhail G. Shapiro, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Shapiro will study how to make gut bacteria visible by ultrasound. These findings could help patients avoid invasive diagnostic procedures for a range of conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease. He is an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology.

Cancer biology

Donita C. Brady, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Brady will explore the role copper plays in activating proteins that drive the formation of tumors. These insights could lead to a new kind of cancer treatment based on drugs that can sequester excess copper. She is an assistant professor of cancer biology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Paul A. Northcott, Ph.D. (2016 Pew-Stewart scholar)—Dr. Northcott will examine how tumors caused by medulloblastoma—a very aggressive form of brain cancer in children—differ before and after initial treatment. These findings will provide more direction for treating this highly recurrent form of brain cancer. He is an assistant member in developmental neurobiology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Cancer immunology

Stephanie K. Dougan, Ph.D. (2016 Pew-Stewart scholar)—Dr. Dougan will work on how to activate our own immune cells to destroy pancreatic tumors. These findings could create a new approach for treating pancreatic cancer, which often does not respond well to current therapies. She is an assistant professor of microbiology and immunobiology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Cell biology

Lauren Parker Jackson, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Jackson will unravel the molecular systems that allow cells to function properly by directing the trafficking of proteins and lipids around a cell’s interior. This understanding could lead to new treatments for neurological disorders that can be caused by defects in protein transport, such as Alzheimer’s disease. She is an assistant professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University.

Radhika Subramanian, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Subramanian will investigate the developmental signaling pathway, called Hedgehog, and how it operates in the cilium, a structure that acts as a cell’s “antenna.” This work could aid in the prevention of birth defects or cancer. She is an assistant professor of molecular biology and genetics at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Developmental biology

Pew Biomedical Research Scholars 2016

Maksim V. Plikus, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Plikus will investigate how cells regenerate to heal wounds in the skin without forming scars. These findings could open a window onto new approaches for regenerating healthy tissue after injury and reversing scar formation. He is an assistant professor of developmental and cell biology at the University of California, Irvine.

Genetics

Eyleen J. O’Rourke, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. O’Rourke will uncover the complete network of genes that governs metabolism using C. elegans, a worm model system, and monitor how inactivating its genes affects its fat storage. These results will help provide a tool for treating various metabolic disorders. She is an assistant professor of biology and cell biology at the University of Virginia.

Nitin Phadnis, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Phadnis studies certain genes, known as “selfish genes,” that promote their own existence to ensure they are passed down from one generation to another. His research will enhance our understanding of the genetic warfare that shapes the evolution of species. He is an assistant professor of biology and holds the Mario Capecchi endowed chair in biology at the University of Utah.

Immunology

Christopher D.C. Allen, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Allen will explore how humans first become allergic to seemingly harmless environmental substances by looking into the role of antibody-producing B-cells in the immune system. This insight could help inform allergy and asthma prevention or treatment. He is an assistant professor of anatomy and an investigator at the Sandler Asthma Basic Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

Kristian G. Andersen, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Andersen will investigate whether individuals were exposed to a weakened version of the Ebola virus before the recent outbreak and, if so, how they were able to develop immunity to survive. These studies will enhance understanding of the Ebola virus’ evolution and origin, and help to prevent future deadly outbreaks. He is a director of infectious disease genomics at the Scripps Translational Science Institute and an assistant professor at the Scripps Research Institute.

Vinicius de Andrade-Oliveira, Ph.D. (2016 Pew fellow)—Dr. Andrade-Oliveira will assess how acute infections can affect immune cells to sometimes trigger chronic conditions. These results could lead to novel treatments for illnesses such as Crohn’s disease, metabolic syndrome, or diabetes. He is doing postdoctoral training with Yasmine Belkaid, Ph.D., at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health.

Silvina A. del Carmen, Ph.D. (2016 Pew fellow)—Dr. del Carmen will unravel the role a blood-clotting protein plays in controlling bacterial infection. This work will enhance understanding of immunity and could lead to new treatments for chronic inflammatory disease. She is doing her postdoctoral training with Carla V. Rothlin, Ph.D., a 2002 Pew fellow, at Yale University.

Jun R. Huh, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Huh will study how a particular type of immune cell activated during an infection in pregnancy, called Th17, can affect development of the fetal brain and possibly lead to autismlike symptoms. These findings could lead to an innovative approach for treating neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism or schizophrenia. He is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Ileana Licona, Ph.D. (2016 Pew fellow)—Dr. Licona will examine how allergens are recognized and thus trigger a strong inflammatory response by epithelial cells that line the body’s airways. This understanding could help design better immune interventions and treat allergic responses. She is doing her postdoctoral training with Ruslan Medzhitov, Ph.D., at Yale University.

Priscilla C. Olsen, Ph.D. (2016 Pew fellow)—Dr. Olsen will explore how vigorous replication of B-cells during an infection could compromise genomic integrity and precipitate the formation of lymphomas, a form of blood cell cancer. Her findings could point to novel cancer treatments. She is doing postdoctoral training at Rockefeller University with Michel C. Nussenzweig, M.D., Ph.D.

Microbiology

Daiana A. Capdevila, Ph.D. (2016 Pew fellow)—Dr. Capdevila will explore how infectious bacteria evade the host immune cell’s response through minute changes in the structure of “sensor” proteins. Understanding more about this process could lead to the development of novel antibiotics to fight drug-resistant bacteria. She is doing postdoctoral training with David P. Giedroc, Ph.D., at Indiana University.

Cecilia A. Silva-Valenzuela, Ph.D. (2016 Pew fellow)—Dr. Silva will investigate whether the spread of cholera can be curbed by a specialized bacterial virus found in the gut of patients suffering from the disease. This research could create new ways to prevent cholera outbreaks. She is doing her postdoctoral fellowship at Tufts University with Andrew Camilli, Ph.D., a 1997 Pew scholar.

Molecular biology

Rodrigo A. Aguilar, Ph.D. (2016 Pew fellow)—Dr. Aguilar will screen for drugs that can regulate the activation of genes on the X chromosome. His work could open a window on treatments of syndromes caused by gene mutations on the X chromosome. He is doing a postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University with Jeannie T. Lee, M.D., Ph.D., a 1999 Pew scholar.

Gloria A. Brar, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Brar will study a recently discovered group of proteins and their role in sperm and egg formation. This research will shed light on how these novel genes influence a fundamental part of reproduction and development. She is an assistant professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Dirk Hockemeyer, Ph.D. (2016 Pew-Stewart scholar)—Dr. Hockemeyer will explore how telomeres—DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes—are maintained at the proper length to support crucial cellular functions. This insight will help inform new cancer therapies. He is an assistant professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Richard L. Possemato, Ph.D. (2016 Pew-Stewart scholar)—Dr. Possemato will analyze how cancer cells process nutrients for survival compared with normal dividing cells. This understanding could lead to potential metabolic targets for anti-cancer therapy. He is an assistant professor of pathology at the Perlmutter Cancer Center of New York University School of Medicine.

Daniel Rodríguez-Leal, Ph.D. (2016 Pew fellow)—Dr. Rodríguez-Leal will untangle the complex network of genes and stem cell populations that regulates the growth of flowers, leaves, and fruits. This insight could develop new tools for controlling plant growth and improving crop yields. He is training as a postdoctoral fellow with Zachary Lippman, Ph.D., at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Ömer H. Yilmaz, M.D., Ph.D. (2016 Pew-Stewart scholar)—Dr. Yilmaz will study how a high-fat diet can influence stem cell responses in the gut and lead to the development of cancer. These findings could help create new approaches for treating intestinal cancers. He is an assistant professor at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Neuroscience

Pew Biomedical Research Scholars 2016

Martha W. Bagnall, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Bagnall will study how nerve cells in animals communicate with the spinal cord to coordinate posture and balance—and help to regain an upright posture when tilted. These findings could lead to development of devices that help people regain balance and posture after injury or impairment from disease. She is an assistant professor of medicine, anatomy, and neurobiology at the Washington University School of Medicine.

José A. Cánovas, Ph.D. (2016 Pew fellow)—Dr. Cánovas will analyze how nerve cells within a part of the brain, the amygdala, control differing responses to foods that are sweet or bitter. This work will help map how the brain responds to attractive and aversive stimuli. He is doing his postdoctoral training at Columbia University with Charles Zuker, Ph.D., a 1988 Pew scholar.

Marco Gallio, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Gallio will examine neurological activity in fruit flies when they need to make a complex decision—specifically, when flies fight their aversion to unfavorable temperatures to obtain food. This work will provide a template for decoding how the brain processes conflicting information to make complex decisions. He is an assistant professor of neurobiology at Northwestern University.

Dragana Rogulja, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Rogulja will probe how animals block out surrounding noises during sleep. In particular, she will study how the ability to sleep through jarring vibrations and to ignore bright lights during naps changes as we age. These findings will help illuminate the biology of sleep and could point to treatments for sleep disorders. She is an assistant professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School.

Michael M. Yartsev, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Yartsev will investigate the neural mechanisms in the brains of bats that allow them to learn how to communicate with each other vocally. This work—the first to explore vocal learning at a cellular level in a mammalian brain—could provide insights into the evolution of human speech and therapies for speech-related disorders. He is an assistant professor of neuroscience and bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

Roozbeh Kiani, M.D., Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Kiani will analyze two key brain regions responsible for decision-making in monkeys to understand what happens when the animals change their minds and how confident they are about their decisions. These findings will provide insight into certain neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. He is an assistant professor of neural science at New York University.

Parasitology

Katherine S. Ralston, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Ralston will study how E. histolytica, the tropical parasite responsible for the diarrheal disease amoebiasis, destroys human intestinal cells by dissolving host tissue. This insight could lead to new methods for treating or preventing dangerous infections caused by this parasite and similar organisms. She is an assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of California, Davis.

Physiology

Pew Biomedical Research Scholars 2016

Dengke K. Ma, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Ma will identify genes that allow certain animals to withstand hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, without suffering cellular damage. These understandings could help in the development of strategies for limiting injury from heart attacks and strokes. He is an assistant professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco.

Structural biology

Guilherme A.P. de Oliveira, Ph.D. (2016 Pew fellow)—Dr. de Oliveira will untangle how protein fibers involved in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases form. These findings could lead to therapies that block the formation of plaques or new approaches for diagnostic imaging. He is doing postdoctoral training at the University of Virginia with Edward H. Egelman, Ph.D.

Virology

Trevor Bedford, Ph.D. (2016 Pew scholar)—Dr. Bedford will be developing tools to collect and compare data about rapidly changing influenza virus mutations—displayed in real-time on nextflu.org—to help predict the evolution of the flu virus. This information can be used to develop more effective vaccines against the circulation of future flu infections. He is an assistant member of the vaccine and infectious disease division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Kara Coleman directs Pew’s biomedical programs.