08/12/2009 - Pew Biomedical Scholar Rachel I. Wilson, Ph.D. (Class of 2005), an assistant professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, has won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, commonly called a “genius award.” She studies the cellular mechanisms that underlie the sense of taste.
In previous work, Wilson developed sophisticated methods for monitoring the activity of single neurons in the brains of living fruit flies. In recent years, as a Pew scholar, she has further explored the taste signals that are sent from the taste-receptor neurons on the fly’s tongue to the brain neurons that interpret the gustatory signals.
Using advanced approaches in genetics and imaging, she is determining the information that the gustatory-receptor neurons encode— for example, whether they respond to single classes of taste molecules, such as bitter, sweet or salty—and to identify and characterize the secondary neurons in the brain to which these primary receptor cells report.
Knowing how the brain recognizes flavor has potential clinical applications for weight control and more palatable medications, and knowing more about electrical activity in the brain may affect treatments for Parkinson’s disease and deafness.
In 2007, Wilson won the International Grand Prize in Neurobiology from the journal Science and Eppendorf AG for her research suggesting that the brain identifies odor by decoding a pattern of impulses from a diverse set of receptor neurons.
For more on the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences, go to www.pewscholars.org.
In addition, a member of the Pew Scholars Program’s National Advisory Committee has won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Roger Y. Tsien, Ph.D., shared the award with two other chemists last year for their discovery and development of GFP, the green fluorescent protein that, because it glows, enables scientists to follow the movements, positions and interactions of other proteins in real time.
With GFP, researchers can track nerve cell damage during Alzheimer’s disease or the creation of insulinproducing beta cells in the pancreas of a growing embryo, the Nobel committee said, adding, “In one spectacular experiment, researchers succeeded in tagging different nerve cells in the brain of a mouse with a kaleidoscope of colors.” The work is credited with revolutionizing the fields of cell biology and neurobiology.
In a talk at the annual meeting of the Pew biomedical scholars and Pew Latin American fellows earlier this year, Tsien described the development of GFP, some applications and observations it permits, current limitations and its use in the highschool classroom (attracting youngsters to science is a passion of his).
Finally, he gave “some lessons for young scientists”:
- Try to put your neuroses to constructive use.
- Try to find projects that move you deeply.
- Accept that your batting average will be low but hopefully not zero.
- Accept that your best papers may be rejected from the fashionable journals or may be accepted for the wrong reasons (the same for grant proposals).
- Learn to make lemonade from lemons; sometimes persistence pays off.
- Prizes are ultimately a matter of luck, so avoid being motivated or impressed by them.
- Find the right collaborators and exploit them kindly for mutual benefit.