2019 Young Scientist Prize Winners


Longzhi Tan

Grand Prize winner 

From: Wuhan, China
Category: Genomics, Proteomics and Systems Biology
Title of essay: Three-dimensional genome structure of a single cell: Chromosome organization in diploid cells reveals a structural basis for smell

Originally from Wuhan, China, Tan received his bachelor’s degree in Physics with a minor in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012, after transferring from Peking University. Tan earned his PhD in Systems Biology from Harvard University in 2018. He worked with Xiaoliang Sunney Xie to develop new methods for single-cell genomics. He uncovered the 3D structure of the human genome in a single cell, and revealed unique chromosome organization in the mouse eye and nose. Tan is currently a postdoctoral scholar in Karl Deisseroth’s lab at Stanford University, studying single-cell 3D genome changes in animal behaviors and psychiatric disorders. Outside of the lab, he enjoys designing holiday cards, t-shirts, and music videos.

In recent decades, scientists began to uncover how 2-meter-long DNA folds into the 10- micron cell nucleus, taking advantage of next-generation DNA sequencing. This method, termed “chromosome conformation capture” (3C or Hi-C), provides a genome-wide view of DNA folding by averaging a large ensemble of cells. Single-cell 3C has been achieved, but has limited spatial resolution. I achieved high-resolution single-cell 3C by inventing new whole-genome amplification methods and an algorithm to distinguish the two parental copies of each chromosome. Using these new techniques, together termed “diploid chromosome conformation capture” (Dip-C), I obtained the first 3D structure of the human genome, and mapped all ~1,100 olfactory receptor genes and their ~60 enhancers in single cells throughout mouse development.

Barbara Klump

Category Winner 

From: Karlsruhe, Germany
Category: Ecology and Environment
Title of essay: Of crows and tools: Tool-using crows, culture, and what it means to be human

Barbara studied Zoology, Psychology, and Ecology at Heidelberg University, Germany and Copenhagen University, Denmark. After working at the Educational Department of the Natural History Museum in Karlsruhe, Germany, she moved to St. Andrews, Scotland for her doctoral research. Her thesis examined sources of variation in tool-oriented behaviour in the only two crow species known to show species-wide tool use – the New Caledonian and Hawaiian crows. After completing her PhD, Barbara worked on the ecological significance of tool-use in Hawaiian crows and supported the ongoing re-introduction efforts. Currently, Barbara is a Postdoc at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Germany, where she investigates the spatial distribution of vocal and foraging traditions in wild Sulphur-crested cockatoos in Sydney, Australia. In her free time, she enjoys swimming, hiking and crafting.

My PhD research took me to a small archipelago in the South Pacific called New Caledonia, the home of the New Caledonian (NC) crow, Corvus moneduloides. Here, I explored the species’ tool-oriented behavior using a series of non-invasive experiments with wild-caught birds. I found that the birds can identify their preferred plant species for tool making from its stem alone (some can even identify it from only the leaves), that they look after their tools in between uses, and that their tool-making is not necessarily culturally transmitted.

Humsa Venkatesh 

Category Winner 

From: San Fransisco, USA
Category: Molecular Medicine
Title of essay: The Neural Regulation of Cancer: Cancers hijack mechanisms of neural plasticity to promote malignant disease progression

Humsa Venkatesh received her undergraduate degree in Chemical Biology from the University of California, Berkeley and her PhD in Cancer Biology from Stanford University. She is currently completing her postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University. Her research combines principles of neuroscience and cancer biology to understand the electrical components of cancer pathophysiology. Humsa discovered the relationship between the bioelectric activity of neurons and tumor growth and further identified a therapeutic target which, when inhibited, stagnates tumor growth in vivo. She aims to build her career leading the advancement of this novel field by studying the neural regulation of cancer and investigating the specific neural circuits whose aberrant activity contributes to disease progression. Her ultimate goal is to harness these microenvironmental dependencies of tumors for future therapeutic interventions.

Electrical activity shapes brain organogenesis as well as the behavior of persistent populations of neural precursor cells in the healthy brain. In the context of cancer, we hypothesized that this neurodevelopmental principle may similarly inform tumor progression. My research has uncovered the relationship between neuronal activity and glioma growth by identifying activity-dependent mitogen secretion, synaptic neurotransmission, and gap junction-mediated electrical coupling as novel mechanisms controlling glioma development. This work demonstrates, for the first time, the critical role of neurons in the brain tumor micro-environment: electrical circuit integration of glioma promotes its progression and may be harnessed for therapy.

Zibo Chen

Category Winner

From: Hangzhou, China
Category: Cell and Molecular Biology
Title of essay: Creating the protein version of DNA base pairing: Programmable and modular protein-protein interactions designed from scratch

Zibo Chen grew up in Hangzhou, China and received his PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Washington in Seattle. During his doctoral research, Zibo programmed de novo designed proteins to have DNA-like specificity, and assembled them into biological circuits that operate inside living cells. He is currently a postdoc scholar at the California Institute of Technology, working on programming cells using modular protein tools. His research interest centers on the precise control of molecular and cellular interactions for therapeutic applications. Outside of the lab, he enjoys travelling, flying drones, and piloting small airplanes.

When scientists design DNA primers for molecular coning, they simply take a look at the target sequence and write down its reverse complement counterpart. This is made possible by the modular specificity code of DNA: A binds to T, and C binds to G. Proteins, however, do not have such specificity code which makes the design of protein-protein interactions challenging. This essay describes a way to achieve DNA-like programmable specificity in proteins via computational design, which extends to the creation of a large set of orthogonal protein heterodimers, protein-based logic gates that operate in living cells, and lego-like proteins that self-assemble into two-dimensional materials.