Grand Prize Winner – Translational Medicine
Christoph A. Thaiss
From: Frankfurt, Germany
Title of essay: Microbiome dynamics in obesity
Christoph Thaiss studied Molecular Biomedicine, Microbiology, and Immunology at the University of Bonn, Germany, Yale University, USA, and ETH Zurich, Switzerland. After a short-term fellowship at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, he performed his graduate studies at the Immunology Department of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. During his doctoral research, he focused on the role of the intestinal microbiome in metabolic and inflammatory diseases. After completion of his PhD, Christoph became an Assistant Professor at the Microbiology Department of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. His research group studies the mechanisms of environmental impacts on human disease. Outside of the lab, he enjoys spending time with his family, rowing, as well as composing and performing music.
The prevalence of obesity has increased at an astounding rate over the last decades. What has caused this rapid increase? The past century has seen dramatic changes in human lifestyle, ranging from new dietary patterns to improved hygiene and altered sleep-wake cycles. However, the molecular and cellular mechanisms by which these environmental factors predispose humans to obesity remain largely unknown. This essay describes how the intestinal microbiome influences aberrant circadian rhythms, “yo-yo” weight gain, and intestinal permeability, all central features of metabolic disease.
Category Winner – Genomics and Proteomics
Title of essay: Paring down to the essentials
Tim Wang received a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During his graduate studies, Tim pioneered the development of a novel method for conducting genome-wide genetic screens in human cells using the CRISPR/Cas9 system. He is currently investigating the structural and functional organization of neocortical circuits as a Helen Hay Whitney postdoctoral fellow at the Janelia Research Campus in the laboratory of Karel Svoboda.
In several model organisms, large-scale genetic screens have provided insights into fundamental biological processes including the cell cycle, programmed cell death, and embryonic development. In mammalian cells, however, the development of similar techniques has lagged behind, leaving our understanding of human genes incomplete. This essay reveals how the creation of a genome-wide library of single gene knock-outs has enabled the high-throughput analysis of mammalian genes.
Category Winner – Ecology and Environment
From: New York, USA
Title of essay: The ecology of an olfactory trap
Growing up in New York City, Matthew became fascinated with the natural world, spurred on by an interest in birds. He had the opportunity to foster that passion as an undergraduate while working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. His interest in marine conservation grew while completing a PhD in Ecology at the University of California, Davis. For his doctoral research, Matthew worked at the intersection of animal behavior, sensory processing, and analytical chemistry, to assess why marine animals confuse plastic for prey. Currently, Matthew is a postdoctoral researcher at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. He is studying baleen whale physiology, behavior, and their possible interactions with microplastics. In his free time, Matthew enjoys hiking, photography, DJing, and spending time with his wife Rachel and their dog Marley.
Plastics are a ubiquitous form of marine litter. Despite burgeoning scientific interest on the interactions between plastic waste and marine wildlife, far less research has focused on the behavioral mechanisms underlying the maladaptive decision to ingest plastic. This essay reveals that algal biofilms that coat marine plastics emit an odoriferous compound that many marine predators interpret as an indicator of productive foraging regions, suggesting that marine plastics may falsely amplify an olfactory signal that certain species associate with foraging opportunities.
Category Winner – Cell and Molecular Biology
From: Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China
Title of essay: A key component of gene expression revealed
Ruixue Wan earned her bachelor degree majoring in Marine Sciences in Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China. She completed her Ph.D. thesis research in Tsinghua University, studying the molecular mechanism of pre-mRNA splicing through structural investigations of the spliceosome. Ruixue Wan nurtures a profound interest to the world in cells and strongly believe that she as a researcher through basic scientific research will help develop therapeutics to human diseases. Ruixue also loves running and hopes to soon be able to take part in a marathon. Currently, Ruixue Wan is at the Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Structural Biology, School of Medicine, Tsinghua University.
In the three decades between the discovery of the spliceosome and the beginning of this century, scientists sought to identify its constitutional components and biochemically analyze the various spliceosomal complexes by immunoprecipitation, cross-linked mass spectrometry, in vitro splicing essay and so on. However, our understanding of the molecular mechanism was impeded due to the lack of high-resolution structures of the fully-assembled spliceosome. This essay describes a project in which cryo-electron microscopy was employed to shed light on the molecular mechanisms that underlie the splicing reaction.