Grand Prize Winner – Ecology and Environment
From: Jena, Germany
Title of essay: Probing the metabolism of microorganisms
As an undergraduate, Stilianos Louca studied physics and mathematics at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität, Germany, before going on to attain a PhD in applied mathematics at the University of British Columbia, Canada. During his doctoral research, he investigated how microorganisms, in particular their genes, interact with the environment and with each other to drive elemental fluxes at ecosystem scales. Louca is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Biodiversity Research Centre in Vancouver, where he continues to investigate the ecology and evolution of microbial metabolism using mathematical modeling, molecular sequencing, and laboratory experiments.
Our understanding of the role of microbial communities on ecosystem biochemistry is extremely limited, because the enormous microbial diversity poses a challenge to mathematical modeling. Despite the millions of extant microbial species, most elemental fluxes are driven by a core set of metabolic reactions, performed by a few genes found across a wide spectrum of microorganisms. Louca showed that in many cases the dynamics of these genes can become independent of the taxonomic composition of microbial communities. In particular, environmental conditions largely determine the biochemical activity of these genes, while the species that happen to perform each biochemical reaction are largely dependent on complex interactions between species. His work has important implications for ecosystem biochemistry and industrial use of microorganisms.
From: Sacramento, California, USA
Title of essay: Learning to read a genome like a history book
Kelley Harris studied mathematics as an undergraduate at Harvard University and transitioned into genomics during a postgraduate year at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. She then earned a PhD in Mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley, with a Designated Emphasis in Computational Biology, where she continued building statistical methods that describe how genome sequences evolve. In January 2018, Harris will finish her postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University and become an assistant professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington.
All genetic variation starts with copying mistakes in the transmission of DNA from parent to child, and every genome contains a record of millions of mutations inherited from hundreds of thousands of years’ worth of ancestors. Today, anyone can access databases of thousands of human genomes, and Harris spent her Ph.D. building evolutionary models to interpret the historical record of mutation events found within these databases. She came to the surprising conclusion that the mutation process itself has continued to evolve during recent human history – all European genomes are heavily marked by a type of mutation that is relatively rare in Africa and East Asia.
Category Winner – Translational Medicine
Jared R. Mayers
From: Bellevue, Washington, USA
Title of essay: Metabolic markers as cancer clues
Jared Mayers is a resident in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, working towards a career that balances basic science research with clinical practice. After completing his undergraduate degree at Williams College, he earned his MD from Harvard Medical School and his PhD in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research interests center on identifying and understanding the mechanisms driving whole body metabolic alterations and tissue interactions in early disease states. Outside of the hospital and lab, he enjoys running and spending time with his family.
Differences in how cancer and normal cells utilize nutrients have been linked to genetic changes in cancer, opening an opportunity for drugs targeting metabolism. Using blood samples collected from patients, many of whom went on to develop pancreatic cancer, as well as mouse models of pancreatic and non-small cell lung cancer, Mayers identified a “signature” of changes in a group of nutrients called branched chain amino acids. These changes reflect both an early breakdown of muscle in individuals with pancreatic cancer years before typical diagnosis and also differences in the use of these nutrients by both cancer types, despite their sharing common genetic alterations. This work highlights the importance of context, in addition to genetic changes, for defining the character and thus potential drug targets of individual cancers.
Category Winner – Cell and Molecular Biology
From: Vinkovci, Croatia; Chicago, USA; Paris, France
Title of essay: Biology and physics rendezvous at the membrane
Mijo Simunovic sought higher education in the United States and in France, earning his PhD in theoretical chemistry from the University of Chicago, and his PhD in experimental physics from the University of Paris. In his scientific work, he pursues complex biological problems that are fundamentally driven by physics. Currently, he is at The Rockefeller University where, as a Junior Fellow of the Simons Society, he uses stem cells to build experimental models of the human embryo, aimed at elucidating the earliest events in human development. Simunovic is passionate about teaching, having served as a teaching consultant at the University of Chicago and instructed undergraduate biophysics courses in Chicago and New York.
How cells absorb materials from their environment has, for decades, fascinated biologists and physicists alike. At the heart of this phenomenon is endocytosis, a process that enables signaling among cells, intake of nutrients from the environment, immune response, and also infection. Simunovic took part in discovering a new pathway by which signaling proteins and certain pathogens enter cells. To understand how it works, he constructed artificial cell membranes and manipulated their behavior at the nanoscopic scale with lasers and microscopes. He found an unexpected relationship between proteins that tailor membrane shape and those that generate forces inside the cell. Their interplay is an exquisite example of how cells use simple physical principles to carry out complex functions.