Five Researchers Named 2014 Schaefer Scholars

April 24, 2014

Two P&S researchers—Randy Bruno and Alla Grishok—and three visiting international scientists have been named 2014 Schaefer Research Scholars.

The Schaefer Research Scholars Program at P&S supports research scientists whose work focuses on human physiology. The program has been made possible through a generous endowment from the Dr. Ludwig Schaefer Fund. Scholars receive an award of $50,000 for discretionary funds and $200,000 in direct costs to fund their research project.

The 2014 Schaefer Research Scholars and their projects are:

Randy Bruno, PhD Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Project: The Behavioral Roles of Neocortical Layers

Dr. Bruno’s research is focused on a key question in neuroscience: How does the brain process information obtained from our sensory receptors to generate the first central representation of the external world? A major obstacle to understanding this processing—which occurs in the cerebral cortex—is the complexity of the circuitry, which has remained largely enigmatic.

Research in Dr. Bruno’s lab has begun to decipher this circuitry, and his recent work has upended a century-old view of the cortex, showing that rather than being a monolithic circuit, the cortex may contain two entirely separate processing systems.

During his Schaefer Scholarship, Dr. Bruno will continue to untangle the cortex’s circuitry, using optogenetics to test the idea that the cortex’s upper layers are unnecessary for simple sensory behaviors but important in situations requiring the integration of disparate sources of information.

Dr. Bruno was recruited to P&S in 2007. He has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Klingenstein and Rita Allen Scholar awards, the Harold and Golden Lamport Research Award in the Basic Sciences from P&S, and the 2013 Young Investigator Prize of the Society for Neuroscience.

Alla Grishok, PhD Assistant Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics Project: The Disease-Related Chromatin-Modifying DOT1 Complex: Investigation of its Basic Function

Dr. Grishok has a longstanding interest in the fundamental biological process of transcription—the first step in turning a gene into a protein—which affects a wide array of human diseases, including cancer and heart disease.

In Dr. Grishok’s lab, transcription is studied in the worm C. elegans, in which RNA interference and microRNAs were first discovered. She has recently uncovered how the organism can pause transcription to keep the activity of essential genes at levels appropriate for a specific stage of development or environmental condition. The genes involved in pausing transcription in C. elegans may have roles in cancer and heart disease in people, and, with support from the Schaefer Scholarship, Dr. Grishok will continue to explore the role of these genes.

Dr. Grishok was recruited to P&S in 2007. Her research accomplishments have been recognized at every stage of her career by prestigious awards, including the Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award, a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation Fellowship Award, and a NIH Director’s New Innovator Award.

Alain Lacampagne, PhD CNRS Research Director, INSERM, Montpellier, France, Visiting Scholar, Physiology & Cellular Biophysics Project: Functional Analysis of UNC-68 in C. elegans: Regulation in Aging-dependent Muscle Weakness

Dr. Lacampagne is a renowned researcher in the physiology of heart and skeletal muscle. His collaborative work over the years with Andrew Marks, MD, chair of physiology & cellular biophysics, has elucidated the mechanism underlying skeletal muscle weakness and the role of leaky calcium channels in multiple conditions, including heart failure, aging, and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

During his stay at Columbia, he will apply his expertise to the imaging of calcium signaling in muscle to help establish the worm C. elegans as a model organism for the study of aging muscle. If successful, studies that now take two years to conduct in mice can be completed in 2–3 weeks in the worm. The project promises to rapidly increase the pace of discovery in heart and skeletal muscle research.

At INSERM in Montpellier, France, Dr. Lacampagne leads a team of 25 investigators of full-time faculty, clinicians at the University hospital, postdoctoral fellows, students, and technicians. He is a world leader in the field of high-resolution confocal fluorescence microscopy and calcium imaging and will train others in the techniques during his stay at Columbia.

Beatrice Vallone, PhD Professor of Biochemistry, University of Rome Visiting Scholar, Department of Physiology & Cellular Biophysics Project: Structure and Function of the SRD5A Family of Enzymes that Mediate Testosterone Action

Dr. Vallone has pioneered the field of structural biology in Italy and seeks to uncover how proteins carry out their functions in normal and pathological processes, which can be the starting point in the design of novel, targeted therapeutic strategies.

During her stay at P&S, Dr. Vallone will work with Filippo Mancia, PhD, professor of physiology & cellular biophysics, and Wayne Hendrickson, PhD, University Professor, to acquire the necessary theoretical and experimental expertise to expand the field of structural biology in Italy to include membrane-bound proteins.

Specifically, she proposes to elucidate the structure of a small membrane-embedded enzyme that turns testosterone into its more potent and active form. This enzyme is a major drug target in prostate cancer, but currently available inhibitors of the enzyme cause major debilitating side effects, thus often limiting their use. A structure of the enzyme would help researchers better understand how the enzyme functions and could provide a molecular template for the improvement of drugs to treat prostate cancer and other diseases.

Iveta Yotova, PhD Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Medical University of Vienna Visiting Scholar, Institute for Cancer Genetics Project: Epigenetic Changes in the Pathogenesis of Endometriosis-associated Pain

Dr. Yotova’s current research focuses on the molecular mechanisms underlying endometriosis, an inflammatory disorder associated with chronic pain and infertility. Recent data from her research have revealed that DNA methylation patterns in the cells of endometriosis lesions are different from the patterns in normal endometrial cells. This had led her to hypothesize that DNA methylation pattern may cause or perpetuate the changes that result in chronic pain.

With Benjamin Tycko, MD, PhD, professor of pathology & cell biology, Dr. Yotova will test this hypothesis, which they believe has the potential to lead to advances in the treatment of a common but poorly understood medical condition.