Four New Schaefer Scholars Pursue Human Physiology Research

February 13, 2015

P&S researchers Ellen Lumpkin and Joji Fujisaki and visiting international scientists Rony Paz and Paul Roesch have been named 2015 Schaefer Research Scholars.

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

The 2015 Schaefer Research Scholars and their projects:

Joji Fujisaki, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medical sciences in pediatrics

Project: The Immune Privilege of the Hematopoietic Stem Cell Niche

Stem cells reside in a specialized microenvironment called the stem cell niche. The stem cell niche has been extensively studied as a site that regulates stem cell function. However, immunological attributes of the niche have been largely unexplored.

Dr. Fujisaki hypothesizes that the blood stem cell niche is, like the testis and the placenta, an immune suppressive environment—termed the “immune privileged” site—where immune activities are suppressed to shield the stem cells from immune attack. He predicts that this protective property for stem cells may further shield malignant cells from the immune system, leading to therapeutic resistance of cancer.

Dr. Fujisaki was recruited in 2012 to P&S, where he is also a principal investigator and director of in vivo imaging at the Columbia Center for Translational Immunology. He has published a Nature paper based on his hypothesis.

Ellen A. Lumpkin, PhD, associate professor of somatosensory biology in dermatology and in physiology & cellular biophysics

Project: How Do Mechanosensory Neurons Work in Concert with Epidermal Cells to Encode Tactile Information?

Dr. Lumpkin is a sensory neurobiologist whose research has yielded important insights into the mechanisms by which skin cells convey tactile information to the nervous system. It has become clear that the skin is a major interface between the environment and the brain, and an in-depth understanding of these signaling pathways is just beginning to emerge. In a recent paper in Nature, she solved a long-standing mystery, using optogenetics—a new method that employs light as a signaling system—to show how Merkel cells just beneath the skin surface sense touch and work with neurons to enable animals to feel fine spatial details and distinguish shapes.

With the Schaefer funds, she will address two key questions: How do epidermal cells excite sensory neurons? And which neural circuits process inputs from discriminative touch receptors? She will test the hypothesis that Merkel cells release excitatory neurotransmitters at neuron-like synapses, studies that could point the way to deeper understanding of the loss of tactile acuity associated with aging and peripheral neuropathy.

Dr. Lumpkin was recruited to P&S in 2010 to establish a new program in skin neuroscience. She has been named a Kavli Fellow with the National Academy of Sciences and is principal investigator for a number of NIH-funded projects.

Rony Paz, PhD, associate professor in neurobiology, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel, and visiting scholar in psychiatry at P&S

Project: Common Neural Representations of Fear States Across Model Systems

Dr. Paz’s research focuses on the dynamics of neuronal networks during learning and memory formation. He has pioneered several new analytic methods to study interactions across multiple brain regions during learning and has shown that malfunctions of the amygdala and its connectivity with the prefrontal cortex underlie several neuro-psychiatric conditions, mainly anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

While at Columbia, in collaboration with Joshua Gordon, MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry, and C. Daniel Salzman, MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and of neuroscience, Dr. Paz will investigate whether findings identifying neural signatures of aversive memories in animal models are translatable to humans, a project with the potential to create entirely new ways of looking at fear- and anxiety-related circuitry.

Dr. Paz has received the Minna-James Heineman Research Award for biomedical research, the Levinson Award for achievements in systems biology, the Marie-Curie reintegration fellowship, and a Fulbright fellowship.

Paul Roesch, PhD, director of the Research Center for Bio-Macromolecules and head of the Department of Biopolymers at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, and visiting professor in microbiology & immunology at P&S

Project: Similarities and Differences of Bacterial and Human Transcription: Translation Coupling Systems

A structural biologist, Dr. Roesch has long collaborated with Maxwell Gottesman, MD, PhD, the Charles H. Revson Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics and of Microbiology, on determining the structure and function of factors that affect transcription elongation in E. coli and, more recently, how transcription and translation are coupled.

While at Columbia, Dr. Roesch is pursuing a new project: to develop techniques and procedures to design effective antibiotics based on physiological and structural similarities and differences in the human and bacterial transcription machineries. As multidrug resistance in bacteria is an ever-increasing problem in the fight against microorganisms, he offers a new approach to drug design. He will conduct structure and dynamic studies of RNA Polymerase (RNAP), the molecular machine by which genetic information is transcribed, in bacteria and in humans, to target the bacteria without compromising the human system.

An expert on nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, spectroscopy, Dr. Roesch received a grant of 12 million euros to install the world’s most powerful NMR instrument at his institution, the University of Bayreuth in Germany, where he has chaired the Department of Biopolymers for 25 years and is director of the Research Center for Bio-Macromolecules.