Four VP&S Scientists Named 2022 Schaefer Scholars

Four scientists at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons have received awards from the Schaefer Research Scholars Program, made possible through a bequest from Dr. Ludwig Schaefer. Each award consists of a $50,000 cash prize and up to $200,000 in direct research support.

Two awardees are full-time VP&S faculty and two are visiting faculty who are collaborating with VP&S faculty:

  • Benjamin Izar, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at VP&S
  • Edward Owusu-Ansah, PhD, assistant professor of physiology & cellular biophysics at VP&S
  • Denis David, PhD, professor of pharmacology, University Paris-Saclay, France
  • Shimon Marom, MD, PhD, professor and the Pearl Seiden Chair in Sciences, Technion - Israel Institute of Technology

Each year the program presents awards to four research scientists—two residing or working in the Americas and two residing or working outside the Americas—who have distinguished themselves in the science of human physiology and whose current work is of outstanding merit with significant academic distinction.

Read below for project descriptions.

Benjamin Izar

Benjamin Izar

Benjamin Izar, MD, PhD

Project title: “Dissecting the cancer-immune synapse with combinatorial genome-editing and single-cell genomics”

Cancer immunotherapy is one of the most exciting therapeutic developments in oncology in recent years, but the therapy only works for a small number of patients.

Understanding how cancer cells evade the immune response triggered by immunotherapies is poorly understood yet represents a first step toward creating better strategies that work in more patients.

To better understand how cancer evades immunotherapy, Izar will use cells from patient tumors to perform combinatorial genome-editing screens with single-cell profiling readouts, coupled with novel analytical tools, to dissect the complex tumor-immune interactions at a granular resolution.

The project will focus on the interactions between the cancer cells and the immune system’s CD8+ T cells, which largely determine if a malignant cell survives or is eliminated. An improved understanding of these interactions may pave the way for novel therapeutic strategies.

Edward Owusu-Ansah

Edward Owusu-Ansah

Edward Owusu-Ansah, PhD

Project: “Dissecting the role of AIF in the biogenesis of OXPHOS complexes” 

Muscle atrophy in people has been linked to mutations in a gene called Apoptosis Inducing Factor (AIF), which causes major alterations in mitochondrial function and energy production. Because AIF mutations have a variety of effects, finding a therapeutic option has been difficult.

Owusu-Ansah aims to elucidate the mechanism by which AIF regulates the assembly of the mitochondrion’s oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) system, which creates energy for muscles. Dysregulation of the OXPHOS system underlies numerous human diseases and is a major contributor to pathologies associated with aging. He anticipates that understanding OXPHOS assembly would allow the development of therapeutic strategies that exploit diverse functional properties of AIF to treat specific pathological mutations of the protein in muscles.

photo of Denis David

Denis David

Denis David, PhD

Project: “Novel pharmacological drugs for psychiatric disease targeting glutamatergic and serotonergic transmission in the hippocampus”

Exposure to stressful events is one of the greatest risk factors for a range of psychiatric illnesses, including major depression.

Though several studies have shown a link between stress susceptibility and/or depression with atrophy in the CA3 region of the brain’s hippocampus, it’s unknown how antidepressants target CA3 to result in behavioral and neurological improvements.

David will work with investigators in the Department of Psychiatry (Christine Ann Denny, René Hen, and Victor Luna) to study the effects of different types of antidepressants on the CA3 region with the ultimate goal of developing novel rapid-acting antidepressants.

Shimon Marom

Shimon Marom

Shimon Marom, MD, PhD

Project: “Cellular function: invariance and adaptation given microscopic variation”

Macroscopic cellular function is more-or-less invariant, despite extensive variations in underlying elementary constituents. Two- or three-fold variations in the number, distribution, and kinetics of proteins, or in the size, shape, and volume of the cell, are ubiquitously observed among cells belonging to the same type or within a single cell over time.

Marom focuses on membrane excitability to begin to understand macroscopic cellular invariance given microscopic variation. Membrane excitability is a basic physiological phenomenon in the heart, endocrine, muscles, and neural tissues.

His proposed research program aims to use novel experimental and theoretical approaches he has developed to explain the nature of changes in structural and kinetic parameters that, in turn, enable robust cellular function. He will collaborate with Laurence Abbott, Stefano Fusi, and other members of the Center for Theoretical Neuroscience.

The study aims to provide new fundamental insights into emergence and maintenance of cellular function in general and electrical signaling in muscle and brain in particular.