The University of Chicago and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) announced today the first two recipients of the Frank R. Lillie Research Innovation Awards.
The newly established grant program honors Lillie, the early 20th-century embryologist who served as the MBL’s second director and as chair of UChicago’s Department of Zoology, and represents the first formal research opportunity between the University and the MBL since their affiliation in 2013. The awards will provide funding for scientists to develop novel, collaborative projects based at the MBL that will lead to transformative biological discoveries. Scientists throughout the MBL’s worldwide research community were eligible to receive the awards.
One grant was awarded to University of Utah neuroscientist Erik M. Jorgensen and his colleagues, who will address the fundamental question of how high-level brain processes such as memory are related to changes in the structure and function of neural connections.
Another grant was awarded to Clare Waterman of the National Institutes of Health. Waterman and a multidisciplinary team of cell biologists and experts in advanced microscopy will investigate basic molecular mechanisms of cellular movement, shape and form, which are critical to understanding human disorders like cancer.
“This is innovative research by scientists who are leading their fields,” said Joan Ruderman, MBL president and director. “They are asking bold questions that have the potential to change the way we understand fundamental biological processes. Frank Lillie was a visionary and these awards are visionary on the part of the University of Chicago and the MBL. The science has the potential to transform the understanding of basic biology and human health.”
“The collaborative advances that will emerge from these awards show the immense potential of the affiliation between the MBL and the University of Chicago,” said Neil Shubin, the Robert R. Bensley Professor in Organismal Biology and Anatomy and senior advisor to the president and to the vice president for research and for national laboratories. “These projects will bring together scientists who might not have interacted otherwise, with powerful benefits for our community of researchers and educators.”
Jorgensen and his colleagues from the University of Utah and Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin, one of the largest university hospitals in Europe, will use novel electron microscopy imaging techniques to investigate the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying synaptic plasticity, a fundamental property of the nervous system. Synaptic plasticity describes the changes to structure and function that occur where nerve cells connect in the brain and is thought to underlie learning and memory. Abnormal synaptic plasticity is linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“One of the great remaining mysteries in neuroscience surrounds the issues in the brain that make us uniquely human—how we think, sleep, learn and remember things,” said Jonathan Gitlin, MBL’s deputy director for research and programs. “Memory is one of the most vibrant and important functions in the human brain, yet we don’t know how it works at a fundamental level. How can we approach diseases of memory? This is the frontier, and the new project brings forward cell biology and imaging, which are areas of incredible focus for our partnership with UChicago.”
Waterman’s research team includes scientists from the NIH, Harvard Medical School, the National Center for Biological Sciences in India and investigators from the MBL’s Cellular Dynamics Program. They will use new technologies in polarization microscopy developed by MBL scientists to study molecules important to cell structure, movement and form. Cell migration is critical for wound healing, immune response and development.
“In human disorders like cancer, you want to inhibit cell movement, while in infection, you want to move it along,” said Gitlin. “The fundamental aspects of knowing how cells take shape and move are critical to understanding the cell biological basis of human health and disease.”
Several of Jorgensen’s and Waterman’s team members have long histories with the MBL, having served as faculty members in MBL courses and as visiting investigators. In addition, both projects were seeded at the MBL in previous summers. Jorgensen and fellow team member Shigeki Watanabe spent three summers at the MBL developing the imaging techniques featured in their project. Waterman initiated her project with colleague Satyajit Mayor as part of an MBL physiology course in 2012 while she was serving as course director and he as an instructor. Two other team members obtained preliminary data for the project while participating as students in the course.
The Lillie Awards will support two years of research for a total of $125,000 per award. Jorgensen and Waterman and their teams will initiate their projects this summer. A complete list of research teams and their affiliations is listed below.
“Ultrafast endocytosis of AMPA receptors during long-term synaptic depression”
Erik M. Jorgensen, Professor, University of Utah; HHMI Investigator; MBL Neurobiology course faculty (2004–2008); MBL Visiting Investigator, (2008–2010)
Christian Rosenmund, Professor, Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin; MBL Neurobiology course faculty (2008)
Shigeki Watanabe, Post-doctoral fellow, University of Utah; MBL Visiting Investigator (2008–2010)
Benjamin R. Rost, Post-doctoral fellow, Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin
“Integrin activation and organization by actin dynamics during cell migration”
Clare Waterman, NIH Distinguished Investigator, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health; MBL Physiology course student (1993); Physiology course instructor (2003–2007); Physiology course director (2008–2013)
Timothy Springer, Latham Family Professor, Harvard Medical School
Satyajit Mayor, Dean and professor, National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India; MBL Physiology course instructor (2012–2013)
Tomomi Tani, Associate Scientist, Cellular Dynamics Program, MBL
Rudolf Oldenbourg, Director, Cellular Dynamics Program, Senior Scientist, MBL
Vinay Swaminathan, Post-doctoral fellow, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health; MBL Physiology course student (2012); MBL Physiology course teaching assistant (2013)
Pontus Nordenfelt, Post-doctoral fellow, Harvard Medical School; MBL Physiology course student (2012); MBL Physiology course teaching assistant (2013)
Joseph K. Mathew, Graduate student, National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India; MBL Physiology course teaching assistant (2013)
Shalin Mehta, Post-doctoral fellow, Cellular Dynamics Program, MBL