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Genetics faculty members receive career awards from both internal and external organizations

February 14, 2022
by Mehana Daftary

In recent months, Yale Genetics faculty members Stefania Nicoli, Sidi Chen, Smita Krishnaswamy, Mandar Muzumdar, and Bluma Lesch have been awarded prestigious Career Awards. These awards recognize academic leadership and research excellence, while supporting new ventures financially through grant funding.

Smita Krishnaswamy, Associate Professor of Genetics and Computer Science, was awarded the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, as well as a Sloan Research Fellowship. The Krishnaswamy Lab focuses on “making sense of the complex data from biological systems in a computational way” and both awards support integrating “different modalities of data” to predict new variables, as well as learning how to predict the dynamics of biological information with differential equations. “We cannot continuously monitor biological systems, such as the amount of a particular RNA in the cell; one focus going forward is predicting cell dynamics,” Krishnaswamy said. The NSF CAREER award focuses not only on research, but also on educational and service activities, while the Sloan Fellowship is solely a research award. Krishnaswamy said the awards are a “validation of the direction of the lab, especially in terms of what deep learning has to offer to the biomedical field”.

Mandar Muzumdar, Assistant Professor of Genetics at the School of Medicine, was awarded the Damon Runyon and Lustgarten awards. His lab seeks to target obesity-related cancer susceptibility as a mechanism for treating or preventing pancreatic cancer. As a scientist early in his independent research career, these awards provide “critical funding to get these ambitious but exciting projects off the ground,” so that the group can continue to pursue cutting-edge hypotheses. His hope is that “findings from these projects will lead to tractable benefits in the care of both cancer patients and those at high risk of developing cancer,” Muzumdar said.

Bluma Lesch, Assistant Professor of Genetics, was announced as a Pew Biomedical Scholar. Her lab seeks to define chromatin packaging states relevant to human-specific traits, as well as potential regulatory mechanisms that are “active under normal conditions in germ cells, and co-opted by cancer cells to drive disease,” Lesch says. With regards to the area of research, she said, “This is a research area that's been hard to fund from standard NIH-type mechanisms, because it's a little 'out there''s a huge boost for an organization like Pew to say they believe in it.”

Stefania Nicoli was awarded the Yale School of Medicine Emerging Leader in Internal Medicine award, for her work investigating how RNA species drive vascularization. Her laboratory uses zebrafish as a model to explore the role of hematopoietic stem cells in brain development and disease states, and the effects of vascularization on the extracellular matrix. Nicoli has been at Yale for 10 years and feels that “this award feels like a great recognition that the male and clinician-dominated department sees promise in my work as a PhD scientist and sees my leadership,” Nicoli said. Her lab helps to foster relationships with other research groups to “try to understand mechanistically any mutations that patients may have,” by exploring them in zebrafish to gain insight into treatment and making “basic science accessible to clinical applications.”

Sidi Chen was awarded the Pershing Square Sohn Prize, which seeks to award innovative cancer research and provide philanthropic funding to catalyze collaboration between academia and business. His laboratory uses a variety of modern bioengineering methods to probe the basis of oncogenesis, metastasis and immunity. His work seeks to invent novel systems which help to uncover targets for use in therapeutics development in cancer and other immunological diseases.

Spanning a large range of research, from computational biology to human disease state investigations, to basic model organism science, the members of the Genetics faculty have undertaken projects that show immense promise, and have been recognized for this by both internal and external award organizations.

Submitted by Neltja Brewster on February 14, 2022