Three researchers receive NIH 'new innovator' awards

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Melissa Osgood

Three young Cornell researchers have won National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s New Innovator Awards. Part of the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program, the awards provide up to $1.5 million over five years for innovative, high-impact projects.

Melissa Warden in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Jesse Goldberg in the College of Arts and Sciences, both assistant professors of neurobiology and behavior, and Matthew Paszek ’02, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the College of Engineering, were among 41 New Innovator award recipients announced last week.

Warden’s project, “Imaging the evolving neural circuit dynamics of depression,” seeks to get an under-the-hood look at how neural circuits function differently during depression, a disorder that affects 20 percent of the U.S. population.

By using cutting-edge technologies to probe brain function, Warden aims to understand the patterns of neural activity in a population of neurons, then compare those with patterns found in the same neurons during a depression-like state and determine whether antidepressant drugs bring the network back to a baseline or an alternate state. Understanding the changes in neural activity underlying the onset and remission of depression is a step toward helping researchers design new, targeted, fast-acting treatments with fewer side effects.

Warden’s research at Cornell integrates imaging, neurophysiological, and cellular and molecular approaches to study the neural circuits mediating reward and motivated behavior and their dysfunction. She has received a number of awards, including a Robertson Neuroscience Investigator Award from the New York Stem Cell Foundation, a Sloan Research Fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Research Foundation and a research grant from the Whitehall Foundation.

Goldberg’s project, “Identifying pathways for motor variability in the mammalian brain,” will use a suite of new technologies that will help him understand how brain circuits in mice initiate and control fine movements.

Specifically, Goldberg and graduate student Tejapratap Bollu have developed a touch-sensing joystick that mice learn to move with their forelimbs to receive a reward, and in the process, the researchers can use optogenetics to precisely deactivate specific parts of the brain with light. This will allow them to test which brain circuits control movement initiation and variability – two processes that are deficient in many neurologic diseases.

By identifying brain cell types and neural pathways that cause specific impairments, the researchers may provide a roadmap for future therapies. The unique environment at Cornell where engineering is incorporated into biology made this project possible, Goldberg said. 

He has received support from the Klingenstein Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust and a BRAIN initiative award from the National Science Foundation.

Paszek’s project, “Mechanobiology of the cellular glycocalyx,” will examine how spatial arrangements and physical properties of a sugary film that coats cell surfaces, called the glycocalyx, regulates the transfer of molecular signals from outside to inside a cell.

The project will develop new technologies for imaging and describing the biophysical properties of the glycocalyx. The research will take advantage of computational and experimental biology, physics and molecular imaging to advance understanding of how cells detect, interpret and respond to chemical and mechanical signals. The research also has implications for cancer, aging and diabetes.

As a Kavli fellow at Cornell in 2013, Paszek developed imaging tools for glycoscience. In 2014, he joined the faculty in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, where his group studies biophysical mechanisms of glycan function.

Also receiving a New Innovator Award was alumnus James Munro, Ph.D. ’10, assistant professor of molecular biology and microbiology at Tufts School of Medicine, for his project, “Structural dynamics of single ebolavirus GP molecules.”


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Krishna Ramanujan