Student Fellowships

Andrew Schwartz
Andrew Schwartz, a graduate student working with Dr. Yatrik Shah, successfully competed for a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA), which is awarded by the National Institutes of Health to outstanding PhD students. Schwartz will receive funding over three years for his studies into the mechanisms by which the liver and the intestine integrate to maintain systemic iron homeostasis.

Over one billion people worldwide are affected by iron overload, iron deficiency, and states of malnutrition that perturb iron homeostasis. Andrew’s preliminary data challenges current dogma by showing that the maintenance of systemic iron metabolism by the liver-derived hormone, hepcidin, and the control of intestinal iron absorption by the transcription factor, HIF-2a, are directly integrated pathways. The funded research will explore the significance and molecular mechanism of the crosstalk between liver hepcidin and intestinal HIF-2a, which will provide novel insights into systemic iron homeostasis and will uncover potential therapeutic targets to alter systemic iron handling in diseases of iron overload and iron deficiency.

Tova Berg
Tova Berg, a graduate student in Sue Moenter’s lab successfully competed for an F30 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA), which is awarded by the National Institutes of Health to outstanding dual MD and PhD degree students. Berg’s work on hypothalamic regulation of reproduction was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Development (NICHD).

Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) neurons in the hypothalamus connect the brain systems controlling fertility to the downstream reproductive system. These neurons are overactive in most women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), the most common cause of infertility. Recent evidence in young pubertal girls suggests that this hyperactivity may arise before pubertal maturation. Prenatal androgenization (PNA) programs several phenotypes similar to women with PCOS. Berg’s funded proposal aims to understand the prepubertal development of GnRH neurons and the timing and mechanism of alterations that arise in PNA mice.

Fangyun Tian
Fangyun Tian, a 5th year PhD candidate in Dr. Jimo Borjigin’s lab successfully competed for American Heart Association predoctoral fellowship. Fangyun will receive $51,900 over two years for her studies into the mechanism of corticocardiac coupling in ischemic stroke-induced sudden death.

Sudden death is an important but under-recognized consequence of stroke. Despite intense research efforts, about 2~6% of all patients suffer from sudden, unexpected death within the first 3 months after ischemic stroke and about 19% of all patients have a fatal or serious non-fatal cardiac event. However, because of the incomplete understanding of the causes of cardiac dysfunction in stroke patients, identification of patients at risk and prevention of sudden death after stroke present a major challenge. Fangyun plans to investigate whether corticocardiac coherence (CCC) predicts sudden death and if sympathetic blockade prevents sudden death in forebrain ischemia rat models.

“Our laboratory has recently discovered that asphyxic rats that suffered global ischemia display a marked surge of CCC. We have shown that blocking the brain’s input to the heart significantly delayed the death of both the heart and the brain during asphyxic cardiac arrest”, says Fangyun. “We hope to establish a new framework for understanding the causes of sudden death associated with stroke and for development of effective strategies to prevent sudden death.”

Zach Harvanek
Zach Harvanek, an MSTP student in Scott Pletcher's lab in Molecular & Integrative Physiology, was awarded a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA), which is awarded by the National Institutes of Health to outstanding predoctoral fellows. Zach received tuition and stipend for two years to cover his investigations into mechanisms to regulate aging through neurosensory and reward circuits. 

Several processes had previously been identified to impact aging, including methods such as dietary restriction. Previous work determined that sensory inputs such as olfaction, taste, and pain are capable of regulating longevity, including some studies identifying these effects in mammalian systems. More recently, work from the Pletcher lab and others demonstrated that perception of the opposite sex was also able to impact health and longevity in fruit flies and nematodes.

During his investigations, Zach was able to dissect the independent effects of mating and perception of the opposite sex on aging in male fruit flies, as well as discover specific neuropeptidergic pathways through which these phenotypes are regulated. As the neuropeptides that regulate these effects are conserved in humans, identifying these neural pathways may lead to a better understanding of how our social environment can impact our physical health as we grow older. 

Daniel Triner
Daniel Trainer, a graduate student in Yatrik Shah’s lab successfully competed for an F30 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA), which is awarded by the National Institutes of Health to outstanding dual MD and PhD degree students.

Colon cancer is a devastating disease that affects more than 90,000 Americans annually and will lead to the deaths of nearly 50,000 patients this year. We show that Myc-associated zinc finger (MAZ) is highly upregulated in human colon cancer and regulates the activation of the oncogenic STAT3 signaling pathway; however, the functional significance of this signaling node in colon cancer is unknown. This project aims to understand mechanistically the importance of MAZ-induced STAT3 signaling in colon cancer, which will provide novel insights into this disease as well as uncover potential therapeutic targets.

Eden Dulka
Eden A. Dulka, a graduate student in the Moenter lab, successfully competed for and received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Award (NSF-GRFP). The award amount is $34,000 each year for three years of funding ($102,000 total) to aid in her graduate work investigating the role of early postnatal gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) neuron activity in establishing the central circuits controlling reproduction.

GnRH neurons are cells that link the central nervous system to downstream components of the reproductive system by releasing GnRH. While aspects of the reproductive system and GnRH neurons in adults have been extensively studied, less is known about GnRH neuron activity during the prepubertal period. Specifically, it is unknown if prepubertal GnRH neuron activity plays a role in establishing later reproductive function and the neuronal networks that govern this process. Dulka plans to use both electrophysiological and chemogenetic techniques to characterize and study GnRH neuron activity in prepubertal mice. Currently her studies have shown that GnRH neuron activity is present prior to puberty, is different between males and females during this period and that prepubertal GnRH neuron activity is higher in prepubertal animals than in adults. She is currently working to determine if the activity trends she has discovered are needed to establish proper reproductive function in adult life, and if other parts of the reproductive system, such as the gonads, can influence this early activity.  This work will not only add to our overall understanding of reproductive function but will shed light on potential roles for postnatal neuron activity in other physiological systems.