Four NYSCF Innovators Named 2018 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators

This week, NYSCF – Robertson Investigators Feng Zhang, PhD (MIT), Ed Boyden, PhD (MIT), Gaby Maimon, PhD (The Rockefeller University), and Zachary Knight, PhD (University of California, San Francisco), were named 2018 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigators.

HHMI is a science philanthropy whose mission is to advance basic biomedical research and science education for the benefit of humanity. Each of its new investigators will receive roughly $8 million over a seven-year period to continue their groundbreaking research.

Tweaking Genes

Feng Zhang, PhD
Feng Zhang, PhD, Core Member​ at Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dr. Zhang is best known for his role in the development of CRISPR—the innovative gene-editing tool that allows researchers to delete and modify sections of the genome.

“I want to know how the world works, and to be able to do something that’s useful for people,” says Dr. Zhang.

The applications of CRISPR are far-reaching: it can be used as a diagnostic test, as a tool for conducting basic research, as a means for creating immunotherapies, and much more. Labs around the world are taking advantage of its unique capabilities, leveraging it to accelerate disease research and bring new treatments to clinical trials.

Mapping the Brain

Ed Boyden, PhD, Benesse Career Development Professor and Associate Professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the MIT Media Lab and the MIT McGovern Institute

Dr. Boyden’s mission is to understand the brain, and he is inventing revolutionary tools to help us create a “road map” of its circuitry. These inventions include optogenetics, a technique that allows researchers to control brain activity with light, and expansion microscopy, a tool that helps scientists study incredibly small and hard-to-access portions of the brain by pulling apart biomolecules.

“My long-term goal is to understand the brain with enough precision that we can simulate the computations that occur during decision-making or emotion,” Boyden says. “Maybe we could even define what a thought is, computationally.”

With a more complete understanding of how the brain works, it will become easier to pinpoint what goes wrong in disease and create new treatments.

From Brain Activity to Behavior

Gaby Maimon, PhD, Associate Professor at The Rockefeller University

Similarly to Dr. Boyden, Dr. Maimon is interested in understanding how the movement of microscopic molecules and bursts of electrical signals in our brains gives rise to all of our thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors.

“The overarching question of how the mind works seemed like a great mystery,” he says. “I wanted to develop a biological understanding of what seemed so mystical.”

In his research, Dr. Maimon studies the brains of fruit flies, looking at how their neural architecture enables them to navigate their environment. With a better understanding of how this process works in fruit flies, we can then begin to understand how similar processes work in other species, like humans.

The Secrets Behind Homeostasis

Zachary Knight, PhD
Zachary Knight, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology at University of California, San Francisco

Dr. Knight’s work examines how our bodies regulate innate behaviors. For example, what happens in our brains to let us know that we’re hungry, and what changes to let us know we’re full?

“I want to understand the connection between physiology and behavior – how the brain senses our internal state and then transforms this into motivation,” explains Dr. Knight.

His work is challenging previous assumptions about how our bodies maintain homeostasis. For example, his lab found that when mice simply smelled food, their hunger neurons started to shut off—something researchers used to think only happened once the mice start eating. Findings like this are helping us better understand the cellular basis of obesity and develop treatments to assist in weight loss.

Congratulations to the new HHMI Investigators! Read more about the 2018 Investigators here.

Diseases & Conditions:

Genomics & Gene Editing, Neurobiology

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