Awards & Recognitions: August 2021

Honors received by HMS faculty, staff and students

Three HMS PhD students were selected to receive 2021 Gilliam Fellowships by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. They are among 50 graduate students, who are conducting outstanding research in their respective scientific fields, and their advisers, who are committed to building a more inclusive scientific ecosystem, to receive the award. The adviser-student pairs are part of a program to advance diversity and inclusion in science. For up to three years, each adviser-student pair will receive an annual award totaling $50,000.

The 2021 Gilliam Fellows and their advisors from HMS are:

Ya'el Courtney, PhD student in neuroscience
Thesis Adviser: Maria Lehtinen, HMS associate professor of pathology at Boston Children’s

Dwayne Evans, PhD student in Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Thesis Adviser: Cassandra Extavour, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard

Martha Ordonez, PhD student in Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Thesis Adviser: Edward Chouchani, HMS assistant professor of biology at Dana-Farber

Judy Garber, HMS professor of medicine and chief of the Division for Cancer Genetics and Prevention at Dana-Farber, was named to receive the Association of American Cancer Institutes' 2021 Distinguished Scientist Award, which will be presented virtually in October.

Garber is being recognized for her breakthrough translational research on the treatment of triple-negative or basal-like breast cancer, the most common form in women with BRCA1 mutations, and for her work that has shaped national guidelines in cancer genetics. Garber’s recent investigations of germline and somatic genetic markers to predict response to targeted therapies in breast cancer patients expand the field and are impacting clinical practices everywhere. Other therapies are being studied to prevent cancer in women with a heightened genetic risk for certain forms of the disease.

Dan Barouch, the William Bosworth Castle Professor of Medicine at HMS and head of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, was awarded the George Ledlie Prize from the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Barouch is being honored for work that culminated in the rapid development of an effective vaccine for COVID-19, which was developed by Johnson & Johnson and is one of three granted emergency use authorization in the U.S.

The foundational work Barouch did early in his career, when his research was focused on HIV, led to the development of the ad26 vaccine platform. Developed for the work on HIV and tested on both HIV and Zika, the vector was ready when SARS-CoV-2 emerged. Once Chinese researchers released the genome, Barouch and his colleagues were rapidly able to identify the virus’ spike protein as a vaccine target and manufacture the DNA instructions for delivery into the body. Once inside the body, the DNA instructions cause the body to manufacture the spike protein, which allows the immune system to recognize the COVID-19 virus when it sees the real thing.

Two HMS postdocs are among 17 early-career scientists to be named Damon Runyon Fellows by the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. The four-year fFellowship award encourages creative and high-risk projects dedicated to the search for cancer causes, mechanisms, therapies, and prevention. The Spring 2021 Damon Runyon Fellows from HMS and their sponsors and projects are:

Karole D'Orazio, research fellow in cell biology, with her sponsor Danesh Moazed. D’Orazio studies how epigenetically silenced regions of condensed DNA known as heterochromatin are maintained upon cell differentiation. In eukaryotes, heterochromatin is hallmarked by specific epigenetic modifications, e.g., the addition of methyl groups at specific sites. Two major protein complexes, polycomb repressive complex 1 and 2, are essential for creating and maintaining these modification sites during development. Although RNA has been found to interact with and modulate (both positively and negatively) the activities of these two complexes, the need for RNA decay at the modification sites remains unclear. D’Orazio aims to understand how RNA turnover regulates heterochromatin and what factors are involved in these processes. These studies will provide insight into heterochromatin alteration in diseases such as cancer.

Hannah Grunwald, research fellow in genetics, with her sponsor Clifford Tabin. Grunwald focuses on the disconnect between genotype and phenotype. Despite our wealth of knowledge about the human genome, we are often unable to accurately predict which individuals will suffer from genetic diseases, including cancers. It has been proposed that cells have mechanisms capable of buffering genetic variation, such that the phenotypic outcome of these genetic variants is sometimes obscured. When buffering systems, or “capacitors,” are de-stabilized or overwhelmed by genetic or environmental factors, “cryptic” genetic variants are exposed. Understanding the mechanism by which organisms buffer accumulated cryptic variants may illuminate the evolution of complex traits while providing vital insight into the heritability of genetic disease.

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