Six Vallee Scholars Appointed in 2023
The Vallee Foundation is delighted to announce the six 2023 Vallee Scholars. In addition to the quality of the science and potential impact of their proposed research, the Selection Committee considered each applicant's career trajectory and their commitment to fostering a diverse work environment. Information on each of these exceptional young scientists and the descriptions they have provided of their science interests are below.
Elvan Böke, PhD, studied Molecular Biology & Genetics for her undergraduate degree at the Middle East Technical University (METU/ODTU) in her native Turkey and was the valedictorian of her graduating class of 2008. She earned her PhD at Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute (CRUK-MI) where she worked with Iain Hagan using yeast as a model system to understand aspects of mitotic exit. She then moved to Tim Mitchison's lab at Harvard Medical School for her postdoctoral studies on the organization of the cytoplasm in oocytes, female germ cells that become eggs. In 2017, Elvan started her own lab at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona. Elvan is an EMBO Young Investigator (2021) and received two consecutive European Research Council (ERC) Grants (Starting in 2017 and Consolidator in 2022).
Elvan’s lab focuses on one of the biggest problems developed nations are facing in 21st century: late-stage motherhood, and associated fertility problems. The decrease in fertility rates is leading to a population decline in most developed nations from Japan to Spain, which will have unprecedented consequences for our societies in the near future. Poor oocyte quality accounts for the majority of female fertility problems, but we know little about how oocytes can remain healthy for many years or why their health eventually declines with advanced age. World-wide data show that more than 25% of female fertility problems are unexplained, pointing to a huge gap in our understanding of female reproduction. Elvan’s lab strives to help fill this gap by studying the mechanisms through which oocytes evade ageing for decades, and why these strategies eventually fail with advanced maternal age.
Thibaut Brunet, PhD is a junior group leader at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, where he set up his lab in November 2021. He completed his undergrad training at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris (2007-2011) and did his PhD research at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg (Germany) in the laboratory of Detlev Arendt (2011-2016). He then carried out his postdoctoral training in the laboratory of Nicole King at UC Berkeley (2016-2021). Thibaut is the recipient of a starting grant from the European Research Council (2022), of the junior researcher award from the French Society for Cell Biology (2022), of a grant from the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (2023), and of long-term fellowships from the European Molecular Biology Organization (2016) and the Human Frontiers Science Program (2016).
Research in the Brunet lab addresses a simple but unsolved question: how did the first animals acquire and control their shape? When and how did early assemblies of cells become more than the sum of their parts, by generating collective behaviors that allowed organism-scale morphogenesis and motility? While the very first multicellular ancestors of animals were likely microscopic (and too small to leave fossils), one can gain insights into these questions via the comparative study of living groups. The Brunet lab investigates the cell biology, morphogenesis and behavior of choanoflagellates, the closest known living relatives of animals. Choanoflagellates can switch between unicellular and multicellular lifestyles, display temporal cell differentiation, and have recently become amenable to functional molecular genetics. The Brunet lab wants to understand how the cell shape of choanoflagellates is controlled, how it dynamically responds to the environment, and how choanoflagellates sometimes develop into multicellular colonies capable of emergent collective behavior. One of its main strategies is the discovery of establishment of new model systems capable to shed fresh light on fundamental and enduring biological questions. One of them, the recently discovered choanoflagellate species Choanoeca flexa, displays contractile collective behavior hitherto unknown in unicellular relatives of animals, but reminiscent of animal motricity and thus susceptible to inform the first steps in the evolution of animal behavior.
Dominika Gruszka, PhD, is a Wellcome Trust and Royal Society Sir Henry Dale Fellow in the Department of Physics and at the Kavli Institute for Nanoscience Discovery at the University of Oxford. She obtained an MSc degree in Physical Biochemistry from the Jagiellonian University (Poland, 2008) and a PhD in Structural Biology from the University of York (UK, 2013). In 2012-2015, Dominika was a postdoctoral research associate in the laboratory of Prof Jane Clarke, University of Cambridge, where she employed ensemble and single-molecule biophysical techniques to dissect protein-mediated biofilm formation in bacteria. In 2015, she joined the laboratory of Dr Hasan Yardimci at the Francis Crick Institute to study eukaryotic DNA replication using single-molecule imaging in Xenopus egg extracts. In 2022, Dominika established her own laboratory in the Department of Physics and the Kavli Institute for Nanoscience Discovery, University of Oxford. Her group combines single-molecule imaging with chemical and physical approaches to study the molecular mechanisms underpinning chromatin dynamics during DNA replication.
Lucas Jae, PhD, is a professor of functional genomics at the Gene Center of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany. He was previously an independent group leader at the same institute, following his graduate studies and a brief stint as postdoctoral fellow with Thijn Brummelkamp at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. In recognition of his work, Lucas Jae was previously awarded the Antoni von Leeuwenhoek award, Cord-Michael Becker prize, Heinz Maier-Leibnitz prize, ERC starting grant, Aventis Life Sciences Bridge award and Alfried Krupp award.
Mitochondria are ancient cellular structures that serve a suite of important functions, including the generation of ATP, needed to execute cellular tasks. Consequently, mitochondrial dysfunction is associated with a wide range of human diseases and aging. The organelle is constantly exposed to various types of threats but, surprisingly, is unable to defend itself. Instead, it needs to alert the surrounding cell to orchestrate appropriate stress responses. Despite the ancient origin of mitochondria, these defense mechanisms seem to have diverged in evolution and are only beginning to be deciphered in the human system. Lucas Jae’s laboratory combines genome engineering and synthetic biology approaches with genome-wide functional genomics to study how human cells respond to perturbations of their proteome, particularly in the context of dysfunctional mitochondria. The goal is to map the pathways that become engaged, understand their interaction and how they ultimately decide the fate of the cell. In the future, such knowledge may help to manipulate maladaptive responses observed in human disease scenarios.
Lucia Prieto-Godino, PhD is a group leader at The Francis Crick Institute in London, UK. Lucia completed her undergraduate degree at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain, and at the University of Lund in Sweden. She obtained her PhD from the University of Cambridge in the UK and then joined the University of Lausanne in Switzerland for her postdoc, before starting her group at The Crick in 2018. She is a 2018 FENS-Kavli Network of Excellence Scholar. She has received multiple awards including the FENS EJN Young Investigator Prize in 2018, the 2018 L’Oreal-UNESCO for women in science Award, the 2019 Women of the Future Award and the 2021 Allen Distinguished Investigator Award. In addition to her research, Lucia is the founding director of TReND in Africa, a non-profit organization that promotes science across the African continent. TReND has trained and supported nearly 1,000 African scientists across 25 different countries and its outreach events have impacted over 10,000 people.
Research in the Prieto-Godino laboratory focuses on understanding at the network, cellular and genetic level how neural circuits develop, function, and evolve. How did the wide variety of behaviours we see nowadays evolve? To address this question, they use a multidisciplinary approach, integrating a suite of advanced neuroscience methods such as cross-species comparative connectomics, volumetric imaging, electrophysiology, single-cell transcriptomics and genetic manipulation.
Priya Rajasethupathy, MD, PhD, is the Jonathan M Nelson Family Associate Professor and Head of the Laboratory of Neural Dynamics & Cognition at the Rockefeller University. She obtained her BA from Cornell University, and an MD (2013) and PhD in Neuroscience (2012) from Columbia University, working with Eric Kandel. She did her post-doctoral work at Stanford University with Karl Deisseroth. Priya is a Searle and Klingenstein Scholar and has been a recipient of an NIH New Innovator Award, Presidential Early Career Award, and the MIND Prize.
How are transient external stimuli converted into lasting internal representations? And how do these internal memory representations, once formed, continuously re-organize across the brain into progressively more stable forms? The Rajasethupathy lab addresses these questions by bridging functional genomics with systems neuroscience to provide cross-disciplinary insights. On one hand, they perform genetic mapping in outbred mice for unbiased discovery of genes, cell types, and circuits relevant for memory across different time scales. In parallel, they develop and apply methodologies to record and manipulate high resolution neural activity from relevant circuits in the behaving animal. Together, they aim to learn the molecular, structural, and functional changes governing the evolution of a memory, and how this may be leveraged for cognitive rescue and therapeutic relief.
About the Vallee Scholar Awards
Recognizing that outstanding, young, independent investigators are the source for future advances in the biomedical sciences and of their need for flexible, unrestricted funding to conduct their research, the Vallee Scholars program makes grants of $340,000 – to be spent over a period of four years – to junior faculty carrying out basic biomedical research. This award is available only to investigators who have been nominated by institutions that have been selected by the Vallee Foundation Board of Directors. One nomination will be accepted per institution. The candidate must have received his/her PhD, MD, or other professional degree, within twelve years of the application deadline and, by the same date, have been in an independent research position (tenure track or equivalent) for six years or fewer.
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