Lindsay Case, a cell biologist at MIT, and Guangyu Robert Yang, a computational neuroscientist, have been named 2022 Searle Scholars, an award given annually to 15 outstanding U.S. assistant professors who have strong potential for continued contributions to innovative research in medicine, in chemistry or biological sciences.
Case is an assistant professor of biology, while Yang is an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, electrical engineering and computer science, and a research associate at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. They will each receive $300,000 in flexible funding to support their high-risk, high-reward work over the next three years.
Case came to MIT in 2021, after completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Michael Rosen’s lab. Before that, she earned her doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, working in Clare Waterman’s lab at the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.
Located in MIT’s Building 68, Case’s lab studies how molecules within cells organize themselves and how such organization drives cellular function. Often the molecules assemble at the cell’s plasma membrane – a complex signaling platform where hundreds of receptors pick up information from outside the cell and initiate cellular changes in response. Through his experiments, Case discovered that molecules in the plasma membrane can undergo a process known as phase separation, condensing to form liquid-like droplets.
As a Searle researcher, Case studies the role phase separation plays in regulating a specific class of signaling molecules called kinases. His team will take a multidisciplinary approach to probe what happens when kinase phase splits into signaling clusters, and what cellular changes occur as a result. As phase separation emerges as a promising new target for small molecule therapies, this work will help identify kinases that are good candidates for novel therapeutic interventions to treat diseases such as cancer.
“I am honored to be recognized by the Searle Scholars Program and thrilled to join such an incredible community of scientists,” said Case. “This support will allow my group to expand our research efforts and direct our preliminary findings in exciting new directions. I look forward to better understanding the impact of phase separation on cell function.
Guangyu Robert Yang
Before arriving at MIT in 2021, Yang trained in physics at Peking University, earned a doctorate in computational neuroscience at New York University with Xiao-Jing Wang, and then completed postdoctoral training. at the Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at Columbia University, as an intern. at Google Brain and as a junior fellow at the Simons Society of Fellows.
His research team at MIT, the MetaConscious Group, develops models of mental functions by incorporating multiple interacting modules. They design pipelines to process and compare large-scale experimental datasets that cover modalities ranging from behavioral data to neural activity data to molecular data. These datasets are then integrated to form individual computational modules based on the experimental tasks that were assessed such as vision, memory, or movement.
Ultimately, Yang seeks to combine these modules into a “network of networks” that models higher-level brain functions such as the ability to flexibly and quickly learn a variety of tasks. Such integrative models are rare because, until recently, it was not possible to acquire data spanning brain modalities and regions in real time as animals perform tasks. The time has finally come for integrative network models. Computational models that integrate such multisystem and multilevel datasets will allow scientists to make new predictions about the neural basis of cognition and open a window to a mathematical understanding of the mind.
“It’s a new direction of research for me, and I also think for the field. It comes with many exciting opportunities as well as challenges. This recognition from the Searle Scholars program really gives me more courage to face uncertainties and challenges,” says Yang.
Since 1981, 647 scientists have been appointed Searle Scholars. Including this year, the program awarded more than $147 million. Eighty-five Searle Fellows have been inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. Twenty researchers have been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “Genius Grant”, and two Searle Fellows have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The Searle Scholars Program is funded by the Searle Funds of the Chicago Community Trust and administered by the Kinship Foundation.