2 innovative University of Texas at Austin biologists become HHMI Early Career Scientists

March 27, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas -- Two University of Texas at Austin biologists join 50 of the nation's best early career science faculty to focus on their boldest and potentially transformative research ideas with support from a new initiative from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

As Early Career Scientists, Dr. Dan Bolnick and Dr. John Wallingford will receive a six-year appointment to HHMI and, along with it, the freedom to explore their best ideas without worrying about where to find the money to fund those experiments.

Bolnick, an assistant professor of integrative biology, studies how species evolve using threespine stickleback fish on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Thousands of lakes and streams that were created when the giant glaciers melted at the end of the last Ice Age were colonized by the stickleback's marine ancestors, which were remarkably successful in adapting to various niches in their new habitats.

Today, the environmental variations among the lakes make them the perfect setting for Bolnick to explore how the fish coevolve with other organisms. He wants to determine why each lake harbors a distinctive community of parasites. He will then measure how sticklebacks' immune systems have evolved to fight off the parasites found in any given lake. Sorting out these responses may improve understanding of chronic parasite-borne diseases that affect humans.

John Wallingford, an associate professor of molecular cell and developmental biology, studies morphogenesis--how tissues, organs and organisms develop their shapes. His interest in this field began as an undergraduate when he manipulated frog embryos and watched them develop in a dish of pond water. He later found that activating a single gene in the embryos triggers a series of shape-shifting events that curl a flat sheet of cells into a closed neural tube.

This tube later develops into the spinal cord and brain. Improper closure of the neural tube leads to birth defects, such as spina bifida. Wallingford is expanding his research program to use frogs and mice to study how genetic information is translated into the forces that move tissues during development.

HHMI will provide Wallingford and Bolnick with a full salary, benefits and a research budget of $1.5 million over their six-year appointment. The institute will also cover other expenses, including research space and the purchase of critical equipment.

The institute established its Early Career Scientist program in 2008 as a way to provide much-needed support to the United States' best faculty as they pursue innovative ideas in the early stages of their careers.

"These scientists are at the early stage of their careers, when they are full of energy and not afraid to try something new," said Jack Dixon, HHMI vice president and chief scientific officer. "They have already demonstrated that they are not apt to play it safe--and we hope they will continue to do something really original."

Last year, Dr. Tanya Paull, an associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology, became the first faculty member at The University of Texas at Austin to be named an HHMI Investigator. This highly prestigious and coveted award is funded by a different support program at HHMI that gives established faculty the funding and flexibility to tackle their most ambitious, risky research plans.
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University of Texas at Austin

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