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by Liz Entman | Friday, Apr. 21, 2017, 8:22 AM
Postdoctoral scholar Jennifer Wisecaver has been named this year’s “Postdoc of the Year” by the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs for her exceptional scholarship.
The award was presented by Mark Wallace, dean of the Graduate School, at the 11th annual Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association and Shared Resources Symposium April 19. Also honored that evening were runners-up Kevin Kohl and Kevin Dieter, as well as Manus Donahue, associate professor of radiology and radiological sciences, who was named Mentor of the Year.
“I am delighted to have the opportunity to highlight the exceptional accomplishments of our postdoctoral community,” said Wallace. “These scholars are an integral element of our university, and make extraordinary contributions to our clinical, educational, scholarly and research missions. Dr. Wisecaver is an incredibly talented young scientist who serves as a shining example of these contributions.”
Wisecaver, an evolutionary biologist, studies how new genes evolve that allow species to produce secondary metabolites—compounds such as toxins or pigments that organisms produce to defend themselves against environmental dangers. “I’m thrilled and honored,” she said. “It’s a great way to wrap up my time at Vanderbilt. It feels very special.”
Wisecaver’s mentor, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Biological Sciences Antonis Rokas, says that although Wisecaver’s specialization is secondary metabolite production in fungi, her most remarkable achievement during her time here was a pioneering investigation of the genes responsible for this process in plants. In plants, these genes evolve constantly to adapt to environmental changes, which makes them incredibly difficult to study, but identifying more of them could open the door to a world of new pharmaceutical, agricultural and biotech applications.
Despite having no prior training in plant biology, Wisecaver was driven by her own curiosity to apply an approach she developed to study secondary metabolism in fungi to the plant kingdom. In doing so, Wisecaver and her team were able to identify hundreds of new genes and discovered that plants and fungi organized these genes very differently on their respective genomes. “She invented an entirely new area of study,” Rokas said
“My hope is that the pipeline I’ve developed will allow us to understand how these genes are evolving in not just plants or fungi but anything that produces interesting and technologically relevant secondary metabolites,” Wisecaver said. Her work was funded by a NSF Plant Genome Initiative Postdoctoral Fellowship.
To top it all off, Wisecaver’s paper on the study was accepted into the leading journal in plant biology, The Plant Cell, with no revisions. “It’s a testament to what a wonderful job she did for that work,” Rokas said.
Wisecaver will join the faculty at Purdue University as an assistant professor of biochemistry this fall.
Kohl, microbiologist, is a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Seth Bordenstein, associate professor of biological sciences. As a graduate student at the University of Utah, Kohl developed and conducted a landmark study describing how herbivores rely on their gut microbes to detoxify poisonous plants they eat. In the Bordenstein lab, Kohl is embarking on a pioneering research program that will investigate the genetic causes of changes in gut microbiomes over development in an animal model and that may eventually translate to human biology. He has published 30 peer reviewed papers as first-author and is the recipient of three NSF grants as well as a T32 Training Grant Fellowship from the NIH.
Dieter, an experimental psychologist, is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Randolph Blake, Centennial Professor of Psychology. During his time at Vanderbilt, Dieter made a number of essential and extensive contributions to an NIH-funded project on binocular vision in adults, including developing and perfecting the battery of tests the subjects would perform, imaging the subjects’ brains and statistically analyzing the data. Dieter has also studied how differences in left-eye and right-eye visual quality impact what we see, discovering that in fact the strength of each eye is different in various portions of the visual scene. For this work, Dieter has received the NSF’s highly competitive Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award.
Mentor of the Year recipient Donahue’s research focuses on developing and applying new approaches to identify early changes in tissue function that may precede irreversible damage, and in turn can be used to triage patients for early, personalized therapies. To this end his lab currently oversees three NIH-funded clinical trials that focus on biomarker development in cerebrovascular and lymphatic diseases.
“When I was a student, I was always motivated by the excitement that my mentor had for our projects, as well as his ability to provide everyone with the freedom to pursue their own ideas,” he said. “I try and do the same for the students in my lab and I hope they enjoy this as much as I did.” Donahue also expressed gratitude to his postdocs, whom he says have provided invaluable support to the work in his lab. “It is easy to be a good mentor when you have great people working with you.”
The Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association and Shared Resources Symposium is sponsored by the Graduate School and the Office of Biomedical Research and Training. The all-day event featured lightning round talks that provided brief introductions to postdoctoral research going on around campus, breakout sessions for more in-depth presentations and networking events. In addition to Dean Wallace, attendees heard remarks from Roger Chalkley, senior associate dean in biomedical sciences research education and training and Lawrence Marnett, dean of the basic sciences, while entrepreneur Marcus Whitney, CEO of The Unlikely Company and of Health:Further, delivered the keynote address.
Since 2008, the Postdoc of the Year award has honored excellence in research, scholarship or creative expression as evidenced by publications, presentations and awards or honors, with special consideration given to service and mentorship. Honorees are chosen by the Postdoctoral Advisory Committee.
The Mentor of the Year award recognizes a faculty mentor who demonstrates a willingness to share advice and guidance, is supportive of mentees’ own career goals and has a strong record of community service and publication. The honoree is elected by members of the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association.
Liz Entman, (615) 322-NEWS
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