Ben Barres Spotlight Awards: Announcing the winners

Researchers from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, India, Lebanon, Portugal and the United States have been recognised in the first round of awards.

By Kora Korzec, Community Manager

The Ben Barres Spotlight Awards were introduced to provide visibility and collaboration opportunities for scientists from underrepresented groups. Initially the budget for the awards was $22,000, but this was increased to $30,000 when the quality and quantity of the applications became clear. The first five winners and six runners-up have now been selected.

The first five winners are: Camilo Aponte-Santamaría (University of Los Andes, Colombia); Ishita Sengupta (Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur); Nicole Tischler (Fundación Ciencia & Vida, Chile); Noelia Weisstaub (CONICET-Universidad Favaloro-INECO, Argentina); and Vanesa Gottifredi (Fundación Instituto Leloir, Argentina). The winners will receive awards of up to $4,500.

The six runners-up are: Antonia Marin-Burgin (Instituto de Investigación en Biomedicina de Buenos Aires, Argentina); Carlos Conde (i3S - Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde, Portugal); Claudia Moreno (University of Washington, USA); Rafik Neme (Universidad del Norte, Barranquilla, Colombia); Rittik Deb (National Centre for Biological Sciences, India); and Sama Sleiman (Lebanese American University, Lebanon). The runners-up will receive $1,500 each.

Each qualifying application was assessed by two eLife editors, a member of the Early-Career Advisory Board (ECAG) and a member of staff. Applications were assessed on their potential for unlocking new research opportunities for the applicants. The following individuals were involved in the assessments: Anna Akhmanova; Hedyeh Ebrahimi; Bavesh Kana; Eve Marder; Devang Mehta; Mark Patterson; Satyajit Rath; Daniela Robles-Espinoza; Cassidy Sugimoto; John Schoggins; Vidita Vaidya; and Timothy Verstynen.

“This was more challenging than I imagined it would be. They are all deserving and it’s unfortunate all the candidates can’t be funded” – said John Schoggins, expressing a sentiment shared by all those involved in assessing the applications.

Camilo Aponte-Santamaría works on theoretical and computational molecular biophysics, and his group recently started work on the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. He will use his award to help purchase a highly efficient computing server to carry out molecular dynamics simulations and design antimicrobial peptides to be used against Staphylococcus aureus.

"The benefit of this proposal is that not only does the award provide immediate benefits (in the form of a server), but it provides sustained support in terms of infrastructure" – said Cassidy Sugimoto.

Ishita Sengupta focuses on the identification, stabilisation and restructuring of switchable amino acid stretches in proteins (chameleon sequences). Chameleon sequences adopt context dependent secondary structures in proteins and are believed to initiate protein misfolding. With the Spotlight Award, Sengupta is looking to purchase an ultrasonic probe sonicator for cell lysis, and prepare seeds from synthetically generated amyloid fibrils.

Update: as part of winning the award, Ishita presented her work to colleagues at IIT Bombay in August 2020, introduced by Prof Dr F. Ulrich Hartl, eLife Reviewing Editor. View the recording on YouTube.

Nicole Tischler and her group study human pathogenic viruses, and use enveloped viruses to understand the molecular mechanism of membrane fusion in different biological systems. She will use her award for a month-long visit to the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Physiology in Dortmund, Germany, to develop new collaborative projects with colleagues there and also, to access High-Tech-facilities. Tischler has an ambitious agenda during her visit in Europe to help maximise opportunities for visibility of her research and to broaden her network – involving shorter trips to other laboratories, as well as attending an international virology meeting.

Noelia Weisstaub works to identify the role of serotonergic system in the modulation of memory processes. Her group is looking into the electrophysiological interaction between the structures identified in their earlier research article. They are hoping to embark on new experiments to continue this work, but the current devaluation of the Argentine peso means that purchasing any equipment is a challenge.

“What we would like to buy with this grant are supplies that can be considered routine in normal circumstances but for us this grant will be the only chance to get them. Getting access to them will allow us to perform experiments we have been planning for a long time now” – said Weisstaub.

Vanesa Gottifredi leads a group devoted to identifying key regulators of the DNA Damage Response. They have published their data in eLife demonstrating that the “residual” levels of the cyclin kinase inhibitor p21 in unstressed cyclin cells prevent the loading of translesion DNA polymerases to undamaged DNA templates. However, a more recent research showed opposite results related to one of their experiments. Gottifredi is looking to purchase necessary equipment to enter into a collaboration with others in resolving the discrepancy in these results. This way the grant will contribute to supporting the reproducibility of data published in eLife.

We congratulate all the winners and runners-up of the Ben Barres Spotlight Awards, and thank everyone who applied. As the fund has been fully distributed this year, we will revise our terms and conditions to launch the next edition of the fund in 2020.


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