Ben Barres Spotlight Awards: Announcing the winners for 2023

A record fourteen researchers, including three Reviewed Preprint authors, have been recognised with awards to catalyse change and unlock new opportunities.

In a celebration of our diverse researcher community, today we are thrilled to announce the winners and runners-up of the 2023 Ben Barres Spotlight Awards. This annual accolade, now in its fifth year, shines a spotlight on pioneering researchers from groups that are underrepresented in biology and medicine or from countries with limited research funding.

Sapto (CC BY 4.0)

In July and August, for the third consecutive year, the awards also welcomed applications from authors of preprints that have been reviewed publicly by eLife or other reviewing groups on the Sciety platform. This year also saw neurodivergence included among the eligibility criteria for the awards for the first time. In total, 13% of eligible applications received were based on Reviewed Preprints (up from 10% last year), while neurodivergent researchers made up 8% of qualifying applicants.

Chosen from an competitive pool of 89 eligible applications, this year's 14 recipients demonstrated the greatest potential of an award to promote catalytic changes for their research, careers or communities.

The seven winners for 2023 are: Alagie Jassey (University of Maryland, Baltimore, United States), Jackie Kleynhans (National Institute for Communicable Diseases, South Africa), Marie Russell (Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, United States), Md Noor Akhtar (Indian Institute of Science, India), Nicky Creux (Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute, University of Pretoria, South Africa), Olaitan Omitola (Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta, Nigeria) and Silvia Kariuki (KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Kenya). Each winner will receive up to $5,000 according to individual needs.

The seven runners-up are: Achira Roy (Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, India), Alexis Diaz (University of Sydney, Australia), Asael Lubotzky (The Hospital for Sick Children, Canada), Ben Vezina (Monash University, Australia), Pornchai Kaewsapsak (Chulalongkorn University, Thailand), Saba Naz (CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, India) and Sol Fittipaldi (Global Brain Health Institute, Ireland). The runners-up will receive up to $3,500 each.

Winners of the 2023 Ben Barres Spotlight Awards

Alagie Jassey is a postdoc at the University of Maryland and recent Reviewed Preprint author. “I have always had a burning desire to give back to the teaching hospital laboratories in The Gambia where my scientific career began”, he says. “My award will now buy two much-needed microscopes that can be used for both diagnostic and research purposes and fund a trip to present at the University of The Gambia.”

Jackie Kleynhans will use her award to run a symposium for the alumni association of the South African Field Epidemiology Training Programme. An epidemiologist studying respiratory diseases, Jackie shares that, “a lack of funding has seriously limited the alumni network’s activities in recent years.” She adds, “I'm now committed to leveraging the opportunity represented by this award to revitalise the association and create a lasting positive impact.”

A postdoc at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education in the United States, Marie Russell’s previous research has looked into the impacts of predation on mosquito populations. Her award will support a one-day workshop with around 10 collaborators to collectively draft a meta-analysis manuscript on the effects of natural enemies on aphids. Marie shares, “As an early-career woman in science, I’m delighted to have this additional support for my research and to strengthen my collaborations across disciplines related to ecology and epidemiology.”

Md Noor Akhtar is a 2022 eLife author and fifth-year PhD student studying translational regulation in mammalian cells at the Indian Institute of Science. Using his award to attend the Targeted Protein Degradation conference in the United States in January 2024, he says, “Through networking with researchers and laboratory representatives in my field of research, I hope to help my future collaboration and career opportunities.”

Nicky Creux is an early-career group leader at the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Her multidisciplinary research seeks to understand how two critical crops in Africa – maize and sunflower – respond to changing environments. She adds, “This award will give me and my PhD student the chance to interact with our wider research community as we both represent South Africa at the next International Sunflower Conference in China in August 2024.”

Olaitan Omitola’s research aims to determine the prevalence of a fungal symbiont that blocks the transmission of malaria parasites and other related species among wild mosquitoes. Based at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta in Nigeria, his award will allow the purchase of new equipment to overcome challenges related to mosquito collection. “These tools will significantly improve our research capacity for the present and future projects,” says Olaitan, who also published an eLife paper in 2022.

Research scientist Silvia Kariuki studies how carrying certain genetic variants can protect people against malaria. Her award will fund the purchase of equipment and materials that would speed up adapting Plasmodium falciparum clinical parasites for in vitro culture, improving techniques for all users of the parasite culture lab at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kenya.

Runners-up of the 2023 Ben Barres Spotlight Awards

Achira Roy leads the Neurodevelopment Lab at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, India. Her award will purchase critical equipment needed for her group’s research into studying early-onset developmental brain disorders using genetic mouse models and part-fund her travel to a neuroscience conference later this year. Achira says, “I’m happy this award will now bring my newly started lab's work into the spotlight.”

A postdoc at the Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney studying insulin response in pre-diabetes, Alexis Diaz will use his award to attend a conference on metabolism. Alexis, who is also first author on a recent Reviewed Preprint, says, “I’m proud to receive this award that also celebrates the collective belief in pushing boundaries and shaping a brighter scientific landscape together.”

Asael Lubotzky is a postdoc at The Hospital for Sick Children in Canada looking to understand brain dynamics and help develop methods to recover after brain injuries. His award will fund a computer and software to strengthen his research efforts and support him to work remotely more effectively. He says, “This award holds immense importance for me as it will enable us to gain valuable insights into how brain cells can regenerate in newborn babies.”

Ben Vezina is a Monash University postdoc whose research seeks to uncover novel antimicrobial proteins from the pathogenic bacterium Klebsiella pneumoniae. He recently described a new tool for high-throughput generation of bacterial strain-specific metabolic models and his award will support lab work to help him establish an independent research portfolio. Ben says, “I am humbled to receive this award; being invoked in the same sentence as the late Professor Barres is an honour and I aim to reciprocate his avidity for discovery and advocacy for fellow scientists”.

Pornchai Kaewsapsak is an early-career group leader at Chulalongkorn University, in Thailand. Their research seeks to decipher the epitranscriptome – all the biochemical modifications of the RNA within a cell – at the subcellular level by combining sequencing with proximity-based labelling. Their award will support their attendance at the Nanopore Conference in London next year. Pornchai says, “I hope my trip will help me to expand my network and increase collaboration between Thailand and other countries.”

A postdoc at the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Saba Naz will use her award to build on her earlier research and kickstart a whole-genome sequencing project of drug-susceptible and drug-resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis strains in India. Saba says, “I am very excited to receive this award. It will boost my career and increase my visibility among researchers in my field”.

Sol Fittipaldi is an Argentinian neuroscientist at the Global Brain Health Institute in Ireland. She investigates sociocognitive processes in brain health and disease, with a focus on underrepresented populations from Latin America. Her funds will support a survey into barriers faced by women scientists in Latin America working on dementia, and help her attend the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in 2024. Sol says, “I feel proud that my award will make women’s contributions to the field more visible and hopefully offer unique insights that will narrow the gender gap in my research community.”

This year, each qualifying application was independently assessed by three reviewers drawn from representatives of eLife’s editorial board and Early-Career Advisory Group. We thank all the reviewers, including: Akira Shinohara, Anita Bhattacharyya, Aya Ito-Ishida, Carolina Quezada, Claude Desplan, Daniel Takahashi, David Donoso, Divyansh Mittal, Elizabeth Ochola, Ethel Bayer Santos, Gabrielle Belz, Jennifer Flegg, Jungsan Sohn, Leonardo Abdala Elias, Marcelo Mori, Michelle Antoine, Qing Zhang, Regina Mencia, Renan Souza and Yaroslav Ispolatov.

The Ben Barres Spotlight Awards stand as a testament to the enduring legacy of our late colleague Ben Barres and aim to embody his vision of a more inclusive and equitable scientific community.

The 2023 fund has been fully distributed.


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