Ben Barres Spotlight Awards: Announcing the winners for 2024

Fourteen researchers, eight of them as authors of Reviewed Preprints, have been recognised in the awards’ most geographically diverse cohort to date.

Today we are delighted to announce the winners and runners-up of the 2024 Ben Barres Spotlight Awards. Now in its sixth year, this annual award scheme has recognised pioneering researchers from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in biology and medicine, as well as those working in countries with limited research funding, since 2019.

For 2024, notably, 56% of eligible applications received were based on articles initially published as reviewed preprints. This includes 41% that published through eLife’s new model, with a further 15% based on preprints evaluated by other groups active on the Sciety platform, such as GigaByte, GigaScience, PREreview, preLights, Rapid Reviews Infectious Diseases and Review Commons.

Selected from a competitive pool of around 90 eligible applications spanning 31 different countries, this year's 14 recipients showed the greatest potential for an award to have a transformative impact on their research, careers or communities. They also represent the scheme’s most geographically diverse cohort, working across 13 countries between them.

The 10 winners for 2024 are: Ayesha Riaz (University of Karachi, Pakistan), Germana Bancone (Shoklo Malaria Research Unit, Thailand), Joaquin Gonzalez (Universidad de la República, Uruguay), Maarouf Baghdadi (Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing, Germany), Nsoh Anabire (University for Development Studies, Ghana), Oseremen Aisuodionoe-Shadrach (University of Abuja, Nigeria), Ren Ujimatsu (University of Tokyo, Japan), Sayanti Acharya (Indian Institute of Science, India), Valerie Tornini (University of California, Los Angeles, United States) and Victoire Nsabatien (University of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo). Each winner will receive up to $5,000 according to individual needs.

The four runners-up are: Evelyn Aviles (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Chile), Jose Duhart (Universidad Nacional de Quilmes - CONICET - Fundación Instituto Leloir, Argentina), Kevin Alen Rucci (National University of Córdoba, Argentina) and Natalia Ferreira Mendes (State University of Campinas, Brazil). The runners-up will receive up to $3,500 each.

Winners of the 2024 Ben Barres Spotlight Awards

Ayesha Riaz is an early-career group leader at the University of Karachi and the awards’ first-ever winner in Pakistan. Aysesha’s group uses fruit flies to investigate how certain proteins and other biomolecules affect the nervous system, with implications for understanding diseases like diabetic neuropathy and neurodegenerative conditions. She will use her funds to bring fluorescence microscopy techniques to her lab, which Ayesha says, “will significantly enhance our research capabilities.” Her application was made following a 2021 preprint, which was evaluated via PREreview and reported a novel role of the LAMP1 protein in Drosophila.

Germana Bancone works at the Shoklo Malaria Research Unit (SMRU) in Thailand. She says, “I am excited to receive this award to set-up what I hope will be a new fruitful collaboration. SMRU have worked to characterise and treat neonatal jaundice and haemolysis (the destruction of red blood cells) in G6PD-deficient children along the Thai-Myanmar border for several years; we will now have the chance to investigate the underlying mechanism and identify potential prognostic markers by using microfluidics systems developed by our collaborator at the Nanyang Technological University.” Germana’s application followed her publication of previous clinical trials, which were reviewed through eLife’s new model.

At the Universidad de la República, Joaquin Gonzalez is our first winner based in Uruguay. He uses diverse computational tools to try to understand how neuronal populations drive behaviour, and his work demonstrates the value of well-curated publicly available datasets. Joaquin will use his award to visit New York University to pursue collaboration. He adds, “I feel honoured to receive this award, which I see as the first step in forging a strong network of international collaborators, empowering me to pursue impactful science from Latin America.”

As the scheme’s first winner based in Germany, Maarouf Baghdadi says, “I am incredibly grateful to have been selected for this award. The funding will allow me to produce an mRNA sequencing dataset, which will serve as preliminary data to help launch the next independent phase of my career.” Currently a postdoc based at the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing, Maarouf's application follows his 2023 preprint reporting on rare gene variants in the MAPK/ERK signalling pathway related to longevity, which was publicly evaluated by Review Commons.

Nsoh Anabire is a lecturer at the University for Development Studies and the first researcher in Ghana to be recognised with a Ben Barres Spotlight Award. In 2022, he published an eLife paper reporting a new assay to assess antibody cross-reactivity at the single-cell level. Nsoh will use his funds to purchase a gel electrophoresis system and travel to France to conduct assays in his mentor's lab. He says, “I am ecstatic about this award, and delighted that the molecular biology equipment we can now purchase will support both undergraduate and postgraduate training at my university.”

Oseremen Aisuodionoe-Shadrach is a mid-career group leader at the University of Abuja, Nigeria. His 2022 Short Report in eLife described the validation of a polygenic risk score for prostate cancer in diverse populations. He will use his award to conduct metabolic analysis of prostate cancer patients via NMR spectroscopy in South Africa, as such facilities are unavailable in Nigeria. Oseremen says, “Without a doubt, eLife and this award will become an enduring part of my career success story.”

A PhD student at the University of Tokyo, Ren Ujimatsu explores how beneficial fungi turn into harmful pathogens, focusing on the gene BOT6. Her recent preprint, also reviewed via PREreview, examines this transition's molecular mechanisms. As our first winner based in Japan, Ren will use her Ben Barres Spotlight Award to fund chromatin immunoprecipitation experiments and to visit a potential collaborator in Spain to learn about genetic analysis of Fusarium fungi. She says, “This award will help me overcome barriers to travel due to the yen's low value and deepen my understanding of fungal pathogenesis, crucial for my research and career.”

Sayanti Acharya is an author on a Reviewed Preprint related to mechanosensing within the immune system, which peer reviewers highlighted as a “valuable” study. She is also a PhD student at the Indian Institute of Science. Sayanti says, “I am incredibly honoured and grateful to have received the Ben Barres Spotlight Award at a pivotal point in my research career. This support will help me investigate immunosuppression in a preclinical model of ovarian cancer and present my findings at an international conference.” She specifically plans to attend a Keystone Symposium on cancer immunotherapy in Canada next year.

Valerie Tornini is an early-career group leader at the University of California, Los Angeles whose research explores how chromatin regulators and micropeptides shape the gene networks that specify and specialise vertebrate cells. Valerie will use her funds to establish collaborations in Uruguay with other developmental biologists and to take part in an outreach event for girls in science. She says, “I am thrilled and humbled to receive this award in honour of Ben Barres. I’m hopeful it will enable me to foster new long-term collaborations and expand into new research directions.”

Victoire Nsabatien is an early-career researcher at the University of Kinshasa, a coordinator of field and laboratory entomological activities at the Kinshasa School of Public Health, and the first winner of a Ben Barres Spotlight Award based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His 2023 preprint, reviewed by Gigabyte, mapped the spread of two mosquito species within the city of Kinshasa and he will now use his award to purchase laboratory equipment and research consumables for testing plant-based larvicides. Victoire says, “I'm proud to receive this prestigious award. Malaria is a major public health burden in my country, and this grant will greatly enhance my research into potential new tools to control malaria mosquitoes.”

Runners-up of the 2024 Ben Barres Spotlight Awards

Evelyn Aviles started her group at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile last year after completing a postdoc in the United States. Her work focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms of neuronal connections and her award will purchase supplies to maintain mutant mouse strains crucial for her research. Evelyn explains, “Working with mouse models in Chile has presented many challenges, mainly due to the limited funding sources.” She adds, “I am tremendously grateful to eLife for this award; it will make a huge difference at this early stage of my laboratory.”

Jose Duhart is an early-career group leader based at the Universidad Nacional de Quilmes in Argentina. His previous work in eLife investigated how nutritional status modulates the sleep-courtship balance in Drosophila and he plans to use his award’s funds to acquire essential supplies to maintain fly stocks and technical equipment to develop custom behavioural setups. Jose says, “Receiving this award is a breath of fresh air that renews our motivation to continue contributing to the growth of Argentinian neuroscience research, despite the challenging local context.”

A PhD student at the National University of Córdoba, Kevin Alen Rucci’s award will cover expenses to study mosquito feeding patterns. He shares, “Our laboratory faces severe funding constraints due to high inflation, rapid price increases and continuous currency devaluation in Argentina. This award is thus crucial for me to complete my PhD and to enhance the visibility of my research within the scientific community.” Kevin’s earlier research into the effects of blood meal source and seasonality on reproductive traits of the southern house mosquito has been published as an eLife Reviewed Preprint.

Natalia Ferreira Mendes seeks to identify biomarkers and therapeutic targets for obesity-related metabolic and neuroinflammatory disorders at Brazil's State University of Campinas. Her recent eLife Reviewed Preprint was recognised for its “fundamental” significance and “compelling” level of evidence. Her award will fund the purchase of crucial lab materials. Natalia notes, “As a woman and young principal investigator in Brazil where research funding is limited and highly competitive, this grant is a vital boost for my research.”

The recipients of the 2024 Ben Barres Spotlight Awards were first announced during an award ceremony held earlier today. Hosted by eLife's Executive Director Damian Pattinson, the event featured Leslie Vosshall, vice president and chief scientific officer at The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, as a distinguished guest speaker. The ceremony included a tribute to the late Ben Barres, highlighting his pioneering contributions and advocacy for equity in science. eLife Co-Editor-in-Chief Timothy Behrens joined Deputy Editors Yamini Dalal and Diane Harper and early-career advisor Elizabeth Ochola in naming this year's deserving awardees.

Decisions for the 2024 awards were based on the independent assessments of anonymised applications by at least three reviewers drawn from representatives of eLife’s editorial board and Early-Career Advisory Group. We thank all the reviewers, including: Alan Talevi, Aya Ito-Ishida, Catherine Carr, Elizabeth Ochola, Facundo Romani, Frankline Sevidzem Wirsiy, Gertraud Burger, Gyaviira Nkurunungi, Izuchukwu Okafor, Jean-Jacques Orban de Xivry, Karina Gomez, Kenichi Tsuda, Lolitika Mandal, Marcelo Mori, Marcos Nahmad, Mariela Monteoliva, Murim Choi, Mychael Lourenco, N Ravi Sundaresan, Paul Donlin-Asp, Peng Liu, Regina Mencia, Rio Sugimura, Sarah Marei, Shozeb Haider, Thabiso Motaung, Tomas Ryan and Zhongjie Fu.

The 2024 fund has been fully distributed. More information about the Ben Barres Spotlight Awards can be found here.