Ben Barres Spotlight Awards: Announcing the winners for 2021

10 researchers have been recognised with awards to catalyse change and unlock new opportunities for their research and careers.

We are pleased to announce the winners of the 2021 Ben Barres Spotlight Awards. First introduced in 2019, the awards provide funds and visibility to researchers from groups that are underrepresented in biology and medicine or from countries with limited research funding. This year’s awards were our most inclusive to date and the 10 winners have been selected from among a record 133 applications received from authors of preprints with public reviews and eLife authors.

The winners are: Anastazia Teresa Banaszak (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México); Asha Mary Joseph (National Centre for Biological Sciences, India); Debra Bolter (Modesto Junior College, United States); Eva Liliane Ujeneza (Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture and African Institute of Mathematical Sciences); Geetanjali Chawla (Regional Centre for Biotechnology, India); Nishad Matange (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Pune, India); Priyadarshan Kinatukara (CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, India); Robin Morrison (Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, Rwanda); Shahed Nalla (University of Johannesburg, South Africa) and Swagata Ghatak (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Bhopal, India). Each will each receive funds of up to $6,000, as requested in their applications.

Anastazia Teresa Banaszak leads a group at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México working to conserve and reproduce endangered corals in the Mesoamerican Reef System via cryopreservation. Her award will go towards a microscope needed to measure the quality of coral sperm before and after freezing. Anastazia says: “We have been trying to get funding to buy a microscope for two years now but granting agencies generally cannot cover more than bare lab expenses and a postdoc salary. This award provides us with a wonderful opportunity to move forward with producing a quality coral biorepository in Mexico while there are still coral colonies left to work with.”

Asha Mary Joseph is a postdoc studying the regulation of error-prone repair in bacteria at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India. She will use part of the award for a short-term visit to a collaborator's lab to pursue research questions that stemmed from her recent eLife publication. The remaining funds will be used to attend an international conference on the bacterial stress response and mutagenesis in 2022. Asha says: “Most postdoctoral fellowships in India do not have funds for international travel and independent grants for postdocs to visit collaborators are also lacking. Thus, this funding to facilitate collaboration and networking will be invaluable to my work and offer extensive visibility to my research.”

Debra Bolter works to advance knowledge of Homo naledi, a species of archaic human discovered in the Rising Star Cave in South Africa. She will use the funds to support a month’s research in South Africa to continue the study of the original fossils and to foster collaborations between the next generation of South African researchers and undergraduates from traditionally underrepresented communities at Modesto Junior College, a Hispanic-serving institution in the United States.

Eva Liliane Ujeneza is a lecturer of mathematics at the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture and a researcher at the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences. She uses mathematical and statistical models to answer questions related to public health issues with a focus on infectious diseases. The reviewers felt that Eva’s proposal – to build on some of her latest research modelling the immune system outcomes for HIV patients receiving treatment and develop an improved system to monitor immune function in HIV patients based on individualised scoring – had great potential to tackle real-life health inequities.

With her research program at the Regional Centre for Biotechnology in India, Geetanjali Chawla aims to discover evolutionary conserved microribonucleic acids that can promote healthy aging. She will use her award to purchase a Drosophila activity monitoring system for characterising circadian rhythm, sleep and activity in different fruit fly strains remotely. Geetanjali says: “I hope that the increased visibility and publications that should result from my award will facilitate future collaborations with clinical experts who can aid in translating our research findings into humans.”

Nishad Matange will use his award to equip his group at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune with the computational infrastructure needed to expand the scope of their research to understand the evolution of antimicrobial resistance at the genomic level. Nishad says: “As an LGBTQ+ scientist working in India, this award is particularly significant for me since it recognises the challenges of underrepresented groups in academia, and opens the door to conversations about promoting diversity.”

Based at the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Priyadarshan Kinatukara is currently working on a grant proposal aimed at understanding the regulation of glycerol metabolism that is crucial for the production of membrane lipids and other non-lipidic metabolites in diverse life forms. He will spend his award on gene synthesis and reagents needed for experiments to strengthen his research proposal, as well as access to nearby lipidomic facilities. Priyadarshan says: “This award is crucial support at the end of my postdoctoral tenure as it will enable me to pursue my future aspirations as an independent investigator with greater confidence.”

Robin Morrison is a behavioural ecologist, a field biologist, and a gorilla expert whose research includes studying the consequences of maternal loss in mountain gorillas. Her award will be used to help set up a dedicated computer lab at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda to expand their coding and statistical modelling training. Robin says: “I am excited for the opportunities this funding will open up for young researchers in Rwanda and the surrounding region. In the long -term we hope the computer lab will enable even more Rwandan-led research using the exceptional data collected on gorillas and other species in the country.”

Shahed Nalla is a group leader at the University of Johannesburg studying the evolution of the thoracic region and associated elements in hominids. His award will support opportunities to be trained by renowned experts in the latest 3D methodologies to study fossilised and modern skeletal material as well as purchase equipment and consumables to produce 3D prints of the skeletal material studied. Shahed says: “I am elated to receive this empowering award which will enhance my teaching, learning and research activities for my research group and students.”

Swagata Ghatak is an early-career group leader based at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Bhopal. She will use the funds from the award to purchase an imaging workstation and liquid nitrogen storage equipment for maintaining cell lines involved in her research into neuronal hyperactivity in Alzheimer’s disease.

This year we received 133 applications that met our eligibility criteria. Each qualifying application was independently assessed by at least two reviewers drawn from representatives of eLife’s editorial board, Early-Career Advisory Group and staff. We thank all the reviewers, including: Aalok Varma, Anita Bhattacharyya, Aya Ito-Ishida, Bavesh Kana, Birte Forstmann, Carlos Isales, Danelle Devenport, Dario Riccardo Valenzano, David James, Erin Rich, Florent Ginhoux, Giulia Guizzardi, Godwyns Onwuchekwa, Hedyeh Ebrahimi, Helena Pérez Valle, Jalees Rehman, Jennifer Flegg, Jenny Tung, Karmella Haynes, Kim Orth, Lana Sinapayen, Lara Urban, Lejla Zubcevic, María Isabel Geli, María Zambrano, Meredith Schuman, Michelle Antoine, Milly McConnell, Muireann Irish, Murim Choi, Niel Hens, Qing Zhang, Satyajit Rath, Sheila McCormick, Sofia Araújo, Srdjan Ostojic, Tanya Whitfield, Wei Mun Chan and Yuxin Chen.

We congratulate all the winners of the 2021 Ben Barres Spotlight Awards, and thank everyone who applied. We wish them all the best and hope that the opportunities unlocked by these awards will help to advance the research and careers of this year’s winners, as they have for the successful applicants from 2019 and 2020. The 2021 fund has been fully distributed, and we will return with the next round of funding in 2022.


Sign up to the eLife Early-Career Community newsletter or follow @eLifeCommunity on Twitter and find out about other opportunities, events and issues relevant for everyone working in research, and especially those at the earlier stages of their career.