2017 Junior Faculty Fellowship Awarded to Five Weill Cornell Medicine Researchers

The Junior Faculty Fellowship Fund, which provides $50,000 in research support to exceptional junior faculty who are juggling basic or clinical research with childcare responsibilities, recently made awards to five Weill Cornell Medicine scientists and physicians.

Now in its second year, the grant was established in 2015 with a $1.25 million gift from the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation. The goal is to provide junior faculty with funding so that they can establish a scientific track record, succeed in research, and ultimately, be promoted to a higher rank while raising their children. While both men and women are eligible for the fellowship, women are disproportionately underrepresented in senior positions in academic medicine, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges.

“We have so many talented women coming into the pipeline at either the instructor or assistant professor level, but we know there’s a big drop-off after that,” said Dr. Randi Silver, associate dean of the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, who runs the program.

“We’re serious about keeping these researchers here and giving them opportunities to succeed,” added Dr. Silver, who is also a professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine. “This fellowship, which comes at a critical point in their career, is a way for the institution to say, ‘we’re behind you.’ We hope it can make a big difference in the fellows’ productivity, and push them over the edge so that it’s easier for them to get a much larger grant in the future.”

This year’s awardees are Dr. So Hyun (Sophy) Kim, an assistant professor of psychology in clinical psychiatry; Dr. Amy Kuceyeski, an assistant professor of mathematics in neuroscience and radiology; Dr. Kristen Pleil, an assistant professor of pharmacology; Dr. Selin Somersan-Karakaya, the Nan and Stephen Swid Research Scholar in Medicine and an assistant professor of medicine; and Dr. Claire Vanpouille-Box, an instructor in radiation oncology. They were selected from an applicant pool of about 30.

The awardees’ projects are diverse, and focused on basic and clinical research for conditions including multiple sclerosis, tuberculosis and alcohol addiction. Some of the awardees plan to use the funds to hire a lab technician to help with data collection and research, while others will put some of the money towards purchasing reagents.

Dr. Kim, who works in the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain, will use the funds to further her research on school readiness in high-functioning kindergarteners with autism spectrum disorder. Specifically, she will track the development of academic, cognitive and language skills across 20 children in the kindergarten school year using behavioral and electrophysiological methods. The results will inform researchers and clinicians to better predict later academic outcomes in these children. The center is a collaborative program between NewYork-Presbyterian, Weill Cornell Medicine and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, in partnership with New York Collaborates for Autism.

Dr. Kuceyeski will seek to better understand how damage to brain networks in people with multiple sclerosis leads to varied clinical effects depending on whether a patient is considered high-adapting  meaning that there is extensive brain network damage but relatively little clinical impairment  or low-adapting, meaning that the brain doesn’t compensate for the damage, and the clinical impairment is more severe. The goal of the research is to identify biomarkers that predict resiliency in multiple sclerosis, which could lead to more accurate prognoses and novel therapeutic strategies for patients with MS and other neurological disorders such as stroke.

Dr. Pleil will conduct basic research on binge drinking, focusing on how hormones act in the brain to put females at a higher risk than males for developing alcohol addiction and mood disorders.

Dr. Somersan-Karakaya, the only physician in the group, will study how the bacterium that causes tuberculosis — a respiratory infection that affects one-third of the world’s population and kills up to 170 people every hour — continues to spread despite the availability of effective medications. She will study how this bacterium, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, interacts with the immune system and adapts to it so that it can outlast the body’s infection-fighting responses. Better understanding of how this bacterium survives could help scientists discover pharmaceutical approaches that work more quickly and prevent the disease from returning.

Dr. Vanpouille-Box will research how radiotherapy, when combined with immunotherapy in cancer treatment, can ramp up the immune system so that it attacks tumor cells. She’ll specifically consider how the DNA damage that takes place because of radiotherapy affects treatments, with the hope that the study’s results will help clinicians figure out the best way to use radiotherapy as an immunotherapy add-on.

“We’re thrilled to be able to offer this philanthropy for the second year running, and to give these talented and ambitious young researchers a little bit of extra support,” Dr. Silver said.

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