Aaron Engelhart

Dr. Aaron Engelhart, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota

Tell us about your research

We study forms of nucleic acids outside the central dogma of DNA-RNA-protein. We’re especially interested in four-stranded forms of DNA and RNA called G-Quadruplexes, and these turn up in some really interesting places in biology, nucleic acid tools for synthetic biology, and the origin of life and space biology.

What were your challenges of being a NewPI and how you overcame them?

One of the most challenging things about being a new PI is starting the lab from scratch. Up until now, I came from labs where, for example, procedures for ordering things, infrastructure in the lab, and even little things like where to find a screwdriver were all things I took for granted. Getting all this in place is a lot to do starting out! Being fortunate enough to have some talented and dedicated first trainees in the lab and talking with peers that are going through the same thing both helped us get up and running.

How have you been coping with the pandemic in terms of mentoring and research?

I feel like one of the positive things that’s come out of COVID is that it’s encouraged us to have more empathy for one another. Every one of us has been affected in some way or other by the pandemic, and it’s been different for each of us. As we’ve progressed from the earlier stages of pandemic to whatever this new normal is, we’ve been adapting and adjusting, both as mentor and trainees. The changes that have come about over the last couple years (and that are continuing) have been really challenging, but I think overall there’s been some really positive impact in this regard.

As a NewPI, what’s your superpower?

Empathy! As a new PI, you were in the trainee seat not that long ago, and I think that this makes it easier to understand trainees’ concerns and goals when they come to you with them.

In this academic rollercoaster ride, words of motivation for others?

Oftentimes our most challenging days are experiences we have in common with many others. It’s very easy to look at a finished piece of work or the career trajectory of someone you admire and to forget that hard days and rejection were and are a component of it for them too.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to your past self, on the day 1 of this job?

Get lots of advice from lots of people with a diverse array of perspectives! Hearing from someone who’s done it before is critical, and every PI has lived this experience in a different way – so they’ll all have a different perspective on the paths to success. Everyone’s experience has something to teach you, but it’s important to remember we’re all living N=1!

Bonus Question:

What’s the coolest factoid about nucleic acids that I never knew I needed to hear/know?

The G-quadruplex structure we study forms at the level of the monomer. That is, if you take guanosine or guanosine monophosphate, heat it up in salt solution, and cool it back down, it will form a gel because of long-range interactions between guanosines. This was actually observed in the early 20th century (i.e., decades before we had much clue about what was going on with atomic structures) by a Norwegian physician named Ivar Bang (https://portlandpress.com/biochemist/article-pdf/35/2/44/5277/bio035020044.pdf).

Watch out for “A Day in the Life of New PI” on Twitter by Dr. Engelhart.


Amber Stratman

Dr. Amber Stratman, Assistant Professor, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

Tell us about your research

We study cardiovascular development, how blood vessels and the heart are built and stabilized, using zebrafish as a model organism. We are interested in how vascular cells interpret and respond to mechanosensitive forces to alter their behavior, signaling, and interactions with their microenvironment.

What were your challenges of being a NewPI and how you overcame them?

The biggest challenge for me as a New PI has been facing down imposter syndrome and the feelings of isolation. I have tried to overcome this by confronting these feelings head on, actively talking to others about it, and realizing that this is common. Knowing that many people experience these same feelings, yet still manage to find their own footing, has been extremely helpful in fighting off the self-doubt that can come with this job. 

I think another huge challenge of this job is the feeling that you are behind (even if you aren’t!). That successes will never happen, that you’re not going to finish that paper or get funding; that your research is moving too slowly or that you just can’t pull your ideas together to submit that grant. I don’t have all the answers on how to overcome this feeling, but for me, the best antidote has been leaning into celebrating the successes of others.  Often, we only see the end product of people’s stories (i.e. the successful grant, the published paper), but when you really begin to celebrate with others, you get to hear more about their journey to that success. It’s amazingly helpful to see successes after people have been through struggle—and even more fun to celebrate! 

How have you been coping with the pandemic in terms of mentoring and research?

I have to say that my trainees are doing much better job coping than I. They have been very resilient, working together as a team to keep the lab moving forward. From my side, trying to maintain productivity through the pandemic has been more focused on accepting the need to delegate tasks and ask others for help. I have been lucky to have senior mentors who are supportive, and have helped off set some of my teaching load, for instance when childcare issues have come up. This has allowed me to try to prioritize my limited time during difficult weeks towards mentoring and research activities in the lab.   

As a NewPI, what’s your superpower?

This is a tough one! I would like to think empathy is my superpower—understanding that my needs are not the only priority. I hope this superpower has helped me be more attuned as a mentor.

In this academic rollercoaster ride, words of motivation for others?

Don’t let imposter syndrome rule your decisions. Don’t second guess if you belong. There will be days where you question this or have doubts, but know it is ok to not have everything figured out.  No one does.  Trust yourself!

What is the one piece of advice you would give to your past self, on the day 1 of this job?

There’s no way to fully prepare for what it is going to be like to run a lab. It’s hard, and management is not something most people are trained in before starting this position. Accept that you are going to make mistakes. You’re going to have a lot of days with rejections, days you aren’t sure what you’re doing, and possibly even days you want to quit.

But there will also be successes, and days that remind you why you chose science in the first place. The important thing through this, is not being afraid to ask for help from your network and giving yourself grace! Spend time building the culture and community of people around you, both near and far. These are the people who will not only help you navigate the hard decisions and days, but who will give you genuine advice and celebrate your success. And do the same for them!

Bonus Question!

What’s the coolest factoid about vascular biology that I never knew I needed to hear/know?

If you lay out a single person’s blood vessels from end to end in a line, it would wrap the earth 2 to 2.5 times!

Watch out for “A Day in the Life of New PI” on Twitter by Dr. Stratman scheduled on Wednesday 6th October 2021 (Central Standard Time): https://twitter.com/NewPI_Slack

Jessica Henty-Ridilla

Dr. Jessica Henty-Ridilla, Assistant Professor, SUNY Upstate Medical University

Tell us about your research

What do weight gain, white hairs, and wrinkles have in common? They are all common undesirable self-discoveries that usually go undetected until a threshold much higher than the first couple of pounds, the first white hair, or individual wrinkle. Similarly, the symptoms of neurodegenerative decline often go unnoticed, particularly in the uncurable and untreatable disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). My lab studies the dynamics of specific cytoskeletal proteins in neurons (i.e. actin and microtubules). We study these proteins individually and together and in the presence of other disease-specific regulatory factors by combining observations from biomimetic biochemical reconstitution assays visualized on a microscope and super resolution microscopy of individual proteins in neuronal cells.

What were your challenges of being a NewPI and how you overcame them?

My biggest challenge has been feeling supported and overcoming imposter syndrome. I learned that there were many people near and far (and sometimes unexpected) who have been my cheerleaders providing the hidden support all new PIs need. It has taken some time to find out who these cheerleaders are (and I suspect there are even more than I am currently aware of). I am so grateful for these people. I have no specific advice for finding this network of helpers, except be reassured that they are there for all of us and it is normal and OK to reach out to other people you admire in your field and ask them for help/advice. Another challenge was identifying university wide resources for NewPIs, like myself, and connecting with other NewPIs who joined around the same time as me. I overcame these challenges by creating a peer-mentoring group. I have to admit that it was a lot of work and a challenge in itself to go outside the confines of my lab and meet like-minded peers. This required asking “strangers” for mentoring or advice. As an awkward person, rather than just boldly state this, I would commonly ask identified mentors for lunch or coffee to see this advice. I also was not shy in asking questions to find answers for clarity (but admittedly this may have bordered on being intrusive at times). For example, in the beginning I asked for clarity in calculating grant indirects, and how that money got appropriated. I learned that there are times where I would need a filter to sort out honest advice from the unsolicited more manipulative versions. I think I am starting to get better at sorting out the helpful and unhelpful forms.

How have you been coping with the pandemic in terms of mentoring and research?

I think everyone has their own brand of “hard” or “barely” in terms of pandemic coping. I am a perfectionist and have high anxiety (which I get treated for). To say that I feel guilt or shame right now for not “getting enough done” is an understatement. It has been difficult, but I have tried to reduce expectations of myself and my lab members. We are trying to be proud and celebrate any versions of forward progress. For example, celebrating the purification of a new protein, a successful assay, new skill… rather than waiting until an entire figure or whole paper is composed.

As a NewPI, what’s your superpower?

My superpower is my enthusiasm and high energy. I am also never embarrassed to ask questions or not know something. There is a lot that I do not know. Also, how am I going to learn, otherwise?

Also, I come from an extremely rural place in Upstate New York (not the city). In many ways this has left me culturally estranged from the people I grew up with and from many in academic spaces. It is a superpower because I truly believe this upbringing allows me to approach and solve problems differently than the academic status quo.

In this academic rollercoaster ride, words of motivation for others?

  1. Comparison is the thief of joy. I didn’t come up with that saying but it is not wrong.
  2. Sometimes I have felt that my best wasn’t enough for other people. Honestly, if at the end of the day you feel like you did the best you could, that is good enough. Most people are trying the best they can, too. Keep that in mind in as many interactions as you can.
  3. Kindness and authenticity do matter.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to your past self, on the day 1 of this job?

  1. Your thoughts and scientific ideas diverge from what you did before so much faster than you anticipate (weeks to months, rather than years).
  2. Be a good listener (actively listen, undistracted to what people tell you… it may be different than what you are literally hearing).
  3. It is OK to reply a request with “unsubscribe”. It will likely confuse the recipient and bonus you will not have to do the thing they were asking you to do.

Bonus Question:

What’s the coolest factoid about actin-microtubule interactions that I never knew I needed to hear/know?

Actin-microtubule interactions underlie *almost* all cellular processes. At least one group has even suggested these proteins ultimately control consciousness. Also, the narwhal’s horn twisting is determined by its microtubules!

Watch out for “A Day in the Life of New PI” on Twitter by Dr. Henty-Ridilla scheduled on Thursday (Eastern Standard Time) 5th August 2021:


John Barton, Ph.D.

Dr. John Barton is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Riverside. His research uses ideas from statistical physics to study evolution and the immune system. In recent years, much of his work has focused on HIV: understanding how the virus evolves within humans, how populations of HIV-infected cells persist over decades despite intensive drug therapy, and how the immune system works to fight infection.

John was born and raised in rural Georgia. As a high school student, he was mesmerized by Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which inspired him to study Physics at Duke University. He graduated magna cum laude with B.S. degrees in Physics and Mathematics in 2006. With the opening of the Large Hadron Collider close at hand, he began graduate school in Physics at Rutgers University eager to start research in particle physics. However, he shifted to statistical physics after taking an inspiring course with his future Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Joel Lebowitz. Specifically, he enjoyed how work in statistical physics could combine mathematical and computational analyses, and how statistical concepts could be broadly applied beyond the traditional confines of physics. His Ph.D. work focused on the mathematical description of phase transitions in models of particle motion in one dimension. After a few years, John was almost sure that he loved probability theory, but he also longed to connect more directly with experiments and data.

John was first exposed to immunology and evolution as a postdoc with Dr. Arup Chakraborty at MIT, and their intersection has been the primary focus of his research ever since. He applied ideas from statistical physics to investigate the evolutionary struggle between HIV and the immune system. He developed models to predict the replicative fitness of never-before-observed strains of the virus, which were experimentally validated by collaborators in Dr. Thumbi Ndung’u’s lab at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. John then used estimates of viral fitness to predict how HIV evolves to escape from immune pressure in vivo in a clinical cohort of 17 HIV-infected individuals. This line of work ultimately culminated in the design of a therapeutic, T cell-based vaccine immunogen to direct immune responses toward “vulnerable” parts of the HIV genome where escape should be challenging for the virus. 

Since starting his lab in 2018, John has broadened his research into HIV and evolution while developing new research directions in immunology. Using ideas from physics and population genetics, he developed a new way to infer the fitness effects of mutations from temporal genetic data (reported in a recent paper), which he and collaborators used to study the dynamics of immune escape during within-host HIV infection. This work is a major research direction in the lab, which is supported by a Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (R35) from the NIH. In addition, John’s lab is working to quantitatively model the population of immune cells that are latently infected with HIV, known as the latent reservoir, which is the most significant barrier to HIV cure. In collaboration with fellow outstanding PI Dr. Emily Mace at Columbia University, John is also developing theory to understand how natural killer (NK) cells, a crucial component of the innate immune system, can accurately distinguish self from nonself. These lines of research share common themes: close collaboration with experimentalists, data analysis, and the use of methods inspired by statistical physics.

John is excited for the future as the lab matures and continues to work toward their ultimate goal: using quantitative methods and theory to improve human health. He is actively recruiting postdocs and graduate students from broad backgrounds to join the team in this work. For more information on research in the lab and opportunities to join, see the lab website or find John on Twitter @_jpbarton.

Evren Azeloglu, Ph.D.

Dr. Azeloglu and lab.

Dr. Evren Azeloglu (pronounced: oz-el-oh-loo) is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Nephrology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. He has a secondary appointment in the Department of Pharmacology. His Systems Bioengineering Lab aims to uncover fundamental mechanobiological principles underlying complex diseases, such as chronic kidney disease, by using a combination of engineering and systems biology tools. His lab is funded by multiple NIH grants, including an R01 from the NIDDK, and the Department of Defense.

As his tongue twister name suggests, Dr. Azeloglu hails from Turkey. Born to an eternally blue-collar family of miners and union foremen, he grew up by the Aegean coast hoping to be the first to go to college in his family and become an engineer. Thus, he came to the U.S. on a scholarship to study engineering; however, after losing his mother to breast cancer at an early age, his aspirations quickly turned into building tissues and organs instead of machines.

He graduated from Stony Brook University summa cum laude with a degree in mechanical engineering. During his time at Stony Brook, he worked on machine vision and cardiac mechanics under mentorship of Drs. Fu-Pen Chiang and Glenn Gaudette. He later joined Dr. Kevin Costa’s Cardiac Biomechanics Group at Columbia University in New York City for his doctoral studies. Throughout his Ph.D., Evren published several influential papers on the biomechanical principles of multiscale tissue organization, particularly focusing on cytoskeletal dynamics and cell-extracellular matrix interactions in the vasculature. He completed his postdoctoral training at the Icahn School of Medicine as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Fellow of the Life Sciences Research Foundation at Ravi Iyengar’s lab, where his research focused on cell signaling dynamics. Synergizing these concepts, Dr. Azeloglu founded the Systems Bioengineering Lab to study how the interaction of biomechanics and systems biology affects disease processes. He has received numerous awards including the Stony-Wold Herbert Fund, LSRF and American Heart Association Fellowships and the ASN-NephCure Career Development Award. He serves on the editorial board of Kidney International, and he is one of the lead investigators within the NIDDK Kidney Precision Medicine Project consortium that aims to build a cell type-specific molecular kidney tissue atlas.

Dr. Azeloglu’s lab has three major research areas: (1) cytoskeletal dynamics and cell biomechanics, (2) tissue engineering, and (3) systems biology of glomerular disease. His long-term hope is that the synergy of these three foci will ultimately lead to an improved drug discovery pipeline, which is sorely needed in kidney disease.

In addition to research, Dr. Azeloglu is fiercely passionate about teaching and equitable training of the next generation of scientists. He directs the graduate-level Fundamentals of Microscopy course and teaches courses on introduction to systems biology and open data sciences at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Mount Sinai. He is actively involved in both the Pharmacology predoctoral and Nephrology postdoctoral T32 training programs. He is also the co-founder and director of the NIH-funded MERRIT Fellowship Program, which is a joint training program between Mount Sinai and the Cooper Union that aims to recruit engineering students and researchers into nephrology.

His lab is actively recruiting graduate students and postdocs with broad scientific interests from all walks of life. You can get more information about their research and joining the lab at azeloglulab.com.

Yvette Yien, Ph.D.


Dr.  Yvette Yien is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Delaware.  Dr. Yien grew up in sunny Singapore, where she received her B.Sc. in Life Sciences from the National University of Singapore.  During her undergraduate work, she carried out research in the field of x-ray crystallography.  This research experience sparked a life-long interest in the role of protein complexes and protein-protein interactions which persists to this day in her own lab.  Initially, she was convinced that she wanted to study protein biochemistry until a friend reviewed an entire semester of cell biology lectures that she had skipped right before the test.  During this cramming session, she was won over by the beauty of the apoptosis pathway and promptly joined the lab of Dr. Victor Yu at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology to work on the biochemistry of mitochondrial apoptosis pathway proteins.  The year she spent in Dr. Yu’s lab sparked a life-long fascination with cell biology, and shaped her approach of identifying problems in vivo, and solving them in vitro.  Dr. Yien moved to the US in 2004 and entered the Ph.D. program in Biomedical Sciences at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City with the goal of learning how cells develop. She worked with Dr. James Bieker, who discovered the Erythroid Kruppel Life Factor, EKLF/KLF1, a master regulator of erythroid transcription and globin switching.  KLF1 turned out to be the founding member of the vertebrate KLF family of zinc-finger transcription factors, which regulate a wide range of critical processes such as development, cell death and proliferation.  Dr. Yien investigated how the function of EKLF/KLF1 could be modulated in a context-specific manner during erythroid differentiation.  During her studies, she observed that EKLF splicing was altered in the bone marrows of pregnant mice and in murine fetal livers.  This made her wonder if pregnancy caused adaptive changes in erythropoiesis to meet the requirements of the pregnant female and developing fetus.  This fascination with sex-specific regulation of hematopoiesis has persisted and is one of the projects in the Yien lab.

During graduate school, Dr. Yien attended a research seminar by Dr. Trista North on the identification of the PGE2/Wnt pathway as a regulator of hematopoietic stem cells.  This seminar opened up the possibility of doing in vivo genetic and imaging experiments in zebrafish that were not possible in mice.  Further, she realized that zebrafish is an excellent model organism in which to examine how cellular development occurs within an organismal context.  Excited by these possibilities, Dr. Yien left for Boston in 2012 to work on the role of mitochondrial iron metabolism in erythroid cell biology in Barry Paw’s zebrafish lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.  Her research showed that erythroid cells expressed specialized, mitochondrial membrane proteins which increase the rate transport of heme intermediates and iron during terminal erythroid differentiation.  Further, she identified CLPX as a regulator of heme synthesis in vertebrates.  Her work in these areas earned her a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (F32) and a K01 career development award from NIH/NIDDK.

Dr. Yien started her lab in 2017 at the University of Delaware with the overarching goal of understanding how cells couple nutrient metabolism with cell-type specific requirements.  Although most cells types require the essentially same nutrients for their survival, the specific quantities and fates of these nutrients vary among different cell types as different cells utilize nutrients in varying ways to carry out their specialized functions.  One such nutrient that carries out many ubiquitous, life-essential redox reactions in cells in key processes such as such as respiration, maintenance of the circadian rhythm, and detoxification, is iron.  Iron also plays a central role in cell-specific processes such as dopamine production within the dopaminergic neuron and oxygen transport by red blood cells.  Iron requirements and utilization in different cell types differ widely.  For instance, developing erythroid cells, which synthesize 90% of the body’s heme for hemoglobin production, transport massive quantities of iron and rapidly process them into heme.  This requires expression of erythroid-specific iron transporters and other proteins which increase the activities of heme synthesis enzymes.  Deficiencies in these proteins cause hemoglobinzation defects and developmental defects.  Other tissues, such as the liver, utilize iron for the formation of iron-sulphur clusters, which play a key role in mitochondrial respiration, and for synthesis of liver cytochromes.  The processes that govern iron fate and which couple the rate of iron uptake to its utilization are mostly unknown.  Identification of these regulatory mechanisms is a central goal of the lab.

Currently, the specific goals of the Yien lab are:  1.  To interrogate how iron transport and fate is coupled with to cellular requirements, and to exploit this knowledge to understand mechanisms of hematologic physiology and disease.  The lab hypothesizes that this occurs by the functional and structural interaction of iron transport proteins and heme metabolome with the mitochondrial homeostasis machinery, which may allow crosstalk between iron metabolism with other nutrient metabolism pathways.  2.  To understand how iron is utilized during tissue development, particularly in pathways required for terminal erythroid differentiation and liver development.  3.  To elucidate how pregnancy causes adaptive changes in maternal bone marrow hematopoiesis and iron metabolism, increasing erythroid cell production necessary to keep up with increased maternal blood volume, placental function, and fetal iron requirements.  The lab employs a broad range of model systems and techniques to solve these problems, including yeast and mammalian cell culture, as well as zebrafish and mouse animal models; this is complemented by biochemical techniques such as metabolic labeling, heme synthesis pathway enzymatic assays and metabolomics (the latter two techniques conducted at the University of Utah).   Their long-term goal is to exploit their knowledge of tissue-specific regulation of iron metabolism to more generally understand how nutrient metabolism is regulated in a cell-specific contexts.  The work of the lab is currently funded by a P01 subproject award from the NHLBI, an R35 award from NIGMS, an NIDDK R03, pilot and feasibility grants from the NIDDK administered through Indiana University and the Center for Iron and Heme Disorders at the University of Utah, and a Cooley’s Anemia Foundation fellowship.

In addition to her interests in iron metabolism, mitochondrial biology, and pregnancy, Dr. Yien is also enthusiastic about trainee development and passionate about increasing diversity in the scientific workforce, and accessibility to healthcare for under-served populations.  One of the things her lab does is to focus on research problems that disproportionately affect women and children.  Most of Dr. Yien’s undergraduates have won research awards, and her first postdoc, Dr. Mark Perfetto, was selected for a postdoc exchange program at the Center of Iron and Heme Disorders at the University of Utah.  She is actively recruiting postdoctoral fellows and graduate students who are looking to pursue challenging questions in a supportive and diverse research environment.  More information about the lab can be found here: https://www.bio.udel.edu/people/yyien.

Anne-Ruxandra Carvunis, Ph.D.


Dr. Anne-Ruxandra Carvunis is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in the Department of Computational and Systems Biology. Dr. Carvunis identifies as an Evolutionary Systems Biologist and is resolutely interdisciplinary in her research philosophy. She opened her laboratory at Pitt in 2017 with the mandate to uncover the fundamental principles of change and innovation during the evolution of living systems. She is particularly interested in understanding what makes each species unique, including how novel species-specific genes emerge “from scratch”. A broad array of eukaryotic species and lineages are investigated in the Carvunis lab, but their current favorite model system is the budding yeast, whose genome was sequenced over twenty years ago but is still full of surprises.

Traditionally, we think of gene evolution akin to how we think of species evolution: a new gene has descended with modification from an ancestral gene. However, it has become clear over the past decade that completely novel protein-coding genes can also evolve de novo from non-genic sequences. How does this extraordinary transformation take place? How often does it happen? How do the new species-specific genes integrate the pre-existing cellular machinery? What are the physiological contributions of these young coding elements? These are only some of the exciting unanswered questions that Dr. Carvunis tackles in her laboratory.

For Dr. Carvunis, the quest to understand the origins of new genes started with an original hypothesis according to which de novo gene “birth” involves the existence and translation of transitory genetic elements called “proto-genes” (Carvunis et al, Nature 2012). Today Dr. Carvunis and her collaborators are actively pursuing research aimed at understanding the biology of these proto-genes and their evolutionary implications. Some questions require thinking deeply about what “function” and “novelty” mean in the genomic world (Keeling et al, eLife 2019), and how these concepts translate to computational methods for identifying novel sequences (Domazet-Loso, Carvunis et al, Molecular Biology and Evolution, 2017; Vakirlis et al, BioRxiv, 2019a). Other questions require directly testing hypotheses with experiments and following clues from genomics data – here again, surprises abound (Vakirlis et al, BioRxiv, 2019b).

Financial support for Dr. Carvunis’ research on gene birth has been generously provided by the NIH Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00), the Searle Scholars Award, and most recently the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (DP2). Dr. Carvunis has also received a number of distinctions including a Medal of honorable doctoral work, the national L’Oreal-Unesco Award for Women in Science, and the Trailblazer award from the Ladies Hospital Aid Society. In addition to her research, Dr. Carvunis co-founded the Pittsburgh Center for Evolutionary Biology and Medicine (CEBaM) to help facilitate research and education in evolutionary medicine. She is also the Associate Director of the Pitt graduate program in Integrative Systems Biology (ISB), which now includes a special track in Evolutionary Medicine.

If you would like to learn more about gene birth, please turn to the extensive review of the field Drs Carvunis and Van Oss wrote and posted to Wikipedia (Van Oss and Carvunis, PLoS Genetics 2019). Have fun!

Hossein Khiabanian, Ph.D.


Hossein Khiabanian is an Assistant Professor of Pathology in Medical Informatics at Rutgers University. His research focuses on computational biology and cancer genomics, based on the idea that studying complexity, dynamics, and stochastic patterns in biological data is critical for understanding how tumors initiate and evolve. Cancer follows clonal, Darwinian evolution, where, as genetic alterations accumulate, fitter clones dominate, ultimately leading to macroscopic disease. During this process, selective pressures can spur tumor evolution and change its mode of progression, often leading to more aggressive and treatment-refractory disease. It is, therefore, imperative to capture the extent of genomic diversity in the subpopulation structure early in a cancer’s evolution.

Dr. Khiabanian received his Sc.B. in Physics from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, Iran, where he was born and raised. He moved to the United States in September 2001, and entered Brown University to pursue his childhood dream of studying astronomy. There, under the supervision of Dr. Ian Dell’Antonio, he surveyed and analyzed a uniquely large cosmological datasets, and developed a method to reconstruct multi-resolution maps of galaxy clusters and dark matter structures using week gravitational lensing. During this time, he also attended lectures in genetics and immunology, which motivated him to search for research opportunities in computational biology. Soon after defending his Ph.D., he joined Dr. Raul Rabadán’s group at Columbia University in September 2008, and focused on designing statistical approaches to dissect the cellular and molecular heterogeneity that enables clonal populations to evolve and transform. He developed computational and experimental approaches that led to the discovery of genes implicated in development and disease progression in pediatric and adult leukemias and lymphomas. Specifically, his work revealed that some small mutations present prior to treatment at low abundances infer the same clinical phenotype and poor survival as clonal lesions carried by majority of cancer cells. The results by Dr. Khiabanian and his colleagues strongly suggested that limiting the knowledge of tumor genetics to the dominant clone was not sufficient for accurate prediction of a cancer’s outcome.

In August 2015, Dr. Khiabanian started a tenure-track position at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. Since then, his lab has successfully designed statistical, information-theoretic approaches to analyze high-throughput, high-depth sequencing data to especially address the challenges in careful interpretation of clinical sequencing results. These methods aim to resolve genomic heterogeneity in both tumor and non-tumor cell populations, which may confound distinguishing subclonal tumor alterations from those possibly originating from the non-tumor component in the microenvironment. Recently, Dr. Khiabanian led an analysis of a large dataset from patients with solid tumors (Severson et al. Blood 2018), which showed that some detected mutations arose from hematopoietic cells infiltrating the tumor microenvironment. In addition to the presence of mutations associated with coexistent hematological malignancies such as myeloproliferative neoplasms (Riedlinger et al. JAMA Oncology 2019), some mutations were detected due to an age-related condition known as clonal hematopoiesis of indeterminate potential (CHIP). This work raised the hypothesis that CHIP exhibits a distinct genomic landscape when enriched in tumor microenvironment and may evolve under solid tumor treatment. Dr. Khiabanian’s lab has been testing these hypotheses and developing computational methods to study tumor evolutionary patterns supported by an R01 award from the National Cancer Institute, three pre- or post-doctoral fellowships from the New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research, an institutional grant from American Cancer Society, and more recently a Translational Grant from the V Foundation. Since joining Rutgers, the Khiabanian lab has contributed to more than 20 publications including the lead or corresponding role in 12 research articles, reviews, and pre-prints.

Dr. Khiabanian is also passionate about bridging communication barriers between computational and clinical fields and building a pathway for quantitative researchers to become translational scientists. He has organized multiple multidisciplinary meetings at Rutgers, NYU, and Columbia, and has mentored graduate students and postdocs with backgrounds in physics, engineering, informatics, and medicine. He has also made an effort to promote interdisciplinary collaborations as well as pre-print and open-access publishing through his participation in the eLife Community Ambassador program, and by providing opportunities for junior scholars to participate in the peer-review process as an academic editor for the journal PeerJ.

Because of his graduate training in physics and cosmology, Dr. Khiabanian gravitates towards putting current research in genomics in the broader historical context of advancements in science. The study of astronomy was marked by important paradigm shifts based on precise observations that were interpreted by the quantitative language of mathematics and geometry. With the advent of high-throughput sequencing methods, genomics has moved into an era that is characterized by vast amounts of unbiased data. The field has embarked on a path to uncover important insights into tumor pathogenesis and its evolutionary dynamics with the goal of helping design potentially more effective therapeutic approaches for the treatment of cancer. Dr. Khiabanian is excited for the opportunity to be a part of these efforts, and is looking for graduate students and postdocs to join this work. You can find more information about the Khiabanian lab at khiabanian-lab.org or on Twitter at @HKhiabanian.


Megan Killian, Ph.D.

Megan Killian - NSF Early Career Award

Dr. Megan Killian is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware. Dr. Killian’s laboratory studies the mechanisms of adaptation and growth of musculoskeletal tissues and joints (e.g., tendon-bone attachment; hip joint) with the goal of leveraging these mechanisms to improve orthopaedic healing and regeneration. To address these challenges, Megan has developed several small animal models to study the onset and progression of mechanically-induced joint disorders. The Killian Lab approaches this problem from an engineering, physiology, and clinical perspective and uses a wide range of tools and techniques such as mechanical testing, optogenetics, transgenic mouse models, and engineered materials to study healing and regeneration.

Megan is a native Michigander and grew up downriver from Detroit in a small, rural town where her father was a steelworker and mother was a tax accountant. Megan was the first in her family to attend a 4-year college and received a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering from Michigan Technological University. At Michigan Tech, Megan was a three-sport athlete (XC, Nordic skiing, and Track and Field) and learned to ski when she joined the team. Her participation in NCAA endurance sports strengthened her interest in movement science and biomechanics. She then pursued her interests in biomechanics at Montana State University, where she completed a M.S. in Exercise Science and Human Movement Biomechanics with Michael Hahn (now Associate Professor and Director of the Bowerman Sports Science Clinic at the University of Oregon). Her interests in biomechanics were strengthened even more, and she returned to Michigan Tech for a Ph.D. in BME with Tammy Haut Donahue (currently the founding chair of BME at the University of Massachusetts Amherst).

Upon completing her Ph.D. in 2010, Megan moved to Saint Louis, Missouri, where she was a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Stavros (Steve) Thomopoulos in Orthopaedic Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine. Her research focused on rotator cuff development and degeneration, and she worked closely with orthopaedic surgeons to develop new animal models of joint instability and degeneration.  Her work in this area earned her the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (F32) and the Children’s Discovery Fellowship.

Megan started her laboratory as an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware in 2016 where she continues work in these areas. She was the Co-Chair of the Gordon Research Seminar on Musculoskeletal Biology and Bioengineering in 2016 and a member of the Advocacy Committee for the Orthopaedic Research Society. In 2017, she received a K12 from the Interdisciplinary Rehabilitation Engineering Research Career Development Program. She attended the Training in Grantsmanship for Rehabilitation Research in 2018 and was awarded an R03 from NICHD in 2018 to study the contributions of skeletal muscle loading during rotator cuff maturation and healing. She has also received funding from University of Delaware Research Foundation, Delaware Center for Translational Research, Delaware Biosciences Center for Advanced Technology Applied Research Collaborations, and Delaware Rehabilitation Institution COBRE. In 2018, she was awarded the Journal of Orthopaedic Research Early-Career Award for her work in hip instability.

Megan is passionate about increasing the engagement of women in STEM fields, especially orthopaedics and engineering, which was a major draw for her to UD (which is the headquarters for The Perry Initiative, an outreach program for high school and medical school women aimed at encouraging women to pursue careers in engineering and orthopaedic surgery). Megan’s mentoring style follows principles of the growth mindset and her laboratory is populated with engaged graduate and undergraduate students from diverse educational backgrounds. This diversity brings an array of perspectives and expertise to her research group. She has hosted four high school students and five REU students for summer research and has mentored undergraduate students at UD from a diverse set of majors, including Nursing, Animal Biosciences, Neuroscience, Biomedical Engineering, Biology, Political Science, and Mechanical Engineering.

She is also a peer mentor through UD and led a team of all-women STEM faculty through the UD Faculty Achievement Program. As an active member of New PI Slack, Megan initiated the New PI Slack Faculty Success Program and has organized seven small writing and mentoring groups, which are modeled after the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity Faculty Success Program “Bootcamp” approach.

For more information about Dr. Killian and her work, find her on Twitter at @megankillian and her website here: https://killianlab.com/



Katherine Aird, Ph.D.


Dr. Katherine Aird is an Assistant Professor at Penn State College of Medicine in the Department of Cellular & Molecular Physiology. Her lab is broadly interested in understanding how cellular metabolism regulates cancer initiation and progression with the ultimate goal of exploiting these pathways for new therapies. Dr. Aird’s work has been funded by the NCI, DoD Ovarian Cancer Research Program, W. W. Smith Charitable Trust, and Sandy Rollman Ovarian Cancer Foundation.

Dr. Aird was born in Saudi Arabia, where she lived until she was 6. After moving to Virginia and then Ohio, she began middle school in New Dehli, India. During this time, she developed a passion for science and was especially interested in infectious disease since diseases like leprosy were something she saw on a daily basis. After finishing high school in Singapore,  she attended Johns Hopkins University for her undergraduate degree so that she could have first-hand research experience. During that time, she studied susceptibility to tuberculosis with Dr. Yuka Manabe, which solidified her resolve to obtain a PhD.

For her PhD studies, Dr. Aird moved to Duke University. While she remained interested in infectious disease, she also explored other areas of biomedical science during her rotations. During one particular rotation on cancer biology in Dr. Gayathri Devi’s lab, she was intrigued by the mechanistic cell biology puzzles that remain to be solved in cancer cells. She stayed on in this lab and identified multiple new mechanisms of therapeutic resistance of inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) cells. In 2008, she received a DoD Predoctoral Fellowship from the Breast Cancer Research Program to study mechanisms of resistance to HER2 targeting agents in IBC.  Importantly, her work revealed a new mechanism of action of the HER2 kinase inhibitor lapatinib through increased reactive oxygen species, which suggested that patients taking this drug should not combine it with antioxidants.

Dr. Aird then joined Dr. Rugang Zhang’s lab at Fox Chase Cancer Center, and later moved with him to The Wistar Institute, for her postdoctoral studies. During her interview, Dr. Zhang spoke about From that day on, Dr. Aird has been fascinated by senescence as a biological process and has worked towards discovering how senescence plays a role in both cancer initiation and response to therapy. During her postdoctoral work, she discovered that suppression of nucleotide metabolism is both necessary and sufficient for oncogene-induced senescence. Her work was the first to describe upregulation of a metabolic pathway that could completely overcome senescence and induce proliferation. This work formed the foundation for her K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award.

In late 2016, Dr. Aird started her independent lab at Penn State College of Medicine. Her love for senescence and excitement about the growing cancer metabolic field has given her a unique niche. The aims to understand the metabolic differences between normal, oncogene-induced senescent, and tumor cells with the overall goals of: 1) elucidating the earliest events in tumorigenesis: and 2) exploiting these pathways for new cancer therapies. For instance, her lab discovered a metabolic pathway through wildtype IDH1 that is upregulated in ovarian cancer compared to normal cells-of-origin. Inhibition of IDH1 in ovarian cancer cells induced senescence through a metabolic-epigenetic axis. This work was recently published in Molecular Cancer Research where it will be highlighted in the August issue. In another project that was recently accepted at Cell Reports and currently available on bioRxiv, Dr. Aird’s lab discovered that the cell cycle inhibitor p16 has a non-canonical role in nucleotide metabolism. They found that suppression of p16 increases nucleotide metabolism to bypass oncogene-induced senescence through regulation of mTORC1. This is one of the first studies to describe a role for p16 outside of the cell cycle. These projects have led to multiple new insights into the ways cells use metabolites and activate metabolic pathways early in transformation. The lab is following up on these studies to determine whether inhibition of these pathways in pre-clinical models results in decreased tumor burden. The next big challenge the Aird lab plans to tackle is whether these metabolic changes alter the tumor microenvironment and how that affects cancer initiation and response to therapy.

Dr. Aird is also passionate about mentoring the next generation of scientists and has been nominated by her postdoctoral fellow for Outstanding Mentor through the PSU Postdoctoral Association. She is the Associate Director for Professional Development for the Penn State College of Medicine Postdoctoral Society and aims to help postdocs develop critical professional skills for the transition to the next phase of their career. Her dedication to her trainees is also evident in their fellowship success rate- both her first graduate student and first postdoc are independently funded through an NCI F31 and Penn State Cancer Institute Fellowship, respectively. You can find more information about open positions and the lab’s projects at airdlab.com. Follow Dr. Aird on Twitter @airdlab.