Sarachek Fellowship Award Recipient
Damien Downes is a doctoral candidate in genetics. His research focuses on DNA-binding proteins that are involved in regulating genes for the uptake and metabolism of nitrogen from the environment, as nitrogen is essential for fungal growth. Fungal plant pathogens pose a major threat to world food supplies, causing billions of dollars in crop losses annually, with $4 billion in North America alone. Therefore, understanding the mechanisms used by fungi to infect plants is critical for global food security. To cause disease, plant pathogens must adapt to changing environmental conditions. Understanding the mechanisms underlying gene regulation will help combat the ways in which pathogens infect their hosts and cause disease. Downes uses the molecular genetic model research organism Aspergillus nidulans, a close relative of several plant and animal pathogens, to investigate the mechanisms that fungi use to regulate gene expression. The results obtained from his research will lead to a clearer picture of transcriptional regulatory mechanisms in fungi and lay a foundation for future work in fungal pathogens of animals and plants.
Downes received his bachelor's degree with honours at the University of Melbourne. He will graduate with his doctorate in May 2015 with a 4.0 GPA. Dr. Richard Todd, assistant professor in plant pathology, is Downes' major professor. Downes was a recipient of a Sarachek Scientific Travel Award in 2014.
Downes will use the fellowship to relocate to Oxford, UK, where he plans to pursue a post-doctoral position. Downes also plans to attend conferences and workshops in 2015 and 2016 to further his research contributions. Downes intends to continue his research in the field of transcriptional regulation and broaden his understanding of different techniques and approaches by working with different model organisms.
Sarachek Travel Award Recipients
Aashima Khosla is a doctoral candidate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics. She received her bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Delhi University and her master's degree in biotechnology from M.S. University of Baroda, India. Her doctoral research focuses on the plant specific class, IV HD-Zip transcription factors, that contains START, which is a special binding domain. HD-ZIP IV TFs are involved in differentiation of the epidermis, the outermost cellular layer that plays a critical role in plant defense against pathogens and in protection from environmental stresses. The START domain from plants is functionally similar to mammalian counterparts, and that they can modulate transcription factor activity through potential ligands and via protein-protein interactions. In humans, START domains occur in cholesterol transporters, and misexpression of several members is observed in tumor cells. Gaining a fundamental understanding of START domain function in transcription factors may enable scientists to improve plant traits such as stress resistance, as well as understand more about cancer progression. Her major professor is Kathrin Schrick, assistant professor of biology.
Khosla plans to use the funds to attend the 2015 Plant Metabolic Engineering Gordon Research Conference in New Hampshire where she plans to present her work on the functional characterization of the START lipid/sterol binding domain in homeodomain transcription factors from plants. Khosla will discuss her results on putative protein-metabolite interactors of the START domain. This conference will help Khosla learn from, exchange ideas with and build an academic network of top scholars in the plant community.
Courtney Passow is a doctoral candidate in Biology. She received her bachelor's degree in biology from Texas A&M University. Her doctoral research focuses on determining the underlying genetic and physiological mechanisms of adaptation to natural stressor by using an extremophile fish that lives in the presence of naturally occurring toxic hydrogen sulfide. Adaptation can allow populations to persist in novel environments characterized by harsh conditions. This process typically involves changes in structural, behavioral, or physiological traits leading to an increase in organismal survival under specific environments. Structural traits and corresponding genetic differences along environmental gradients have frequently been used to infer adaptation in natural systems, but identifying the genes underlying adaptation remains a challenge. Most studies attempting to identify the genetic basis of adaptation have focused on structural adaptations, yet the underlying genetic changes of physiological adaptations are less understood. Passow's research is geared towards making significant contributions to the understanding of mechanisms mediating adaptation to extreme environments. Her major professor is Michael Tobler, assistant professor of biology.
Passow plans to use the funds to attend the Ecological and Evolutionary Genomics Gordon Research Conference in Biddeford, ME where she plans to present her research. This conference focuses on how genome-enabled approaches are helping to rapidly advance the understanding of the complicated relationships between genotypes, phenotypes and the environment. Attending this conference will help Passow gain further knowledge in her field of study and develop contacts for future long-term collaborations.