Two scientists at Columbia have been appointed as Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigators and will now receive research funding from HHMI. Oliver Hobert, a neuroscientist and geneticist, and Rafael Yuste, a neuroscientist and biophysicist, are among the 43 researchers recently chosen as new HHMI investigators, an honor bestowed only to the nation's most promising biomedical scientists.
"I am pleased to congratulate Oliver and Rafael on the high honor of becoming Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators," said David Hirsh, executive vice president of research and professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Columbia. "These appointments validate Columbia University's commitment to developing the early careers of bright young faculty who will continue our tradition of taking science in new directions. The HHMI will afford these young faculty members the opportunity to pursue their scholarship to expand our knowledge of fundamental neuroscience."
Gerald D. Fischbach, executive vice president of Columbia University Medical Center , said, "These appointments should enable Dr. Hobert to significantly further his research efforts into the nervous system, and to further Dr. Yuste's efforts to develop new therapeutic options for epilepsy. Both scientists have already contributed great work in these areas. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute plays an important role in supporting the work of some of our most adventurous scientists. Because HHMI provides a salary and research funding for its investigators, they are able to explore areas that are not well-supported by public grants. And because the investigators remain faculty members of their institutions, they are valued resources for colleagues and students."
Hobert is an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at the College of Physicians & Surgeons. His research focuses on molecular mechanisms that create and maintain cellular diversity in the nervous system. His goal is to understand how neurons are genetically programmed to adopt their specific anatomical and functional features. For a neuron to fulfill its function in the nervous system, it must express the correct set of proteins that allow it to be wired correctly, to communicate with its environment and to communicate with other neurons.
"Being appointed to HHMI is a wonderful recognition of the work accomplished by the researchers in my lab and it is also a reflection of the superb research and collegial environment here at Columbia, which constantly motivates one to think outside the box," said Hobert. "This will allow me to further deepen the genetic approaches we have initiated in the past, but now on a larger scale. Furthermore, we will expand our neuronal cell fate analysis to other parts of the nervous system."
Yuste, an associate professor of biological sciences on the Morningside campus, works to understand the cortical microcircuit, the basic element of cortex architecture. By first unraveling the dynamics of specific cortical microcircuits, and next the interactions between those circuits, he hopes to build a better understanding of how the whole cortex works. Along the way, Yuste aims to identify potential drug targets for treating epilepsy.
"This award honors the research of the entire Department of Biological Sciences here at Columbia," said Yuste. "This will enable my group to focus on long-term projects, such as the analysis of the cortical microcircuitry, and also risky projects, such as the development of new techniques or approaches, which are unlikely to be funded through conventional mechanisms."
These new appointments bring the number of HHMI investigators at Columbia to a dozen. Additional members of this prestigious group include the Nobel Laureates Richard Axel and Eric Kandel, as well as Stephen Goff, J. Eric Gouaux, Iva Greenwald, Wayne Hendrickson, Barry Honig, Thomas Jessell, Steven Siegelbaum and Gary Struhl.
"We are committed to providing these scientists -- and the nearly 300 scientists who are already part of HHMI -- with the freedom and flexibility they need in order to make lasting contributions to mankind," said Thomas R. Cech, HHMI president. "We want and expect them to be daring."
HHMI, one of the world's largest philanthropic organizations whose principal purpose is the direct conduct of biomedical research, is a nonprofit medical research organization that employs hundreds of leading biomedical scientists working at the forefront of their fields. HHMI employs nearly 300 investigators located at 64 institutions. More than 100 investigators are members of the National Academy of Sciences, and 10 have been honored with the Nobel Prize.