Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole
by Julie Kiefer
Qiang Liu, M.D., M.S., postdoctoral researcher in the University of Utah's Department of Biology, received the prestigious Grass Fellowship to support his innovative research proposal to visualize how nerve cells communicate. Liu is the first applicant from the U of U to receive the annual award, established in 1951.
“The program is highly competitive and we accept only the very cream of the crop of young neuroscientists,” said Janis Weeks, Ph.D., president of the Grass Foundation. “Qiang Liu's fellowship is very well deserved.”
Liu and seven other Grass Fellows in Neuroscience will travel from universities world-wide to conduct independent research projects at the Grass Laboratory housed at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Woods Hole, Massachusetts from May 30 to September 4, 2010. MBL is a vibrant, world-class research institution that has hosted numerous year-round and visiting scientists, including over 50 Nobel Laureates, who have made significant advances in cell, molecular, developmental, and neurobiology.
“Working at Woods Hole is an amazing opportunity,” said Erik Jorgensen, Ph.D., professor of biology and Liu's advisor. Jorgensen, also former scientific director of the U of U's Brain Institute and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, has performed research at MBL. “The Grass Fellows are all young huff 'n' puff scientists who will start collaborations that can change science, inspire new directions, and build friendships that last a lifetime.”
Liu's research project was inspired by the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. When certain nerve cells, or neurons, are stimulated, they communicate this information by a process called synaptic transmission. In this process, neurons package chemical neurotransmitters that encode the signal into vesicles. The signal is passed on when vesicles release their contents to a recipient, postsynaptic cell. To visualize these events, Liu will utilize microscopic worms, Caenorhabditis elegans, which have been genetically engineered to bear light-activatable ion channels that can stimulate neurons. The worms will be exposed to light, and then flash-frozen as quickly as 100 milliseconds afterward. “It'll be like Harold Eugene Edgerton using high speed photography to watch the bullet passing through the apple,” said Liu. “I'd like to do that, but in the microscopic world.” The stop-motion visuals will yield valuable information about vesicle dynamics and the steps of synaptic transmission. By performing the method in genetic mutant worms, he will also be able to determine whether certain cellular components are required for specific steps. The experiments are made possible by a state-of-the art high pressure freezing system worth $250,000, the Leica EMPACT2, which is available at MBL.
“Qiang is pursuing a new, cutting-edge method,” said Jorgensen. “He will benefit from all of the great minds in neuroscience thinking about his scientific problem.”
A highlight for Grass Fellows is mixing with high-powered scientists in an informal, yet scientifically rigorous, atmosphere. Each year the program hosts a Forbes Lecturer, a prominent neuroscientist that spends a portion of the summer in the Grass Laboratory. This year's lecturer is Allison Doupe, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies vocal learning in songbirds.
“You hear points of view that are totally different from what you've heard before. That helped me a lot in terms of developing my project,” said Alonso Moreno, D.Sc., professor of medicine. Moreno became a Grass Fellow in 1990 while a postdoctoral scientist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and served as associate director for the program in 1994 and 1995. Twenty years later, his lab still uses techniques he devised as a fellow. Moreno said that the experience, as well as contacts made while at MBL, helped boost his career. “I planted the seed then. Now I'm really harvesting the benefits.”
Liu views the fellowship as valuable training for a future job. “This will be practice for being a primary investigator. It'll be the first time that I'll oversee a project from the ordering to the end,” he said. “My wife, dog, and I are also looking forward to spending a summer by the ocean.”
The Grass Fellowship Program takes place over 14 weeks each summer and is open to young investigators in their late graduate or early postdoctoral years. Applications for 2011 Grass Fellowships are due December 10, 2010. Fellows are granted research space, a budget for research expenses, and funds for travel, room and board for themselves and their families.
The program is run by the Grass Foundation - a private, non-profit organization supporting neuroscience research, founded by Albert and Ellen Grass. The husband and wife team are known for key improvements they made in electroencephalogram (EEG) technology, upon which they built the Grass Instrument Company.slack12/Flickr