The Duke CTSA TL1 postdoctoral program is a new two-year training program that aims to provide two years of funded time to support the research training of outstanding junior scientists. The program welcomes postdoctoral fellows interested in broadening their training and, potentially, including a new category of research methodology. This year, seven new scholars were selected to join the program - three of those scholars are Erin Hisey, Andrew Murray, and Joe Saelens.
While in graduate school, Erin Hisey focused her studies in the basic sciences, particularly looking at mechanisms behind motor learning in songbirds. She became fascinated by what happened in the brain when learning went awry and how that might relate to patients with an intellectual disability. Through her research, she determined that the disconnect was happening at the level of populations of neurons, and today her studies look at that relationship more deeply.
Erin’s research has shown that protein dysfunction in the brain can cause disturbances in neural populations which lead to issues with working memory. Her goal is to discover how neural population activity is disturbed when proteins dysfunction, to then better treat patients with mutations in neural proteins that cause intellectual disability.
“If we can understand this phenomenon at the neural circuit level, we can come up with better therapies for treating intellectual disabilities,” she said.
Erin found out about the TL1 program through a department chair in the Neurobiology department. While she felt well versed in the basic sciences, she didn’t feel as strong in translational science and saw the TL1 program as a great opportunity to flesh out her skills.
“I’m really looking forward to meeting and networking with other scholars with similar interests,” Erin said. “The TL1 program is a great way for me to bridge the gap between the work I do in the lab and how that translates into the clinic.”
As an undergrad, Andrew Murray’s interest in cancer grew, and he subsequently applied to PhD programs that directly focused on cancer research. After completing his PhD, he joined Duke as a post-doctoral researcher in Dr. Dorthoy Sipkins’ lab to specifically concentrate on translational breast cancer research projects.
“In breast cancer patients, tumor cells may lie dormant in the bone marrow,” he said. “Then years later their cancer can come back because those cells are not readily detected.”
Andrew’s research focuses on mechanisms to mobilize tumor cells out of bone marrow to prevent the late-term resurgence of breast cancer in patients. An approach like this is advanced, Andrew said, and requires sophisticated techniques. A great thing about the TL1 program, and one of the reasons why he applied, is that it gives him the opportunity to learn those techniques.
“The TL1 program emphasizes the importance of enhancing training” Andrew said. “It will provide me with funding to train in areas I otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn.”
As a researcher for Dr. Steve Taylor, his postdoctoral mentor, Dr. Joe Saelens is focused on pursuing a deeper scientific understanding of malaria. Specifically, Joe is investigating the natural protection afforded by sickle cell trait from the disease.
“Sickle cell trait is the biggest known protector against severe disease from malaria,” he said. “The idea of the sickle cell trait has been around since the 1940s, but we still don’t have a good understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms. We hope to find new therapies to treat and prevent malaria infections.”
Prior to his current research, Joe studied tuberculosis. For his doctoral research in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke, Joe was mentored by Dr. David Tobin. In Tobin’s lab, he investigated the genetic factors of mycobacteria that promote skeletal tuberculosis using zebrafish as an infection model.
The TL1 program will help Joe strengthen and broaden his skillset, and that was a major reason why he applied. He plans to use the support of the TL1 program to complement his bench research expertise with new bioinformatic and data science analytic tools.
“I think what sets the TL1 program apart is the mentorship team it has assembled,” Joe said. “It establishes a framework for my professional development by facilitating a connection with experts who are helping me become the kind of scientist I want to be.”