In the aftermath of crippling hurricanes, do communities with close social networks bounce back faster?
That’s the focus of research by Camille Testard, a Blavatnik Family Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. It is an important area of study amid climate change and an increase in destructive storm activity.
PhD student Testard studies a population of monkeys living on an island off the coast of Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Her team has found that the monkeys on the island became more tolerant of each other and made new friends in the storm’s aftermath, akin to human surges in solidarity after a disaster, according to the Penn Biomedical Graduates Studies newsletter, The Dish.
Testard said it’s the kind of work that allows her to home in on findings “relevant to understanding the roots of humans’ drive to connect with others.”
It’s just one example of the potentially world-changing research by the latest fellows at Penn’s Biomedical Graduate Studies (BGS) program, tackling the biggest biomedical questions and challenges facing society.
In 2018, the foundation donated $2 million to Penn BGS and created the Blavatnik Family Fellowship in Medical Research, a competitive award that supports innovation and research by the next generation of scientific leaders.
The fellowship has so far supported 27 students.
“Now, more than ever, scientists need ample support, funding and tools to protect the future. We’re greatly impressed and proud of these fellows, who are conducting exceptional scientific research and work, and all those that have gone through the program.” said Len Blavatnik, founder of Access Industries and the Blavatnik Family Foundation.
Penn’s BGS program is among the strongest in the nation, offering high-level scientific resources and deeply committed faculty inspired to train the next generation of investigators.
“BGS students explore the frontiers of biomedical research and develop new therapies to improve human health,” and the Blavatnik Family Foundation should be credited for helping “to accelerate leading research and cultivate outstanding young minds at the beginning of their scientific careers,” Penn said.
In the current class, fellow Jamal Green is looking at which microbes are important for developing a healthy immune system and preventing type 1 diabetes.
Green said that the Fellowship will provide “extensive networking opportunities with the Blavatnik scientific community” and allow him to “focus on developing translational approaches to advance microbial based therapies and diagnostics.”
Nitsan Goldstein is researching the web of neural networks through which the brain regulates food intake and hopes to find that those neurons can be targeted therapeutically to mitigate health risks associated with excess weight and other metabolic disorders. Goldstein said, “It is an honor to receive the Blavatnik Family Fellowship and to join this vibrant scientific community,” adding that the fellowship will allow her “to continue investigating the neural control of feeding behavior and launch me into the next phase of my academic career.”
Other recently announced fellows are studying chronic infections, actin cytoskeleton dynamics and regulation, neuropsychiatric disease, RNA processing patterns, neural networks, chromosome folding, acute myeloid leukemia (AML) cells, respectively. The full list of this year’s Blavatnik Family Fellows can be found here.
In September 2021, Penn BGS caught up with previously announced fellows for a research update.
Bridget Gosis is researching nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition that affects about 100 million Americans and can progress to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) and subsequently cirrhosis and liver cancer. Gosis found in her research that “folliculin deletion affects several key lipid metabolic processes in the liver, leading to comprehensive protection against NAFLD/NASH.” Gosis shared that the support from the foundation “has been absolutely critical for my growth as a physician scientist.” She hopes to lead her own lab one day.
Phuong Nguyen, who is studying neuroscience, has co-authored a published paper in Cell Stem Cell, submitted a second paper to the same journal, and submitted a book chapter to Elsevier. Nguyen is studying how the therapeutic inhibition of ACLY, a metabolic enzyme that plays a key role in fat synthesis, modifications of many proteins, and gene expression, can impact the rest of the body. She hopes to “pass the torch to the future generation of scientists and improve the science literacy within my community, and subsequently help to foster a rich diversity in science.”
The initial investment announcement by the Blavatnik Family Foundation can be found here.