Faculty

Spotlights

University of Wisconsin–Madison biochemistry assistant professor Philip Romero and neuroscience assistant professor Ari Rosenberg are the recipients of 2018 Shaw Scientist Awards from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. The awards come with $200,000 in seed funding to support innovative research approaches and the career development of young investigators.


Philip Romero


Ari Rosenberg

Romero’s work uses new technologies to understand how proteins work and how to design new ones. Using computational methods, he is able to analyze large amounts of data that help him investigate the relationships between protein sequence, structure and function. This allows him to pull out sequences that lead to useful properties and design new proteins with desired functions.
His research has many implications because the proteins can be engineered to have specific functions, such as in bioenergy, chemical production and human health. Projects are investigating how to help convert biomass to fuel and develop cancer therapeutics. Along with these applications, the group also focuses on developing new protein engineering methods.
“The Shaw Award will enable us to pursue new high-risk projects that wouldn’t be supported by the standard funding agencies,” Romero says. “We’re excited to think longer term about where our field is headed, and how we can make a large impact on engineering biological systems.”
Romero joined the department in July 2016. He earned his Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology. At UW–Madison, he is also affiliated with the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
Romero joins a decades-long line of Department of Biochemistry faculty members in receiving the award. In 2017, assistant professor Ophelia Venturelli received a Shaw Award and the year before that, so did assistant professor Vatsan Raman, with many more before them.

“The Shaw Award will enable us to pursue new high-risk projects that wouldn’t be supported by the standard funding agencies.”
Philip Romero

Rosenberg’s research recognizes that despite the noisy and ambiguous input received by the body’s eyes, ears and other sensory organs, people perceive the world accurately and precisely. Unlocking how the brain performs this transformation is a path to understanding neurological and neuro-developmental conditions, such as traumatic brain injury and autism.
Using multifaceted experimental and computational approaches, Rosenberg’s lab is quantifying the neural basis of robust perception to ultimately guide development of individualized treatments for brain disorders. It’s an approach whose potential is being realized because of the Shaw Scientist Award.
“Research funding today tends to favor studies that have a high chance of finding an unsurprising result, and discourages more speculative studies that might yield big gains,” Rosenberg says. “For a young scientist like myself, the Shaw Scientist Award eliminates such barriers, making it possible to pursue unexplored research avenues that might not otherwise see the light of day.”
Rosenberg joined the faculty at UW–Madison in 2015 and earned his Ph.D. in computational neuroscience from the University of Chicago. He previously was awarded an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship in neuroscience. The highly sought-after award honors early-career scientists whose achievements and potential identify them as “rising stars.”

“For a young scientist like myself,” the award makes it “possible to pursue unexplored research avenues that might not otherwise see the light of day.”
Ari Rosenberg

The Shaw Scientist Awards program began in 1982 thanks to a $4.3 million bequest from Dorothy Shaw, widow of James Shaw, a prominent Milwaukee attorney. In addition to $2 million in special grants, the Shaws’ fund has awarded about $14 million in grants to 73 scientists from UW–Madison and UW–Milwaukee. An advisory panel including scientists representing major U.S. research institutions recommends the winners.
Founded more than a century ago, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation is the region’s largest community foundation and was among the first established in the world.
“Dorothy Shaw, whose generosity made this program possible, has left a tremendous legacy, not only by accelerating the work of stellar young researchers, but through biomedical advances — those discovered as well as those still to come — that her support has seeded,” says Ellen Gilligan, president and CEO of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. “I congratulate this year’s recipients on their innovation in pursuit of knowledge.”
This content was taken from the University of Wisconsin news website: https://news.wisc.edu/two-professors-receive-shaw-scientist-awards-to-su...

Biochemistry assistant professor Srivatsan “Vatsan” Raman has received a Director's New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The $2.2 million-grants fund high-risk, high-reward research performed by early stage investigators. Compared to traditional NIH grants, the New Innovator Award supports “unusually creative early stage investigators” whose research can have a broad impact on biomedical sciences.
Raman’s project is focused on understanding protein allostery. Allostery is a property by which when something happens to one part of a protein, a signal is somehow communicated to another part of the protein, where another action takes place. This “long-distance” communication is called allostery.

An illustration of the property of allostery. A dark
yellow molecule triggers a response at one end of
the protein that is communicated (red line) to the
other end of the protein where there is an effect on
DNA. Illustration by Robin Davies.

“Allosteric proteins are nature’s switches,” explains Raman, who is also affiliated with the Department of Bacteriology and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. “The classical view, one that every biochemistry textbook follows, is that only some proteins exhibit allosteric properties. However, this view is dated. There is increasing recognition that allostery is a fundamental property of all proteins, just as folding is, and that allosteric behavior is more pronounced in some proteins than others. Allosteric proteins regulate many essential cellular processes required for life. They switch states from on to off or off to on and that’s how they turn on and off a very large number of genes. However, sometimes they acquire a mutation that causes the switch to be permanently on or off when it shouldn’t be. This dysfunction is responsible for many diseases, including cancer, because activities inside a cell are no longer regulated.”
Because of their central role in regulation, these proteins are popular drug targets. Raman says almost half of all current drug targets are allosteric proteins. Yet, little is understood about how allostery itself works.
 “So, the thesis of this award is: how does this on/off business work?” Raman says. “Can we figure out the specific amino acids — the smaller units that make up proteins — that allow it to change between on and off? In my laboratory, we develop high throughput methods to probe the role of every amino acid in these proteins to decipher which are involved in allostery.”
Raman explains that their grand objective is to not just study allostery in one or two proteins, but understand the fundamental “rules” of the property. To achieve this, they plan to utilize their data from high throughput analysis experiments together with machine learning to look for commonalities across different allosteric proteins. Then the computer could look at an arbitrary allosteric protein with a mutation and predict the impact of that mutation and possibly how is best to alleviate any detrimental effects.

The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award
supports “unusually creative early stage
investigators” whose research can have a
broad impact on biomedical sciences.

“The broader vision of my laboratory is to develop these tools to advance precision medicine,” Raman says. “Every day we sequence the genomes of patients with diseases, but we have no clue which protein mutations affect function, and how they do so. Wouldn’t it be great if we could create a ‘lookup table’ or a database of mutations that a physician could use to interpret a patient’s genome?
“Drug companies are also very interested in learning how allostery works,” Raman adds. “For example, most drugs target a protein’s active site to block its action. The problem is that many proteins have similar active sites so a drug that targets them can cause harmful side effects. By comparison, allosteric sites are much more specific and understanding them to be able to target them instead can lead us to better drugs. An example of this is an estrogen receptor involved in breast cancer.”
The award is funded by the NIH Common Fund, which supports a series of high-impact programs across the NIH. The New Innovator Award was established in 2007 and supports innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency. Two other faculty at UW–Madison also received the award: assistant professor of neuroscience Darcie Moore and professor of medicine Nasia Safdar.
Raman’s award is supported by the NIH Common Fund, grant number DP2 GM132682.
This content originally appeared on the Biochemistry Dept. website: https://biochem.wisc.edu/news/2018/news-raman-nih-award-protein-function

Bob Landick, a professor of biochemistry and bacteriology, was elected this year to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Founded in 1780, the academy honors American leaders in science, art, business, and humanities. Other members elected this year include former president Barack Obama and actor Tom Hanks. Congratulations Dr. Landick! (https://news.wisc.edu/three-from-uw-madison-elected-to-american-academy-...)

Tom Brunold, professor of Chemistry, was recently honored with the Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching Award. This award has been given out since 1953 to honor top educators at UW-Madison. Congratulations Dr. Brunold on this outstanding achievement! (https://news.wisc.edu/distinguished-teaching-awards-2018/)

Gail Robertson, professor of neuroscience, who studies how excitable cells of the heart and brain produce coordinated electrical activity was recently honored with a Kellet mid-career award.  The award was created to provide support and encouragement to faculty who are 7 to 20 years past their first promotion to a tenured position and comes with $75,000 that may be spent over five years. The award is named for William R. Kellett, a former president of the WARF board of trustees and retired president of Kimberly-Clark Corp. Dr. Robertson's research led to the development of drug safety tests used worldwide to reduce the risk for life-threatening cardiac side effects. Additionally, Dr. Robertson has had teaching and leadership roles in medical education for 25 years and is co-founder of the UW-Madison’s Master of Science in Biotechnology Program. Congratulations Dr. Robertson! (https://research.wisc.edu/uncategorized/2018/03/15/faculty-recognized-wi...)

 

Dr. Laura Kiessling and Dr. Paul Ahlquist were recipients of this years Hilldale Awards from UW-Madison.  The Hilldale award recognizes outstanding faculty who excel and contribute in the areas of research, teaching and service at the university.  The recipients this year were honored at a faculty senate meeting in April.  Dr. Kiessling received the Physical Sciences division award and Dr. Ahlquist received the Biological Sciences division award.  Congratulations to Dr. Kiessling and Dr. Ahlquist, and thank you for your outstanding contributions to UW-Madison!
- See more at: http://news.wisc.edu/uw-madison-recognizes-hilldale-award-winners/#sthas...

Biophysics trainer Dr. Randy Goldsmith was awarded a 2017 Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar award.  The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation sponsors the award that seeks to recognize faculty members who excel in both teaching and research and are in the first five years of their careers.  Dr. Goldsmith's research group studies the behavior of individual molecules during chemical reactions which will enable insights on issues such as developing more environmentally friendly catalysts for chemical reactions, learning about human diseases and developing effective materials for solar cells. Dr. Goldsmith is also a committed teacher in the classromm as he recently taught a graduate level class on single molecule microscopes and an honors general chemistry course that emphasized alternatuve energy.  The award comes with $75,000 of unrestricted research funding for Dr. Goldsmith.  Congratulations!
- See more at: http://news.wisc.edu/chemistry-professor-honored-for-early-career-teachi...

The Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Shaw Scientist Program has awarded Biophysics trainer Dr. Ophelia Venturelli the Shaw Scientist Award this year.  Dr. Venturelli will receive a $200,000 grant to further her research into understanding how diverse networks of human gut microorganisms communicate to be able to function collectively as a community.  For more than 30 years, the Shaw Scientist Program has supported innovative early career investigators and the funding is discretionary, so it can be used in a way that achieve the greatest impact in the recipient's field. Venturelli says. "The Shaw Scientist Award will allow us to explore new research directions, including high-risk experiments, that will be used to attract external funding and for publications." Congratulations Dr. Venturelli!
- See more at: http://news.wisc.edu/uw-madison-biochemist-wins-shaw-scientist-award/#st...