The Women in Cell Biology Committee (WICB) is pleased to announce our award winners for 2016. Barbara Mellone, University of Connecticut, received the Junior Award for her excellence in research on the mechanisms of centromere specification. Tricia Serio, University of Arizona, received the Mid-Career Award for her quality work on the dynamics and functional consequences of protein misfolding, with a focus on prion proteins. Susan Gerbi, Brown University, received the Sandra K. Masur Senior Leadership Award for her scientific contributions to our understanding of eukaryotic ribosome structure, function, biogenesis, and evolution and aspects of DNA replication, as well as her achievements and service in leadership and mentoring. Please read about the awardees below and join us in honoring them during the ASCB Annual Meeting at our WICB Awards and Mentoring Theater session on Monday, December 6, from 10:45 am–12:00 pm in the Moscone Center, Room 120.
Barbara Mellone, associate professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Connecticut, received the 2016 Junior Award for Excellence in Research. The Junior Award is given to an early-career investigator within seven years of her appointment to an independent position. Recipients are chosen for their exceptional scientific contributions to cell biology, for developing a strong independent research program, and for their promise in continuing at a high level of scientific endeavor and leadership.
Mellone received her BS in biological sciences from the University of Milan, Italy. She notes that as an undergraduate, the majority of students, researchers, and professors were female, which increased her confidence and inspired her to continue in the biology field. At the time, she also considered engineering for her degree, but because students and faculty in the engineering college were almost entirely male she questioned whether she belonged there.
From Milan she moved north to receive her PhD in molecular genetics from the Medical Research Council in Edinburgh, UK. Her thesis work under the direction of Robin Allshire investigated heterochromatin and centromere function in fission yeast. For her postdoctoral work with Gary Karpen at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, she used a genome-wide RNAi screen in Drosophila cells to identify Cal1, an assembly factor for the histone variant CENP-A. CENP-A replaces H3 in nucleosomes specifically at centromeres and by creating an epigenetic mark contributes to the fidelity of chromosome segregation during cell division.
As an independent investigator at the University of Connecticut, Mellone is addressing questions she began to study in her graduate and postdoctoral work on the function, regulation, and assembly of centromeric chromatin. Her work has strong relevance to the development, progression, and impact of chromosome missegregation in diseases. In addition to resolving structure–function aspects of Cal1 as a chaperone for the recruitment and assembly of CENP-A nucleosomes in Drosophila, she is using evolutionary cell biology to investigate Cal1/CENP-A coevolution and how it influences centromere incompatibilities among different Drosophila species. She is also embarking on two new lines of research, one focusing on the relationship between transcription and the epigenetic maintenance of CENP-A chromatin and the other exploring how neocentromeres are assembled. Mellone’s research, which is currently funded by National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) awards, comprises an impressive breadth of work for her career stage.
Mellone is also developing a strong training record and is engaging first-generation students from low-income and underrepresented populations in science by mentoring outreach through the McNair Scholars Program. As noted by her nominator, David Knecht, “Dr. Mellone has the hallmarks of carrying a leadership position in her field into the future and mentoring the next leaders in the field.”
Tricia Serio received the Mid-Career Award for Excellence in Research that is awarded to an investigator within 7 to 15 years of her first independent appointment who has made exceptional scientific contributions to cell biology and who exemplifies a high level of scientific endeavor and leadership. Serio began her independent career in 2002 as an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry at Brown University and is currently professor and head of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Arizona. Her WICB award recognizes her outstanding work on the dynamics and functional consequences of protein misfolding, with a focus on prion proteins.
Serio received her BS in molecular biology from Lehigh University and obtained her PhD at Yale University working with George Miller on the regulation of late gene expression in Epstein-Barr virus, during which she was supported by a predoctoral fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. As a postdoctoral fellow with Susan Lindquist at the University of Chicago, she tackled a new research direction on protein conformations, chaperones, and yeast prions, supported by awards from the Damon Runyon–Walter Winchell Cancer Research Fund and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Serio says she became aware of prions when she was doing an undergraduate research project and a postdoc asked her if she’d ever heard of infectious proteins. After reading one paper, she was hooked. As an assistant professor at Brown University she received the Howard Temin Award from the National Cancer Institute and a Scholar Award from the Pew Charitable Trusts. After being promoted to associate professor at Brown University, Serio embraced a new opportunity and moved west to the University of Arizona.
Serio has amassed an impressive body of work on the formation of amyloid by yeast prion proteins in vivo and the biological consequences of these transitions, with insights for treating neurodegenerative disorders associated with protein misfolding, including mad cow, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s diseases. As conveyed by her nominator, Susan Gerbi, Serio’s work has moved the field beyond a prion-centric view of amyloid-associated phenotypes to a more system-based understanding of the interplay between the amyloidogenic propensity of these proteins and the limitations imposed by the cell in creating novel phenotypes.
To achieve this new understanding, Serio is using biochemical and imaging approaches to resolve the dynamics of how amyloid is initiated, accumulated, and cleared as well as different mechanisms whereby amyloid is transmitted between cells. Her important contributions include showing that prion conversion is rapid and can involve an already native protein, identifying chaperone-regulated events, uncovering an amyloid size threshold for transmission, and revealing a biologically relevant function of amyloid aggregates in regulating translation termination. Several of Serio’s support letters highlight her broad, open-ended perspective that leads to exciting new discoveries, her enthusiasm for taking risks, and her rigorous care and high standards in generating data of the highest quality. Her current work is supported by funds from the NIH.
Serio is a first-generation college graduate who credits a series of amazing mentors in her success. In turn, she has developed a strong record of mentoring and worked toward diversity in the biomedical workforce, in recognition for which she received the first Brown University Dean’s Award for Excellence in Graduate and Post-doctoral Teaching and Mentoring in the Biological Sciences. She strongly believes that, with effective follow-through, mentorship significantly improves student success. Serio is also recognized for her contributions to graduate training, include designing curricula, organizing new skill-based courses, and spearheading training grant applications at both Brown and the University of Arizona.
Recipients of the Sandra K. Masur Senior Leadership Award are men or women at a later career stage who have coupled outstanding scientific achievements with a record of excellence in leadership and mentoring. Susan Gerbi, this year’s awardee, exemplifies the criteria of the award. As the George Eggleston Professor of Biochemistry and founding chair of the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry at Brown University, she has developed an impressive body of work in two areas—understanding eukaryotic ribosome structure, function, biogenesis, and evolution and clarifying important aspects of DNA replication, including identifying origins of replication.
As an undergraduate student at Barnard College, Gerbi began working with the lower dipteran fly Sciara, which she continues to use as a model organism. As a PhD student at Yale University with Joseph Gall, who nominated her for the Award and who received the award in 2006, she used the giant polytene chromosomes of Sciara to help develop the new methodology of situ hybridization. After a mere two years as a postdoctoral fellow with Wolfgang Hennig at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen, Germany, she started her independent career at Brown in 1972, where she has remained with stellar success. Notable honors she has received include the State of Rhode Island Governor’s Award for Scientific Achievement, election as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and awards at Brown University for excellence in teaching, for advancement of women faculty, and for graduate student and postdoctoral mentoring.
Gerbi’s contributions to the ribosomal RNA field include being the first to sequence 28S rRNA from a multicellular eukaryote (she used Xenopus), demonstrating a core secondary rRNA structure that is conserved in bacteria through eukaryotes, discovery of expansion segments whose sequences in rRNA differ between organisms, identification of areas within rRNA that are conserved between the three domains of life as well as some that are eukaryotic specific and for rRNA maturation, showing a role in vivo for U3 small nucleolar RNA. Her additional area of investigation, DNA replication, has likewise produced many seminal findings. Her group developed a method to identify at the nucleotide level the start site of DNA synthesis in eukaryotes and subsequently showed that the replication start site is adjacent to the Origin Recognition Complex binding site.
The consensus of supporting letters for her WICB award is that Gerbi is one of the most eminent investigators of eukaryotic chromosome biology of her generation. She has also made transformative contributions to methods development, including in situ hybridization, described above, injection of antisense oligonucleotides into Xenopus oocyte nuclei for functional analyses of small nucleolar RNAs, use of γ-exonuclease to enrich replicating DNA, and approaches to identify DNA origins of replication, including Replication Initiation Point mapping. Throughout her illustrious career, her research has been funded by awards from the NIH, NSF, the American Cancer Society, and the Department of Defense.
In addition to Gerbi’s outstanding scientific achievements, she has been an exceptional mentor and role model to many—in the classroom, the laboratory, and the broader scientific community. She has authored publications on graduate education, postdoctoral training, and career opportunities.1–4 She helped to found the Association of American Medical Colleges Graduate Research Education and Training (GREAT) group and served as its chair, has organized career development programs, helped to initiate the FASEB Postdoc Individual Development Plan, and served on the National Academy of Sciences Bridges to Independence committee that led to the NIH K99 award for transition from a postdoc to an independent career. She is a champion for women in science and is a founding board member of the Rosalind Franklin Society. At Brown, she was the PI of a predoctoral training grant for decades and was the founding chair of the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry. Additional leadership roles include years of service to ASCB: She was ASCB President (1993) as well as Program Committee Chair of an Annual Meeting and served on Council, on the Public Policy Committee, and as WICB chair.
Gerbi’s scientific career has been greatly influenced by two role models: her biological father, Claudio Gerbi, who was a physician scientist at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and her scientific father, Joe Gall. She followed the example set by Gall to use the best model organism to suit the research question at hand, and has employed the frog Xenopus, the fly Sciara, and yeast for her experiments. Her lab recently completed the toolbox of the genomic sequence and a method for transformation to propel Sciara forward as a model organism in the hope that it will be adopted by many labs to study its unique biological features (brown.edu/go/sciara-stocks). Overall, Gerbi has made tremendous contributions to the scientific community through her science, mentorship, and leadership.
1Gerbi SA, Garrison HH, Perkins JP (2001). Workforce alternatives to graduate students? Science 292, 1489–1490.
2Garrison HH, Gerbi SA, Kincade PW (2003). In an era of scientific opportunity, are there opportunities for biomedical scientists? FASEB J 17, 2169–2173.
3Garrison HH, Stith AL, Gerbi SA (2005). Foreign postdocs: the changing face of biomedical science in the U.S. FASEB J 19, 1938–1942.
4Garrison HH, Justement LB, Gerbi SA (2016). Biomedical science postdocs: an end to the era of expansion. FASEB J 30, 41–44.
About the Author:
Sandra K. Masur is a professor of Ophthalmology and Pharmacological Sciences at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.