Two UO postdoctoral scholars receive prestigious fellowships

Two University of Oregon postdoctoral researchers have received prestigious fellowships that will provide funding for potentially groundbreaking research.

Cori Cahoon, a postdoctoral scholar in the lab of biologist Diana Libuda, has been awarded a Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research fellowship. Joseph Bruckner, a postdoc in the labs of biologists Judith Eisen and Phil Washbourne, has won a fellowship from the Life Sciences Research Foundation.

Postdoctoral researchers hold doctoral degrees and are engaged in mentored research and scholarly training to acquire the professional skills they need to pursue a career. Although their positions are often temporary, Libuda says they are a critical part of the UO’s research enterprise, contributing valuable skills and knowledge and playing an active role in teaching, training and discovery.

“Postdocs are a driving force behind research,” Libuda said. “They bring fresh and unique ideas, as well as previous knowledge and training to research labs. Their presence and involvement in research enhance the lab environment for everyone.”

Postdocs like Cahoon and Bruckner contribute valuable experience from their graduate work that makes them attractive to campus labs. They also learn from the experience of working in the lab in ways that carry them forward into their future careers.  

“In most cases, postdocs like Joseph find some way of blending the skills that they learned in graduate school and the new skills that they learn in their postdoctoral tenure to start something totally new that they long to do,” Eisen said.

Postdoctoral fellowships are not jobs, but rather training opportunities, Eisen said.

Fellowships cover the salary of a postdoc, while UO labs continue to pay for the research experience. Personnel costs are among the most significant expenses for university labs.

In addition to covering the cost of doing research, such fellowships are often the first step in building an independent research career. Cahoon will use her award to support her research examining the fundamental biology behind the production of sperm and eggs.

“This fellowship is super competitive,” Cahoon said. “To be selected as part of that group is quite an honor and very exciting.”

The Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Research awards about $162,000 over three years per recipient to highly qualified scientists whose research contributes to understanding the causes and origins of cancer. UO biologist and head of the Department of Biology Bruce Bowerman received the award when he was a postdoc at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.

Between 20 and 30 fellows are awarded each year from a deep field of competitive applicants.

The fund is regarded as one of the most prestigious fellowships in the U.S. Former fellows and scientific advisors include 22 Nobel laureates in physiology, medicine and chemistry. Since its inception in 1937, 1,500 fellows have been funded.

Cahoon earned a doctorate in cellular and molecular biology from Stowers Institute for Medical Research in 2018 and a bachelor’s degree in genetics from the University of California, Davis, in 2010. At the UO, Cahoon works with Libuda in the Institute of Molecular Biology.

“To say I’m extremely excited and delighted that Cori was selected for the prestigious Jane Coffin Childs Foundation would be a complete understatement,” Libuda said. “Her research is going to open up a whole new field of study with regards to how our genomes respond to increased temperatures and how temperature specifically impacts male fertility.”

Cahoon’s research focuses specifically on how temperature affects sperm formation and has implications for understanding human infertility and for helping prevent or limit birth defects. Her fellowship will support her project, “Defining mechanisms of heat-sensitive synaptonemal complex in spermatocytes.”

Cahoon said her research also has a wider potential benefit beyond human health.

“With environmental temperatures rising,” Cahoon said, “the reproduction of many organisms, including both plants and animals, will start to become effected.”

Bruckner splits time between the Eisen and Washbourne labs. His fellowship from the Life Sciences Research Foundation funds his project, “Microbial modulation of forebrain development and social behavior.”

The foundation, which pairs promising young scientists with partner organizations, has a mission to identify and fund exceptional candidates at a critical juncture of their training in all areas of basic life sciences. After selecting Bruckner, the foundation worked to secure funding through the Open Philanthropy Project, an organization that seeks to identify giving opportunities, make grants and publish findings across a range of issues.

“It’s a very prestigious fellowship; they don't give a lot of them,” Eisen said. “Joseph has brought amazing skills and a lot of knowledge and real curiosity and interest in what we’re doing in our lab, and that’s what you always want.”

The Eisen lab uses zebrafish to look at the influences of microbes on the brain and in brain development. They have identified a population of cells in the zebrafish brain that are important for regulating the social behavior of the fish, and they look at how early development affects behavior at later stages.

The goal of Bruckner’s project is to understand what the specific mechanisms are by which the microbes that are normally associated with the fish influence the cells involved in social behavior.

The work has implications for understanding neurological disorders such as autism and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in humans. Even though some human disorders don’t present until later in life, some think the precipitating event may have occurred in early development. 

“Basically, every neurological disorder you can name has microbial implications,” Bruckner said. “By studying early development events, we can learn the most.”

Bruckner’s interest in science began with an interest in parasites, viruses and microbes. In graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, he discovered an interest in neurobiology. He was drawn to Eisen’s research group because it offered a merging of his research interests, and it was a chance to learn from Eisen’s and Washbourne’s expertise in neurodevelopment.

“It was a perfect fit,” Bruckner said.

—By Denise Silfee and Lewis Taylor, University Communications