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Past Retreats: 2016 Speaker Profiles

Keynote Speakers

Eric Betzig, PhD

After obtaining a BS in Physics from Caltech, Dr. Eric Betzig moved to Cornell, where his thesis involved the development of near-field optics—the first method to break the diffraction barrier in light microscopy. Dr. Betzig then became a PI at AT&T Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ, where he further refined the technology and explored many applications, including high density data storage, semiconductor spectroscopy, and superresolution fluorescence imaging of cells. In 1993, he was the first to image single fluorescent molecules under ambient conditions, and determine their positions to better than 1/40 of the wavelength of light. Tiring of academia, Dr. Betzig then served as VP of R&D in his father's machine tool company, developing a high speed motion control technology based on an electrohydraulic hybrid drive with adaptive control algorithms. Commercial failure of the technology left him unemployed and looking for new directions. This search eventually culminated in the invention and demonstration of the superresolution technique PALM by himself and his fellow unemployed colleague and Bell Labs expatriate, Harald Hess. Since 2005, Dr. Betzig has been a Group Leader at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing new optical imaging technologies for biology.

Jorge Cham, PhD

Dr. Jorge Cham was born and raised in the Republic of Panama. He obtained his BS in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech and his MS and PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University (specializing in Robotics), where he started drawing the comic strip “Piled Higher and Deeper” or “PHD”. He was subsequently an Instructor and Research Associate at Caltech from 2003-2005, where his work focused on developing “Smart” Neural Implants. He has published and presented nationally and abroad on his Robotics and Neural Prosthetics research.

Piled Higher and Deeper is a unique comic strip about life (or the lack thereof) in academia. Often called the Dilbert of academia, PHD has appeared in the Stanford, MIT, Caltech, and Carnegie Mellon newspapers among others, and it is published online where it receives over 7 million page views a month from over 1000 universities and colleges worldwide.

Since 2005, Jorge Cham has delivered over 300 invited lectures at universities and research centers worldwide, with audiences of a few dozen to a few thousand.

Career Speakers

Elizabeth Barksdale, PhD

Dr. Elizabeth (Libby) Barksdale graduated from Hope College with a BS in Biology in 2001. After a period of professional wandering, she earned her PhD from The George Washington University for her research on differences among neocortical neuronal precursor populations. Libby joined Dr. Chris McBain's lab at NICHD as a postdoc in 2011, examining contributions of glutamate receptors to interneuron function and hippocampal development. She took advantage of her time at NIH to pursue her interest in science policy by participating in the Science Policy Discussion Group and doing a detail at the Office of Extramural Programs in the Office of Extramural Research. She also joined the NIH FelCom Career Development Subcommittee and led the Mentoring Subcommittee.

Libby started her current job as a Science Policy Analyst at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in 2015. In this position, she is responsible for FASEB's efforts related to Clinical and Translational Research and Training and Career Opportunities.

Preethi Chandran, PhD

Dr. Preethi Chandran obtained her PhD from the University of Minnesota in Biomedical Engineering. As a postdoc, she briefly trained at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, before accepting a NIH fellowship with the NICHD and NIBIB institutes. Dr. Chandran is currently an assistant professor of Chemical Engineering at Howard University in Washington DC. She researches the pushing and pulling on nano-sized assemblies formed by semirigid polyelectrolytes like DNA and aggrecan, and discovering their potential for regenerative nanomedicine therapies.

Melissa Cunningham, PhD

Dr. Melissa Cunningham transitioned from the bench to grants administration in June 2010 when she joined the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CRMRP) with the Department of Defense. From 2010 - 2014, Dr. Cunningham served as a Science Officer in the Prostate Cancer Research Program (PCRP), where she actively managed a large portfolio of grants awarded to prostate cancer researchers. In 2014, Dr. Cunningham assumed responsibility for the PCRP as Program Manager and currently manages a team of Science Officers and CDMRP contractors who all work together to serve the needs of the PCRP. Her primary responsibilities as Program Manager involve overseeing all aspects of the program cycle, including setting the annual vision of the program, the development and release of program announcements for new funding opportunities, oversight of the peer and programmatic review process, and communicating the results of PCRP funded research to the public and Congress.

Before joining CDMRP, Dr. Cunningham trained as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health. During her fellowship Dr. Cunningham discovered her interest in grants management after working part-time with the Program Office in NICHD's Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) branch. Dr. Cunningham graduated from Towson University, summa cum laude, in 2001, with a BS in Biology, and earned her PhD in Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular Biology from the Pennsylvania State University in 2006. Her areas of expertise include epigenetics, gene regulation, and bioinformatics in Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Drosophila melanogaster.

Thomas Miller, PhD

While receiving a B.S. in zoology and biochemistry from North Carolina State University, Dr. Thomas Miller was able to spend summers in the Caribbean studying neuroendocrine control of aggressive behavior in a sex-changing reef fish, the bluehead wrasse. He continued research on endocrine systems in teleost fish at Texas A&M University where he received his PhD under the mentorship of Dr. Duncan MacKenzie. There he studied the evolution of the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid axis in teleost fish, more specifically examining structure-function relationships of thyroid stimulating hormone and its g-protein coupled receptor in goldfish and red drum using immunoassays. At NIH he performed research on transcription factors in Dr. Yun-Bo Shi’s laboratory, which studies thyroid hormone (TH) dependent formation of adult epithelial stem cells in the intestine during postembryonic development. He has been a Scientist at Meso Scale Diagnostics, LLC. (MSD) for a little more than a year. At MSD, he performs research and development work in the Clinical and Biodefense group, designing highly sensitive immunoassays for academic and pharmaceutical research.

Ramona Neunuebel, PhD

Dr. Ramona Neunuebel received her bachelor’s degree in Biology and her master’s degree in Cell Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Babeș-Bolyai in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. In 2008 she received a PhD in Microbiology from Texas A&M University, where her research focused on studying cellular differentiation using a bacterial model system. In 2009, Ramona began working as a postdoctoral fellow at the NICHD in the lab of Dr. Matthias Machner. While at the NICHD, she focused on the study of molecular mechanisms underlying infection by the bacterial pathogen Legionella pneumophila. In August 2014, Ramona accepted a position as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Delaware. Currently, her lab is interested in understanding the mechanisms that allow Legionella pneumophila to evade detection and degradation upon entry into host cells.

Margarito Rojas, PhD

Dr. Margarito Rojas earned his PhD from the Biotechnology Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in 2010 for studies focused on determining the kinase that phosphorylates the eukaryotic translation initiation factor 2 alpha (eIF2α) in Rotavirus-infected cells. Following up on his expert knowledge of eIF2α, Dr. Rojas began his postdoctoral training in the lab of Dr. Thomas E. Dever at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). While at the NICHD, Dr. Rojas mainly focused his efforts on the study of the kinases and phosphatases from different organisms that modulate the eIF2α phosphorylation/de-phosphorylation balance.

In 2015, Dr. Rojas accepted a position as a Staff Scientist at Thermo Fisher Scientific in Grand Island, NY. His position is in the Research and Development department, where he contributes to projects that are focused on developing products or expanding applications for existing products.

Raul Rojas, PhD

Dr. Raul Rojas was born in Costa Rica, where he completed a BS in Chemistry at the University of Costa Rica. He then earned a PhD in Molecular Cell Biology from the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh under the supervision of Dr. Gerard Apodaca. During his PhD, he investigated the role of small G proteins in the regulation of vesicular transport through epithelial cells. In 2004, Dr. Rojas joined, as a postdoctoral fellow, the Section on Intracellular Protein Trafficking Laboratory at NICHD. Under the supervision of Dr. Juan Bonifacino, the laboratory chief, Dr. Rojas studied the molecular mechanisms by which the retromer complex modulates the transport of protein and lipids from the endosomal system to the biosynthetic pathway. In 2011, Dr. Rojas accepted a position as a Staff Scientist in the Section of Biological Chemistry with Dr. Larry Tabak, where he studied various aspects of the O-glycosylation pathway including the putative control of O-glycosylation initiation by cell signaling and the intra-Golgi complex transport of O-glycosylation initiation enzymes (GalNAc-Ts). Dr. Rojas recently took a position in the Center for Scientific Review, NIH, where he runs the Integrative Physiology of Obesity and Diabetes Study Section.

Mihail Zilbermint, MD

Dr. Mihail “Misha” Zilbermint is a Director of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism Care at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, MD. He established an Inpatient Diabetes Management Service, a special diabetes clinical consultation service designed to promote better glycemic control and reduce hypoglycemia and glucose-related safety challenges in hospitalized patients at Suburban Hospital.

During his Endocrinology fellowship at the Section on Endocrinology and Genetics, NICHD, he developed a particular interest in rare genetic diseases. He described and published the clinical phenotype of the NIH cohort of patients with mutations in ARMC5 gene, associated with macronodular adrenal hyperplasia and primary aldosteronism.

Dr. Zilbermint is also an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he enjoyes teaching and mentoring fellows.

Fellow Speakers

Alejandro Alvarez-Prats, PhD

Dr. Alejandro Alvarez-Prats received his B.S. in Chemistry at U.N.E.D. in Madrid, Spain. During his college years, he attended several conferences at the Medical School of Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (ULPGC), where he developed a special interest in research related to the elucidation of basic mechanisms involved in kidney diseases using different animal models. Once he finished his undergraduate degree, he was awarded a national fellowship which allowed him to enroll in a Ph.D. program at ULPGC. This program, entitled “Advances in Internal Medicine,” was specifically focused on Renal Physiology, and its main goal was to shed light on the pathophysiology of chronic kidney disease (CKD). After defending his Ph.D. thesis, he was accepted at the NIDDK to work on two short-term projects related to the implications of CD36 scavenger receptor and TLR4 on the progression of CKD. Upon completion of those projects, Dr. Alvarez-Prats joined NICHD as a postdoc under the supervision of Dr. Tamas Balla, to work on understanding the role of phosphatidylinositol 4-kinase type IIIα (PI4KA)—enzyme responsible for the generation of PI4P, a phophoinositide involved in the regulation of almost all aspects of cellular physiology—within the mammalian context. At the moment, Alejandro is focused on studying the role of PI4KA on the Peripheral Nervous System, since it is one of the most advanced projects he is currently developing in the Dr. Balla lab.

Maria Bindu Bagh, PhD

Dr. Maria Bindu Bagh is a Research Fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Anil B. Mukherjee, Section on Developmental Genetics (SDG), NICHD. She received her Ph.D degree in Physiology from University of Calcutta, India in 2011 under the mentorship of Dr. Sasanka Chakrabarti. Since joining NICHD in 2011, she has been working on a research project to understand the molecular mechanism(s) of a group of childhood neurodegenerative lysosomal storage disorders (LSDs) called neuronal ceroid lipofuscinoses (NCLs), commonly known as Batten’s disease. The primary area of her research is lysosomal acidification and storage dysfunctions, protein sorting and trafficking. Her initial research with other colleagues demonstrated a common link between two lethal LSDs infantile NCL (INCL) and congenital NCL (CNCL). Currently, she is elucidating the mechanism in detail by which lysosomal acidification is disrupted in a Cln1-/- mouse model for INCL. Her work may also lead to the understanding of common mechanistic pathways of lysosomal acidification defects in other common neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Nathan Blewett, PhD

Dr. Nathan Blewett received his B.S. from Evergreen State College in 2004 in cellular and molecular biology, and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan Medical School in 2013. During graduate school Nathan’s work focused on understanding how translation and mRNA decay are regulated via PUF proteins in the lab of Dr. Aaron Goldstrohm. Nathan is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Richard Maraia. His research is primarily aimed at understanding the essential function of the La protein in mammals. Other projects include ribosome profiling analysis of tRNA decoding activity in the absence of key base modifications, as well as development of next-generation RNA-sequencing methods to quantify tRNAs and mRNAs from the same RNA sample.

Diego Martinelli, MD, PhD

Dr. Diego Martinelli is a postdoctoral visiting fellow in the laboratory of Stephen G. Kaler M.D. in the Section of Translational Neuroscience, Molecular Medicine Branch, NICHD. He received his Doctor of Medicine degree, board certification in Child Neurology and Psychiatry, and a Ph.D. degree from the Catholic University of Sacred Heart in Rome, Italy. During his doctoral training, he worked in collaboration with the Unit of Metabolism at Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital, Rome, on elucidating the pathogenesis of central nervous system damage in neurodegenerative and metabolic disorders, especially copper metabolism disorders. Currently his research is focused on developing zebrafish models of copper-related disorders to dissect the mechanisms of central nervous system and motor neuron degeneration and to use this knowledge to develop new treatments.

Elizabeth Smith, PhD

Dr. Elizabeth Smith received a B.S. in psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. She completed her PhD in child Clinical Psychology at the University of Rochester with Dr. Loisa Bennetto, where her research focused on multisensory perception in individuals with high functioning autism. There, Dr. Smith received an individual NRSA predoctoral fellowship to fund her training and research in using EEG to detect deviance in multisensory processing. Dr. Smith began a postdoctoral fellowship in 2013 at NIMH working in the Pediatrics and Developmental Neuroscience branch. There, she completed work on longitudinal structural magnetic imaging as well as functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) in individuals with autism, and designed an EEG study on development of multisensory perception in typically developing children. Currently, Dr. Smith is a postdoctoral fellow in the Section on Functional Biophotonics with Dr. Amir Gandjbakhche, where she continues her work on use of fNIRS in toddlers at risk for neurodevelopmental disorders. Dr. Smith’s research focuses on using neuroimaging and neurophysiology to identify biomarkers and characterize mechanisms related to the emergence of autism spectrum disorders.

Santosh Verma, PhD

Dr. Santosh K. Verma is a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Leonid Chernomordik in NICHD. He received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from University of Delhi, India in the lab of Dr. Debi P. Sarkar, where his research focused on cell biology of Paramyxovirus entry into host cells with novel application of engineered virus to use as target specific drug delivery vehicle for liver cells. Currently at NIH, his research involves exploring cell fusion in development and disease biology. Working on diverse projects of macrophage cell fusion, he has developed a novel approach that for the first time allows examination of fusion stages of osteoclastogenesis independently of the stages that prepare the cells for fusion.