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2016 McKnight Scholar Awards

The Board of Directors of The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience is pleased to announce it has selected six neuroscientists to receive the 2016 McKnight Scholar Awards.

The McKnight Scholar Awards are granted to young scientists who are in the early stages of establishing their own independent laboratories and research careers and who have demonstrated a commitment to neuroscience. The Endowment Fund seeks to support innovative research designed to bring science closer to the day when diseases of the brain can be accurately diagnosed, prevented, and treated.

“A McKnight Scholar Award is one of the most prestigious early-career honors that a young neuroscientist can receive,” says Anthony Movshon, Ph.D., chair of the awards committee and professor at New York University. He notes that many past recipients have gone on to careers of great distinction.

“This year’s Scholars are a superbly talented group, with as much promise as any selected in the past,” says Movshon. “Their research spans neuroscience, ranging from the workings of fundamental brain circuits to the ways that large groups of neurons represent the information we use to perceive, decide, remember, and act. Their work will help us to understand the brain’s function in health and in disease, and will shape the neuroscience of the future.”

The six McKnight Scholar Award recipients will each receive $75,000 per year for three years. They are:

Mark Andermann, Ph.D.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School
Boston, MA
A pathway for hunger modulation of learned food cue responses in insular cortex
John Cunningham, Ph.D.
Columbia University
New York, NY
The computational structure of populations of neurons in the motor cortex
Roozbeh Kiani, M.D., Ph.D.
New York University
New York, NY
Hierarchical decision processes that operate over distinct time scales underlie choice and changes in strategy
Yuki Oka, Ph.D.
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, CA
Peripheral and central mechanisms of body fluid regulation
Abigail Person, Ph.D.
University of Colorado Denver
Aurora, CO
Circuit mechanisms of cerebellar motor correction
Wei Wei, Ph.D.
University of Chicago
Chicago, IL
Dendritic processing of visual motion in the retina


There were 51 applicants for this year’s McKnight Scholar Awards, representing the best young neuroscience faculty in the country. Young faculty are only eligible for the award during their first four years in a tenure-track faculty position. In addition to Movshon, the Scholar Awards selection committee included Larry Abbott, Ph.D., Columbia University, Dora Angelaki, Ph.D., Baylor College of Medicine, Daniel Feldman, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, Loren Frank, Ph.D., University of California, San Francisco, Kelsey Martin, M.D., Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles, and Amita Sehgal, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania.Applications for next year’s awards will be available in September and are due in early January 2017. For more information about McKnight’s neuroscience awards programs, please check the Endowment Fund’s website at

About The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience

The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience is an independent organization funded solely by The McKnight Foundation of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and led by a board of prominent neuroscientists from around the country. The McKnight Foundation has supported neuroscience research since 1977. The Foundation established the Endowment Fund in 1986 to carry out one of the intentions of founder William L. McKnight (1887-1979). One of the early leaders of the 3M Company, he had a personal interest in memory and brain diseases and wanted part of his legacy used to help find cures. The Endowment Fund makes three types of awards each year. In addition to the McKnight Scholar Award, they are the McKnight Technological Innovations in Neuroscience Awards, providing seed money to develop technical inventions to enhance brain research, and the McKnight Memory and Cognitive Disorders Awards, for scientists working to apply the knowledge achieved through basic research to human brain disorders that affect memory or cognition.

2016 McKnight Scholar Awards

Mark Andermann, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School
A pathway for hunger modulation of learned food cue responses in insular cortex

Dr. Andermann’s research addresses the ways the brain notices and acts upon images relating to food, especially when an individual is hungry. His work is driven by the urgent societal need to develop comprehensive therapies for obesity. Humans pay attention to the things their bodies tell them they need. Over-attention to food cues, which results in seeking more food than is needed, can persist in individuals suffering from obesity or eating disorders, even when satiated. Andermann’s lab developed a method involving two-photon calcium imaging through a periscope to study hundreds of neurons in a mouse brain, and found that the brain’s response to images associated with food differed depending on whether the mouse was hungry or sated. The Andermann lab is collaborating with Dr. Brad Lowell’s lab—experts in the brain circuitry controlling hunger—to study the insular cortex in search of ways to prevent cravings for the wrong foods in obese subjects.

John Cunningham, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Statistics, Columbia University
The computational structure of populations of neurons in the motor cortex

Dr. Cunningham’s primary research mission is to advance the scientific understanding of the neural basis of complex behaviors. For example, better understanding the brain’s role in generating voluntary movements can potentially help millions of people with motor impairments due to disease and injury. Cunningham is part of a small but growing field of statisticians applying statistical and machine learning techniques to neuroscience research. He combines aspects of mathematics, statistics, and computer science to extract meaningful insights from massive datasets generated in experiments. He aims to bridge the gap between data recording and scientific payoff, seeking to create analytical tools he and other researchers can harness. Analysis methods capable of handling the massive datasets generated are essential to the field, particularly as researchers record evermore data of increasing complexity.

Roozbeh Kiani, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor, New York University, Center for Neural Science
Hierarchical decision processes that operate over distinct time scales underlie choice and changes in strategy

Dr. Kiani is researching how adaptive behavior occurs in decision making. Decisions are guided by available information and strategies that link information to action. Following a bad outcome, two potential sources of error—flawed strategy and poor information—must be distinguished to improve future performance. This process depends on interaction of several cortical and subcortical areas that collectively represent sensory information, retrieve relevant memories, and plan and execute desired actions. Dr. Kiani’s research focuses on the neuronal mechanisms that implement these processes, especially how sources of information are integrated, how relevant information is selected and routed flexibly from one brain area to another, and how the decision-making process gives rise to subjective beliefs about anticipated outcomes. His research could have long-term implications for the study of neurological disorders that disrupt decision-making processes such as schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Alzheimer’s.

Yuki Oka, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biology, California Institute of Technology
Peripheral and Central Mechanisms of Body Fluid Regulation

Dr. Oka’s lab studies neural mechanisms underlying body fluid homeostasis, the fundamental function that regulates the balance between water and salt in the body. His team aims to understand how peripheral and central signals regulate water drinking behavior. Toward this goal, his research team will combine physiology and neural manipulation tools to define the specific brain circuits that play an essential role in controlling thirst. They will then examine how the activities of those circuits are modulated by external water signals. His work could have significant implications for new clinical treatments of appetite-related disorders.

Abigail Person, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Physiology and Biophysics, University of Colorado Denver
Circuit mechanisms of cerebellar motor correction

Movement is central to all behaviors, yet the brain’s motor control centers are barely understood. Dr. Person’s work explores how the brain makes movements precise. Person’s lab is particularly interested in an ancient part of the brain called the cerebellum, asking how its signals correct ongoing motor commands. The cerebellum has been particularly attractive for circuit analysis because its layers and cell types are very well defined. However, its output structures, called the cerebellar nuclei, violate this rule and are much more heterogeneous and hence, much more confusing. Using a variety of physiological, optogenetic, anatomical and behavioral techniques, her research aims to untangle the mix of signals in the nuclei to interpret how it contributes to motor control. Person anticipates that her research may offer clinicians insight into therapeutic strategies for people with cerebellar disease, and could potentially contribute to the class of technologies that use neural signals to control prosthetic limbs.

Wei Wei, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Neurobiology, University of Chicago
Dendritic processing of visual motion in the retina

Dr. Wei’s research seeks to understand the neural mechanisms of motion detection in the retina. The earliest stage of visual processing by the brain occurs in the retina, the place where photons from the physical world are transformed into neural signals in the eye. Much more than a camera, the retina functions like a little computer that begins to process visual inputs into multiple streams of information before relaying them to higher visual centers in the brain. By current estimates there are more than 30 neural circuits in the retina, each computing a different feature, such as aspects of motion, color and contrast. Dr. Wei’s lab is using patterns of light to study how the retina determines the direction of image motion. Her work will uncover the rules of visual processing at the subcellular and synaptic level, and provide insights into the general principles of neural computation by the brain.

Topic: The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience, Scholar Awards

May 2016

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