Catalyst Award Program

Catalyst Award Program

2019 Catalyst Award Recipients

Steve Sanders

Steve Sanders is a postdoctoral associate in the Nicotra lab at the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. Throughout his career he has focused on developing the colonial marine cnidarian, Hydractinia, as a model system for biological and medical research. He received his doctorate from the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas. His dissertation research used Hydractinia (and a closely related species) to explore how changes in gene expression over evolutionary times scales mold and shape phenotypic evolution. As a postdoc in the Nicotra lab his research has been centered around allorecognition in Hydractinia and exploring its evolutionary links to innate immunity in vertebrates.

Transplantation is a life-saving procedure and the only cure for many diseases. Unfortunately, the immunosuppressive drugs that allow a transplant patient to tolerate a donated organ have toxic side effects and lead to increased mortality due to infection or malignancy. New drugs are therefore needed. This Catalyst Award will enable me to take an evolutionary approach to the discovery of new immune pathways that could serve as novel targets for immunosuppressive drugs.

My main objectives is to elucidate the signaling pathways that control allorecognition in a colonial marine invertebrate called Hydractinia. In a phenomenon analogous to the way a transplant patient’s immune system accepts or rejects a graft, individual Hydractinia can distinguish themselves from other members of their species via via cell-cell contact. This process is called allorecognition and is controlled by two transmembrane proteins, Alr1 and Alr2. Both have extracellular binding domains and relatively large cytoplasmic tails that bear putative immune signaling motifs. I will use various methodologies (including yeast-two-hybrid screen, immunoprecipitation, and heterologous in vitro assays) to identify the Hydractinia allorecognition signaling pathway(s) and then search for homologous pathways in vertebrates. These results will lay the foundation for future studies for allograft tolerance in a mammalian transplant model and could lead to the discovery of pathways that play previously unknown or unappreciated roles in the alloresponse.

Jenny Jones

Jenny Jones is a second-year postdoctoral fellow in the Lakdawala lab in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. Her research is focused on understanding the process of packaging influenza virus genomic segments into fully infectious virus particles. She is also an active advocate for postdoctoral researchers at the University of Pittsburgh as the Networking Chair of the University of Pittsburgh Postdoctoral Association and as a postdoctoral representative in the University Senate. In her free time she enjoys making music, art, and writing.

The influenza virus genome is segmented and must undergo assembly prior to virus budding and release from an infected cell. Genomic assembly is an important bottleneck for reassortment, a process in which genetic material is exchanged between two influenza virus strains. Thus, understanding how assembly occurs is essential to combating influenza virus pandemics. If assembly is coordinated and non-random, then it stands to reason that genomic segments coevolve to maintain packaging compatibility. The Catalyst Award is being used to explore this possibility. Using a highly multidisciplinary approach, we seek to explore influenza packaging constraints by studying evolutionary relationships between genomic segments. We are first defining coevolutionary relationships between segments using computational biology and bioinformatics approaches. We are coupling these techniques with molecular methods, including fluorescence in situ hybridization, to visualize interactions between genomic segments within an infected cell. Ultimately, we seek to delineate the order in which influenza virus genomic segments assemble.

Catalyst Award

Please note: The instructions have changed since our original announcement.  Any trainee within the University of Pittsburgh is now eligible to apply for a Catalyst Award.

The Pittsburgh Center for Evolutionary Biology and Medicine (CEBaM) is pleased to announce its Catalyst Award program. The Mission of the Center is to advance the fields of evolutionary biology and medicine by catalyzing research at their interface. The Center serves to cultivate educational and scientific collaborations between evolutionary biologists and biomedical researchers. In 2019, we award 2 or more fellowships of up to $10,000 to trainees (Ph.D. students or postdoctoral researchers) to support a new or existing project consistent with the mission of the Center. Applications are due on February 15, 2019, submitted to, with an award start as early as May 1, 2019. For more information, email

CEBaM 2019 Catalyst Program Application

CEBaM 2019 Catalyst Program Instructions

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For inquiries, please contact Kristie Bowman
 Phone: (412) 648-4058

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