The University of Chicago

Alumni News

We are very proud of the diverse achievements of our alumni, some of which are highlighted in these pages. If you are a previous student we would be thrilled to hear from you. Please e-mail Melissa Lindberg with your latest news to share with your fellow alumni and inspire our current students. We also would like to keep you up to date on recent events in the BSD, and provide opportunities for you to interact with our current students.

To learn about our featured alumni, click on the respective name below.

Gene Hunt, PhD
Gene Hunt, PhD
Gene Hunt, PhD
(Committee on Evolutionary Biology, 2003), won the 2012 Charles Schuchert Award, presented by The Paleontological Society. His work translates evolutionary processes acting on short time scales into the dynamics that are observable in the fossil record. His combination of detailed tracking of individual lineages with a new statistical analysis of previous studies was "game-changing," casting new light on the long-standing debate about punctuated equilibrium as a pervasive evolutionary pattern.
Joel E. Kleinman, MD, PhD
Joel E. Kleinman, MD, PhD (Pharmacological & Physiolog-cal Sciences, 1974) is the Section Chief of the Section on Neuropathology and the Deputy Chief of the Clinical Brain Disorders Branch. Dr. Kleinman received his B.S., M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He completed an internship at San Francisco General Hospital (University of California Medical School in San Francisco) and residencies in psychiatry and neurology at Massachusetts Mental Health Center (Harvard Medical School) and George Washington University Medical School, respectively. Dr. Kleinman has been at the NIMH from 1976 to the present and has published over 200 papers primarily on the neuropathology of schizophrenia. His more recent work has focused on susceptibility genes for schizophrenia including COMT, GRM3, DISC1, DTNBP1, GAD1, KCNH2 and NRG1. In particular, his group has been interested in studying allelic variations in these genes and their effects on mRNA expression of specific alternate transcripts and their proteins in brain development and schizophrenia. See The Imprint for more information.
Huiping Liu, MD, PhD
Huiping Liu, MD, PhD (Pathology, 2006) is a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Geoffrey Greene’s laboratory and studies cancer stem cell metastasis. The journey to this stage in her career originated when she received her MD (1996) from the Military Medical University in Xi’an, China. While in medical school Dr. Liu’s exposure to clinical research sparked an interest in a career in research. She acted on this desire and acquired a masters in molecular biology after finishing medical school. During her masters training, her mentor traveled frequently to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and exposed her to the opportunities to pursue research overseas. At the time, Dr. Liu wanted to explore the world and completing her master’s solidified her passion for basic research. Therefore, with the encouragement of her mentor, she decided to pursue her research career in the United States. A friend connected her with a faculty member at the University of Chicago, and after a phone interview, she left China to pursue a research career in the United States. After a year as a visiting student, she was accepted to the PhD program in the Department of Pathology and joined the entering class of 2001. As a graduate student, Dr. Liu studied the rb tumor suppressor in Dr. Kay Macleod’s laboratory. Her first project focused on characterizing a cleaved form of rb that was present in tumor and macrophage cells. Later she determined why rb deficient cells exhibit increased sensitivity to chemotherapy. She found that after DNA damage, up regulated expression of PARP leads a depletion of ATP pools. This depletion contributes to the down regulation of the anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-xl and leads to necrosis. Both of these projects yielded publications in peer-reviewed journals. After graduating in the winter of 2006, she joined Dr. Michael Clarke’s laboratory at Stanford University. Dr. Clarke was the first scientist to publish articles that characterized breast cancer stem cells. In Dr. Clarke’s laboratory, she isolated breast cancer stem cells from primary tumor samples, transfected them with a GFP reporter construct, injected immuno-compromised mice with the stem cells and visualized their localization in mice. She also employed a siRNA screen to identify microRNAs that may mediate metastasis. By September of 2008, she started to look for a postdoctoral position that would bring her back to Chicago to re-unite her family. She learned of the Chicago Fellows program that provides two years of funding for senior postdoctoral fellows. It was a very competitive program with three slots for the entire BSD and only one for cancer biology. She met with Dr. Geoffrey Greene, decided to join his lab and applied for the fellowship. With the support of Dr. Clarke, Dr. Liu was able to take all of her cancer stem cell stocks and mouse models and she moved to Dr. Greene’s lab in July of 2009. Fortunately, she was selected as a Chicago Fellow and acquired funding for two years. See the full Imprint article on Dr. Liu.
Rabiah Mayas, PhD
Rabiah Mayas, PhD (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 2007) is currently Director of Science, Center for the Advancement of Science Education, Museum of Science and Industry. Before that, she served as Science Director for Science Chicago. About her work in science outreach, Mayas commented “I have long been interested in pursuing outreach efforts, as I've been continually involved in such activities since college. While in graduate school, I mentored elementary and middle school students on the weekends, and brought hands-on science experiments to Chicago Public School high school biology classrooms. While I love the excitement of questioning and discovery that bench research provides, I realized a few years ago that my true passion lies in helping young people find their own curiosity and love of science. So I jumped at the chance to be a part of the once-in-a-lifetime experience that is Science Chicago, to work with the host of organizations in the Chicago region that are dedicated to promoting scientific engagement and exciting kids about just how fun science and engineering can be.” She was featured in the Fall 2008 edition of The Imprint.
Jennifer McPartland, PhD
Jennifer McPartland, PhD (Committee on Microbiology, 2008) is a health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), working on chemical policy. Her work in this position enables her to use her scientific training to improve upon chemical policies that are in desperate need of reform so that both the environment and public health are adequately protected. After a brief post-doc in the Rothman-Denes lab until July 2009, Dr. McPartland became the 2009-2010 American Society for Microbiology/American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Congressional Fellow for 2009-2010. This fellowship is well known as a conduit for moving scientists from the bench to the government arena so they can become policy-savvy. Although she was the sole recipient of the American Society for Microbiology Fellowship, she trained with other executive branch and congressional fellows through the AAAS fellowship program. This program provides an intense orientation in policy before placing fellows in either congressional or executive branch offices across the country. Dr. McPartland was initially interested in working on food safety policy, and so accepted an offer to work in the office of Congresswoman Diana DeGette in Denver, Colorado. While in this office she also accepted an opportunity to work on legislation focused on chemicals safety policy. At EDF, Dr. McPartland works on changing the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the law that charges the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with ensuring that chemicals are safe and aren't harmful to humans or the environment. This is a very large and important undertaking because there are tens of thousands of chemicals out there that lack adequate health and safety data. This is a result of inadequacies in the original statute, and so advocating for reform requires careful reading and analysis of the policy to ultimately describe where the inadequacies are and determine possible solutions. She also monitors the EPA and helps decide when best to weigh in on the agency's chemicals regulation activities. Dr. McPartland graduated from the University of Chicago with her PhD in Microbiology in December 2008 under the mentorship of Dr. Lucia Rothman-Denes. Her graduate work focused on the interaction between the bacteriophage N4 and its E. coli K-12 host, where she characterized the affect of two mutant N4 virion proteins on this interaction. She was featured in the Spring 2011 edition of The Imprint.
Suzanne Devkota, PhD
Suzanne DevkotaSuzanne Devkota, PhD (Molecular Metabolism and Nutrition, 2012) -- As with many successful Ph.D. graduates, Suzanne Devkota's path was a winding one. After a stint working at a neuroimmunology lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and receiving her Bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry, Suzanne flirted with the idea of medical school. Eventually, she decided to take a year off to work in a surgical oncology lab at the Medical College of Georgia studying pancreatic cancer. During that year, she found that she loved the hands-on nature of working in a lab, and decided to go back to get her Master's at the University of Illinois in Nutritional Sciences. Although Suzanne had no background in nutrition, the principal investigator wanted someone with a cancer background to run a nutrition and breast cancer study. When funding for that study did not come through, Suzanne instead went into studying insulin resistance in diabetes, and fell in love with the field even more than cancer. With this experience under her belt, Suzanne began looking at Ph.D. programs, wanting to do something metabolism-related, but more biochemical-based. This led her to the Molecular Metabolism and Nutrition program at the University of Chicago. Originally thinking she would continue to do diabetes work here, Suzanne was encouraged to try something completely different as part of a short research rotation—studying gut bacteria. Although uncertain if this was a fit for her, Suzanne decided to give it a shot, beginning a pilot study with Dr. Eugene Chang, a professor of gastroenterology. The small study ended up yielding some fascinating results. Encouraged by the findings, she decided to continue in the field, and now, five years later, Suzanne is still studying gut bacteria in a diabetes lab as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University.

When asked to give the 30-thousand feet overview of her research, Suzanne said that she studies "why certain diseases like obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease have increased so rapidly in the last fifty to a hundred years." This is certainly not due to genetics since humans simply do not evolve that quickly. While it was known that diet was associated with obesity and diabetes, she wanted to find out if diet impacted the microbiota of the gut, which in turn impacts inflammatory bowel disease. Armed with her nutritional background, Suzanne decided to investigate what happens with dietary manipulation of bacteria in mice. The findings showed that not all high fat diets are the same. It turns out that highly saturated fat diets elicit strong immune responses compared to polyunsaturated or low fat diets. She found that this was because saturated fats are emulsified differently, which in turn alters the composition of the biome of gut, selecting for certain bacteria to grow and not others. The bacteria growing most abundantly in this environment causes a specific immune response resulting in colitis—inflammation of the colon. This was the first study to show a mechanism for why certain diets induced colonic inflammation. This association had been shown previously in epidemiologic studies, but it was unclear why until Suzanne's studies. These findings were subsequently the focus of her dissertation, "Western diet-induced changes in host-microbe interactions: The emergence of pathobionts and development of colitis in genetically susceptible hosts".

Nervous that her novel findings would be scooped by other labs, and anxious to get her first paper published, Suzanne pushed to submit her publication during the earlier years of her Ph.D. based on her initial findings. However, her mentor decided to hold off until additional details of the study had been completed in order to submit a stronger piece of work to a journal of the highest impact factor. The gamble paid off when on the first day of her postdoctoral position at Harvard, Suzanne received the news that her paper had been published in Nature. Given the brevity of Nature papers, Suzanne joked wryly how odd it was that "you get three pages to condense the last five years of your life." However, the impact of her studies was immediate. Suzanne reflected that the most gratifying part of publishing her research, and what really made her love science was "seeing how it affected the way other people ran their experiments and thought about science." Following her publication, other editorials expounded on her study's significance and contribution to the field, as well as the potential translation to therapeutic practices.

In the transition between Ph.D. studies and postdoctoral studies, Suzanne started interviewing for postdoctoral positions about a year and a half before graduating. She had kept in contact with several professors from outside institutions who had given seminars at her department. All three professors she eventually interviewed with were such contacts, and one of those interviews resulted in her current postdoctoral position at Harvard. Given her own successful obtainment of a postdoctoral position, Suzanne earnestly encourages current graduate students to nurture contacts with visiting professors who interest you with their research and keep in touch with them! Looking to the future, Suzanne is working hard to further pursue the academic path, as well as keeping an open mind towards alternate career opportunities such as working with small-company start-ups in nutrition-related fields. Given her accomplishments so far, there is no doubt that Suzanne will continue to make many more wonderful contributions to the field! --Chenan Zhang