In a tradition stretching back to 1874, these individuals are elected annually by the AAAS Council for their extraordinary achievements leading to the advancement of science. Fellows must have been AAAS members for at least four years.
“Researchers are elected Fellows of the AAAS by their peers in recognition of significant contributions to their field,” said Karen Burg, vice president for research. “As we expand our research and innovation ecosystem, it’s exciting to see our faculty continue to be honored for their superb scholarship. I congratulate all of them on this wonderful achievement.”
The 2021 class of AAAS Fellows includes 564 scientists, engineers and innovators spanning 24 scientific disciplines who are being recognized for their scientifically and socially distinguished achievements. The new Fellows will be honored at the annual AAAS meeting in Philadelphia, Feb. 17-20. Along with the rest of their 2021 class, UGA’s three new Fellows will receive an official certificate and a gold and blue rosette pin whose colors represent science and engineering.
Including these three, 37 faculty at UGA are Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
UGA’s 2021 AAAS Fellows are:
James E. Byers: Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor and associate dean for research and operations in the Odum School of Ecology, Byers was selected for distinguished contributions to the field of ecology, particularly in invasion biology, parasite ecology, ecosystem engineering and range boundaries in marine environments, as well as excellence in teaching.
Jessica Kissinger: Distinguished Research Professor of genetics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, Kissinger was selected for distinguished contributions to the field of the evolution of infectious diseases, particularly for bioinformatics approaches.
Patricia Yager: Professor of marine science in the Franklin College, Yager was selected for outstanding work on climate-driven processes and their impact on marine ecosystems.
Associate professor Belen Cassera is one step closer to introducing her research to the marketplace. Having spent the summer as UGA’s newest Innovation Fellow, Cassera has learned a lot about how to bring parasitic disease therapeutics arising from her research to market.
“In fall 2019, I was among the 18 chosen women from UGA who participated in the inaugural Innovation Bootcamp, where we learned about the Innovation Fellow program, among several other opportunities designed to guide faculty seeking to commercialize their discoveries,” said Cassera, an associate professor in biochemistry and molecular biology and member of the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. “The bootcamp was the ‘switch on’ I needed to refocus my research, and being chosen as an Innovation Fellow is the ‘takeoff’ of this new journey for me.”
Cassera’s research focuses primarily on the discovery and development of novel anti-parasitic drugs, aiming to understand how therapeutics work at the biochemical and cellular levels. A month into her fellowship, Cassera is already gaining new insight into the commercialization process and how it can inform her approach to research.
“I have experienced a great transformation in my research goals,” she said. “In every aspect that we have addressed, I see a translation back to my lab—everything is connected. For instance, I now understand how to utilize knowledge and resources that we already have to expand and grow into other areas that will bring in more funding, new knowledge and potentially new products.”
Launched in 2019 as part of UGA’s Innovation District initiative, the Innovation Fellows program encourages faculty and staff to pursue commercialization and development of their research through Innovation Gateway. Fellows are trained in how to successfully translate their research projects into a marketable products, receive mentorship from a fellow faculty and/or industry partner, and receive up $10,000 to support their activities.
“Belen is a very technical person with a very precise end goal in mind,” said Ian Biggs, director of programming for the Innovation District and director of Innovation Gateway’s startup program. “The goal of the Gateway team is to provide her with the tools, expertise and guidance she needs to turn her vision into a commercialized reality.”
Thanks to the Innovation Fellows program, the future is not only bright for Cassera’s research, but also for the rest of her academic career as well.
“The insights and knowledge I’ve gained from this fellowship will help me substantially improve my teaching, training and mentoring of students pursuing their careers in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries,” she said.
Applications for the 2021 fall cohort are now open. The deadline to apply is Aug. 15.
Malaria’s connection to Georgia goes back to the colonial period. The Southeastern United States provided prime conditions for a thriving mosquito population which ensured the spread of the disease. The state capital moved from Louisville to Milledgeville in 1806 in part because of malaria outbreaks among the state’s General Assembly.
Later, the federal Office of Malaria Control in War Areas was established in Atlanta instead of Washington D.C. because of its proximity to malaria. The center was succeeded in 1946 by the Communicable Disease Center which is now the Centers for Disease Control. While Malaria was mostly eliminated in the U.S. by 1951, it still impacts millions of people around the globe. Cue Ale Villegas, a doctoral candidate in Cellular Biology.
Villegas and her advisor, Dr. Vasant Muralidharan, were recently awarded a Gilliam Graduate Fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The goal of the fellowship is to increase the diversity among scientists who are prepared to assume leadership roles in science. The program selects pairs of students and their dissertation advisers based on their scientific leadership and commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the sciences.
“I’m exploring the mechanisms by which malaria parasites develop in human red blood cells,” said Villegas. “I am studying Plasmodium falciparum, the most common and deadly species that infects humans. These studies can inform therapeutic treatments in the future.”
Villegas specifically studies a malaria parasite glycosyltransferase or an enzyme that adds sugar molecules to other biomolecules. These enzymes may be needed by the parasite to survive and resist the immune response. There are few experts or studies in this area, but Villegas saw beyond those challenges to the critical importance of understanding malaria immune response.
“She is a very talented young scientist who has undertaken a challenging and high-impact research project,” said Muralidharan. “Her initial work was fraught with technical difficulties and setbacks, most of which are attributable to the difficulties in working with the hard-to-study malaria parasite. I am very impressed by her toughness and intellectual capacity as she solved one technical issue after another. She is now poised to move the field forward in a meaningful way.”
Villegas has also worked with Dr. Robert Haltiwanger and his graduate students in the Complex-Carbohydrate Research Center at UGA to advance her research. Haltiwanger is a leading expert on fringe-like glycosyltransferases like the enzyme she studies.
“Having Dr. Haltiwanger on campus is amazingly lucky,” said Villegas. “He and his graduate students go above and beyond when I need help or need to try out experiments. I’m glad to have access to his knowledge, experienced grad students, and sometimes his reagents!”
“What these parasite-derived sugar modifications are and how they form could inform a better vaccine or other drug therapies for malaria,” said Villegas.
Malaria still kills around 450,000 people each year. Most of these victims are children under the age of five. There are no effective vaccines and the parasite has gained resistance to all antimalarials currently in clinical use. Villegas’ research on this parasite sugar-adding enzyme could have important implications for future treatments and vaccine development.
The Gilliam Fellowship allows Villegas to pursue other passions in addition to science. She is a leader in student advocacy and devoted to helping students gain access to resources to advocate for themselves.
“I practice and promote student and self-advocacy by serving on the UGA Graduate Student Association and the student science policy group (SPEAR),” said Villegas. “With fellow SPEAR members, I have organized advocacy days workshops to empower students to advocate for themselves and issues they are passionate about.”
“I have found that those who are most successful understand failure very well,” said Muralidharan. “We need to normalize this. We are working to figure out the unknown. Failure in science is normal, and it is critical for discovery.”
The award also provides funding for Muralidharan to develop mentoring skills and to share those skills with other faculty members at UGA. He has served as a mentor for many either first-generation or underrepresented students in STEM. He explains that scientists need strong support systems, especially when they experience failure in the lab. The people around them help the most.
When Villegas graduates, she hopes to continue working on and learning about science policy and advocacy. Her ideal job would allow her to be a scientist in addition to being an advocate for graduate students and a creator of equitable graduate education policies.
The Gilliam Graduate Fellowship provides Villegas an opportunity to move closer to her goals and to contribute to potentially life-saving research that could reduce the global threat of malaria.
University of Georgia researcher, a member of the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases and a Distinguished Research Professor in cellular biology, has been elected as a 2021 American Academy of Microbiology Fellow. Holding courtesy appointments in microbiology and infectious diseases, Silvia N. Moreno also serves as director of the NIH-funded Training in Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases program.
“This is an honor that represents the hard work and commitment of the members of my lab, past and present,” said Moreno.
Her research focuses on the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which can cause encephalitis and cardiogenic shock in immunocompromised patients and can result in devastating birth defects in children born from infected pregnant women. Almost a third of the human population is infected. The parasite also infects cats, dogs and cattle.
In particular, Moreno’s laboratory is interested in discovering unique metabolic differences that can be used as targets for chemotherapy as current treatment options are for only one phase of the disease and have harmful side effects.
Under Moreno’s leadership the program has expanded to provide fellowships to seven graduate students and two post-doctoral fellows, a mini-sabbatical program for faculty members of local colleges with a higher proportion of diversity students to offer undergraduates and faculty research experience, and organize a number of professional development workshops.
Moreno joins more than 2,500 AAM fellows who are elected through a highly selective, peer-reviewed process, based on their record of scientific achievement and original contributions that have advanced the field of microbiology. Of the 150 researchers nominated this year, only 65 were elected to the 2021 Fellowship Class.
“It is indeed an honor to be acknowledged in this way – it reflects the strong efforts of many past and present members of the lab,” stated Tarleton, founder of the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases.
Since his undergraduate days, Tarleton’s research has focused on Trypanosoma cruzi infection, which causes the potentially fatal illness Chagas Disease. Historically, Tarleton’s research has attempted to answer broad questions such as how is immune control initiated and maintained during the infection, how does T. cruzi manage to avoid immune clearance and maintain an infection of decades in host, and what is the relationship between immunity, parasite persistence, and disease development. In an effort to answer these questions and more, Tarleton’s research group has developed tools to better study T. cruzi. They pioneered the use of the gene editing tool CRISPR in T. cruzi. Recently, they applied light sheet fluorescent microscopy to view infection in whole mouse organs. The Tarleton Research Group is also actively pursuing drug discovery for T. cruzi infection in a number of animal models including rodent, dog, and nonhuman primates. Their recent discovery of a dormancy stage in T. cruzi infections has revolutionized their drug treatment research, bringing them one step closer to finding a cure for this infection that affects at least 6 million people.
Tarleton’s work has largely been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Wellcome Trust, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and partnerships with several pharmaceutical groups.
In addition to establishing the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases at UGA, he has been instrumental in organizing the Chagas Drug Discovery Consortium, which brings together U.S.-based laboratories with international groups. Tarleton is also the founder and current president of The Chagas Disease Foundation. He has been honored with a number of awards, including the Lamar Dodd Outstanding Researcher Award and being named a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Scholar in Molecular Parasitology. In 2017, he was elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology.
“Rick’s election as a Fellow of AAAS is recognition of his immense contributions to the study of T. cruzi,” said Dennis Kyle, director of the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. “His research has advanced our understanding of immune response to the pathogen, has developed new molecular approaches to study the parasite, and has accelerated drug discovery for Chagas Disease.”
University of Georgia researcher Dennis Kyle has been elected as a 2020 fellow by the American Academy of Microbiology. He joins a class of 68 new fellows this year.
Kyle is a GRA Eminent Scholar in antiparasitic drug discovery, with appointments in the departments of cellular biology and infectious diseases.
“Election as a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology is a tremendous honor and one that was achieved by the success of all the great people I’ve work with over the years on antiparasitic drug discovery,” said Kyle, who joined UGA in 2017 as the director of the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases.
His research focuses on the discovery, development, and mechanisms of resistance to antiparasitic drugs. Currently, his laboratory is concentrating on malaria, which has become increasingly resistant to current treatments, and the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri. The Kyle laboratory has been instrumental in developing methods and tests to discover new drugs that act rapidly, effectively and can be combined with existing drugs used to treat these nearly incurable diseases.
Kyle’s work is largely funded by the National Institutes of Health, Medicines for Malaria Venture and a $9.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He has published more than 200 research papers, and his findings have been cited more than 14,000 times.
Kyle has received a number of awards over the course of his career, including the U.S. Army Achievement Medal in 1990, the U.S. Army Commendation Medal in 1988, and the U.S. Army Meritorious Service Award. He has been honored by the Southeastern Society of Parasitologists and is a fellow of the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2006, he was named Scientist of the Year by Malaria Foundation International.
Kyle joins more than 2,500 AAM fellows who are elected through a highly selective, peer-review process, based on their records of scientific achievement and original contributions that have advanced microbiology. Only 58 percent of this year’s nominees were elected to the Class of 2020, and the newly elected fellows hail from 11 different countries.
Silvia Moreno was recently named Corresponding Member of the Latin American Academy of Sciences. She is a distinguished research professor in the department of cellular biology and also serves as director of CTEGD’s NIH-funded Training Grant in Interdisciplinary Parasitology, Vector Biology, Emerging Diseases. Her research team works with Toxoplasma gondii, an apicomplexan parasite that infects almost one-third of the world population.
The Academia de Ciencias de América Latina, created in 1982 under the sponsorship of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, promotes and contributes to the advancement of mathematical, physical, chemical, earth, and life sciences, and to their application to the development and integration of Latin America and the Caribbean. The Academy promotes cooperation among scientific institutions and the exchange of persons and scientific knowledge for the integration of Latin American and the Caribbean; studies of sciences policy that contribute to the stable and continuous development of the countries of Latin American and the Caribbean; science at different educational levels and among the entire population.
Silvia J. Moreno, a professor in the cellular biology department and director for the NIH Training Grant in Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, is recognized for her studies on calcium signaling in parasitic protozoa.
Her work defined the link between calcium signaling and pathogenesis of infectious organisms. Her research focuses on Toxoplasma gondii, a pathogen that infects one-third of the world population. She and her team discovered mechanisms of calcium signaling in parasites and novel compartments that store calcium that are different from those present in mammalian cells. Her laboratory developed new genetic tools to study calcium that could be used for high-throughput assays to find new pharmacological agents for the potential treatment of parasitic diseases.
Based on another fundamental discovery from her lab, that Toxoplasma takes specific nutrients from its host, she proposed the development of therapeutics that combine host-encoded and parasite-encoded functions as a novel approach for chemotherapy.
Anat Florentin, a postdoctoral researcher in Vasant Muralidharan‘s laboratory at the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, studies molecular mechanisms that drive life stages of Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest of parasite species that infect humans with malaria. During her exceptionally productive years at UGA, she has advanced two related areas of research to learn more about the functions of P. falciparum gene and metabolic pathways. First, she established a highly efficient, markerless system to create mutants more rapidly using the powerful CRISPR-Cas9-based genetic editing tool. Her data from this project was published in the high-impact journal mSphere. Second, she used the CRISPR-Cas9 tool to understand P. falciparum’s unique plastid known as the apicoplast, which harbors essential metabolic pathways for the parasite’s growth and whose biological processes could be ideal parasite-specific drug targets. This work has been recognized by multiple invitations to present her work and a first author publication in Cell Reports.
Created in 2011, the Postdoctoral Research Award recognizes the remarkable contributions of postdoctoral research scholars to the UGA research enterprise. The UGA Research Foundation funds up to two awards a year to current scholars.
Patrick Lammie, CTEGD member and adjunct faculty in the Department of Cellular Biology, was awarded the Donald Mackay Medal during the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene’s (ASTMH) annual meeting in Baltimore, MD.
The Donald Mackay Medal recognizes outstanding work in tropical health, especially relating to improvements in the health of rural or urban workers in the tropics. In a long-standing partnership with the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (RSTMH), the Donald Mackay Medel is awarded in odd years by ASTMH and in even years by RSTMH.