Spotlights 2023

Jing Zou

December 2023 Spotlight
Dr. Jing Zou

Inspired by the words from Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg “We live in evolutionary competition with microbes-bacteria and viruses. There is no guarantee that we will be the survivors”, I decided to choose virus-related research as my future career since I was a freshman. I joined UTMB as a postdoc and supervised by Professor Pei-Yong Shi since April 2016. I am a Research Project Manager, Lead in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, UTMB since September 2022, and now work with Dr. Xuping Xie. Currently I lead the collaborations with pharmaceuticals companies, take in charge of COVID-19 serology diagnosis for commercial vaccine development, and oversee antiviral testing against SARS-Cov-2 and flaviviruses. I manage meetings with our collaborators to prioritize sample testing, scientific direction, trouble shooting, delivery timeline, data reporting, and regulatory compliance. I have strong basic research experience and translational research experience in the field of molecular virology. The basic research is fundamental to uncover the molecular mechanism of viral replication and translation, which in turn can be utilized for translational research such as the development of vaccines, antivirals, and new diagnosis tools. I strongly believe “Breakthroughs that change patients’ lives”, and that is my long-term goal in my life.


November 2023 Spotlight
Dr. Trevor Romsdahl

Currently I am a research scientist under the direction of Dr. Bill Russell in the Mass Spectrometry Facility ( within the Small Molecules division that focuses on metabolomics and lipidomics. My background is mostly in lipidomics, i.e. the application of mass spectrometry instruments and techniques to the study of lipids. I became interested in lipids through a combination of influences. For example, in my undergraduate career at St. Olaf College (Northfield, MN) I had the opportunity to take part in an off-campus research opportunity that used electron tomography to image the cell membrane junction between conjugating Tetrahymena cells. Through my other classes I found the way that lipids fill multiple biological roles from structural (membranes, extracellular matrices), signaling molecules, and a source of energy to be fascinating.

I've also had a long interest in technology and puzzles (the three-dimensional, brain teaser kind). In graduate school (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) I was able to combine these interests in studying the molecular structures of glycosphingolipids in colony-forming microalgae using mass spectrometry, where mass spec is a bit like solving a puzzle by breaking molecules into pieces and figuring out how they go back together. Following graduate school, I did a postdoc at the University of North Texas where I did mass spectrometry imaging of transgenic plant seeds, structural characterization of novel seed oils, and development of lipidomic workflows. My current research interests are applying mass spectrometry techniques to discover the intricate molecular details of lipid biomolecules (e.g. double bond location, cis/trans isomers, sn configuration, oxidations, odd-chain and branch-chain, etc.) and how they all relate to cellular function and metabolism.

Outside of research I have several hobby interests: running (currently training for second marathon this fall), walking, biking, reading, guitar, and tinkering with computers.

Noe 1

October 2023 Spotlight
Dr. Noe Baruch Torres

I am a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, USA and working in Dr. Whitney Yin Lab.

I pursued my doctoral degree in 2020 from the Center for Research and Advanced Studies (CINVESTAV)-National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity, Guanajuato, Mexico under the supervision of Dr. Luis Gabriel Brieba de Castro. During my time in graduate school, I have developed my technical skills as a researcher in the use of kinetics assays, protein engineering, as well as other biochemical and biomolecular tools. Furthermore, I have gained experience in structural studies focused on X-ray crystallography.

The main goal of my graduate studies was to evaluate two organellar DNA polymerases (DNAPs). These were supposed to be replicative DNAPs in mitochondria but not studied. I characterized these DNAPs using DNA containing highly mutagenic lesions. I demonstrated that these DNAPs can use a DNA containing lesion to continue the DNA synthesis, providing the first example of a family- A DNAP with an active proofreading domain that efficiently bypasses an abasic site. These findings contributed to understanding how replicative DNA polymerases overcome lesions and avoid the DNA replication machinery in environments such as mitochondria. For these doctoral studies, I received the highest distinction that CINVESTAV gives to its students, the 2022 Arturo Rosenblueth award to the best doctoral thesis in biological sciences. I also received the 2022 Weizmann Award in natural sciences to the best doctoral thesis in Mexico.

In 2021, I started my Postdoctoral training in Dr. Whitney Yin Lab to continue gaining experience in DNA replication and maintenance. The main goal is to understand the structure and function of human mitochondrial DNA replication enzymes and mutants associated with mitochondrial diseases. In this project we use cryo-electron microscopy (Cryo-EM) approach along with biochemical and mutational studies to gain information on how this machinery works. Understanding the human mitochondrial DNA replication machinery is critical for basic research and human health to develop genetic therapies. For this proposal, I received the 2022 Pew Latin American Fellowship in the Biomedical Sciences by Pew Trusts that provides funding to conduct research in labs across the U.S., under the mentorship of prominent biomedical scientists.

To explore the antiviral drugs side effects on human mitochondrial polymerases, we started to investigate the mechanism of antiviral inhibition of human mitochondrial polymerases and provide information on drug interaction with the viral target and human adverse reaction to design potent and low toxicity antiviral reagent. For this proposal, I have been selected for a Mentored Research Project award by the NIH/NIAID-funded UTMB-Novartis Alliance for Pandemic Preparedness Antiviral Drug Discovery Center.

After advancing my technical skills and scientific thinking during Postdoc training, I would like to become a professor and run my own laboratory on DNA replication, repair and maintenance investigations.

Outside of lab work, I enjoy planting veggies and cooking new dishes at least one every weekend. Twitter Handle: @NBaruch1

Kureel, Sanjay12

September 2023 Spotlight
Dr. Sanjay Kumar Kureel

I am a postdoctoral researcher working under the guidance of Professor Michael Sheetz at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston. My work centers around investigating the role of mechanics in cellular senescence, tissue, and organism aging, and harnessing mechanical forces to enhance health and lifespan. My academic journey, spanning from stem cell maintenance to mechano-based rejuvenation, has uncovered novel insights and transformative treatments. During my doctoral research at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mumbai, under the supervision of Professor Abhijit Majumder, I focused on long-term stemness maintenance of human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs) in vitro. I demonstrated that culturing stem cells on soft surfaces preserved their differentiation capacity and proliferation rates, delaying replicative senescence. Our research also revealed that an initial culture on a soft surface followed by a switch to a stiff surface retained cellular and genomic stability in early passage stem cells. This finding has far-reaching implications for cell expansion and stability in therapeutic and research applications. In 2020, I joined Professor Sheetz's lab, where we developed a mechano-based method for rejuvenating senescent cells. Our work showcased rejuvenation effects in senescent fibroblasts and human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs), offering potential solutions for cellular aging. Notably, our research extended beyond cells to demonstrate improved physical performance in aging mice. This highlights the potential for clinical translation and underscores the significance of the findings. Currently, I am unraveling the molecular mechanisms underlying Low-Frequency Ultrasound (LFU)-mediated rejuvenation. Using advanced microscopy techniques, Machine learning models, and Single cells-omics, we are investigating the role of metabolic pathways, including AMPK, mTORC1, mitophagy, and autophagy. Preliminary results suggest that LFU activates autophagy through mitochondrial fission and lysosome redistribution, providing valuable insights into the rejuvenation process. Our work highlights the interplay between mechanical forces, cellular senescence, and rejuvenation. This can redefine our understanding of aging processes and inspire innovative therapeutic interventions. I hope that our findings will pave the way for advancements in promoting healthy aging and longevity.   

My aim in life is to solve the mysteries of aging and its associated side effects. I am passionate about understanding the mechanisms behind aging and finding innovative solutions to promote healthy aging and longevity. To make my dream come true, I am now looking to transition into the biotechnology industry and explore opportunities that align with my aspirations. Driven by a hunger for knowledge, I read books and actively seek to acquire new skills. I believe that continuous learning is key to staying at the forefront of scientific advancements and unlocking breakthroughs in the field of aging research.   


August 2023 Spotlight
Dr. Ekta Singh

I pursued my PhD in biomedical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. The focus of my research was on developing trigger-responsive drug-loaded contrast agents for intra-articular imaging and therapy.

My current research as a postdoctoral fellow involves working with Low frequency Ultrasound (LFU) and its therapeutic effects. Under the mentorship of Prof. Michael P Sheetz, our research group has demonstrated the potential of LFU in rejuvenating senescence phenotype in cells as well as in old-aged animals. As a part of this research group, I am looking at the beneficial molecules that are secreted into the medium by normal cells, when treated with LFU. What makes these molecules interesting and worth exploring is that when senescent cells are treated with conditioned medium from LFU treated normal cells, there is a reduction in their senescent phenotype. The second project I am working on is studying the immediate as well as long term effects of LFU on the oral glucose tolerance, pancreatic senescence as well as physical performance in old aged high fat diabetic mice. Our preliminary data has shown evidence of an improved oral glucose tolerance and insulin response after treatment with LFU in this diabetic cohort of mice. Another interesting project I am working on is studying the effects of mechanical stimulation via LFU on the healing of full thickness cutaneous wounds in old-aged mice. Being in the early research transition phase, I am very excited to see what novel insights our research group will unveil heading towards in the area of mechanotherapy.

I am an aspiring academician and passionate about developing new teaching designs and effective mentorship. When I am not with my micropipette or laptop, I love singing alone with my Ukulele. I am very fond of traveling to countryside locations and food photography. I like to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle. A key trait of my personality is that I bond very closely with my family and friends.


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July 2023 Spotlight
Christopher Schneider

Growing up I spent most my time in the small creek behind my house. I found myself fascinated with biology and how something as beautiful as a fish can survive in a small nearly stagnant pool of water. This inspired me to begin to raise my own fish in a fish tank and obtain a degree in marine biology. As a result, I’ve been able to apply my 25+ years of aquatics experience to my job and prevent many issues with quality of life and health concerns that surround fish keeping. I enjoy working to better help others understand aquatic life and how complex it can be when the fish’s environment is directly regulating their metabolism, temperature can affect water quality, and lastly how water quality can directly impact quality of life. I’ve obtained a degree in marine biology back in 2017 but have not been able to apply it to any of my previous jobs since graduating college. I currently oversee the satellite Zebrafish facility in the medical research building and this opportunity has allowed me to make full use of the skills and knowledge that I have from both my degree and my hobby of fish keeping. I manage all orders for 2 different labs of 20 people and had no issues with this from my previous experience with the provost office. In my spare time I enjoy gardening, keeping aquariums, and racing cars. I always enjoy learning new things and use the knowledge I gain to further my understanding of how different systems work.


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June 2023 Spotlight
Dr. Moirangthem Kiran Singh

I am a Research Scientist in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Texas, USA and working with Prof. Linda J. Kenney. I earned my doctoral degree in 2016 from the School of Physical Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India under the supervision of Dr. Sobhan Sen. My doctoral research was mainly focused on design and synthesis of suitably tailored fluorescent probes and utilizing them to study depth-dependent static and dynamic properties of lipid/water interfaces and DNA/water interfaces using various spectroscopic and simulation techniques. I extensively worked on Femtosecond Fluorescence Up-conversion, Time Correlated Single Photon Counting (TCSPC) and Fluorescence Correlation Spectroscopy (FCS) techniques. Molecular dynamics simulations were also performed on lipid and DNA systems, and the results were compared to experiments. Prior to joining Professor Kenney’s lab in Singapore, I worked as research associate at Advance Instrumentation and Research Facility (AIRF), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi for a short period, where I built a fully functional Fluorescence Correlation Spectroscopy (FCS) set-up from scratch for the use in the central research facility of JNU.

I started my postdoctoral stint at the Mechanobiology Institute, NUS, Singapore in 2017, and worked in Professor Linda Kenney's laboratory, where I switched gears and explored signal transduction in bacteria and bacterial pathogenesis using single molecule imaging techniques. During this tenure, I also developed and optimized a genetic code expansion-based platform for labeling and visualization of bacterial secreted effectors and secretion components into host cells. The platform I developed also provides an alternative for labeling proteins which do not tolerate N- or C-terminal tags or fluorophores. In 2019, I moved to the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston to continue my postdoctoral work with Prof. Linda Kenney. In the department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, I continue to work on genetic code expansion where we employed genetic code expansion to track the entry and uncoating of ZIKA virus into host cells. Currently, I am working on high-resolution structural re-organization of the bacterial genome and its interplay with signal transduction, in collaboration with Dr. Guy Nir. My research goal is to develop and utilize advanced fluorescence microscopy and spectroscopy to understand how bacterial cells sense their environment; how bacterial genomes are organized; what determines genomic structure and how that structure impacts gene expression, lifestyle switches and bacterial pathogenesis. My ultimate career objective is to pursue a career as a professor, and I am actively exploring all possibilities at UTMB to achieve this goal. Specifically, I am actively seeking a faculty position. Outside of lab work, I enjoy running, and I am currently dedicated to improving my fitness. Twitter Handle: @MoKiranS



May 2023 Spotlight
John D. Hurley

Originally from a small town in southern Ohio, I earned both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biomedical sciences at Marshall University in Huntington, WV. After completing the pre-clinical education in Medical School, I realized the clinical focus was not my passion and began to explore other paths. During my earlier research, I developed a love for cell biology and genomics and desired to further explore these passions by working for a year as a research associate at the Marshall Institute for Interdisciplinary Research, before applying to Ph.D. programs. I joined UTMB in the Fall of 2021 in the cell track within the Biochemistry, Cell, and Molecular Biology program. Last May I joined Michelle Wards Lab with the BMB department and am currently studying the role TEs play in differential transcriptional regulation in cell differentiation between human and chimpanzee iPSCs to cardiomyocytes. The long-term objective is to understand the regulatory mechanisms that allow for phenotypic differences despite sequence similarities between humans and chimpanzees. My overall professional goal is to become a professor, and I am taking every opportunity available at UTMB to teach. Outside of lab work and class work, I am a lover of music and theatre and have long been on the search for a local choir to join. Before moving to Texas, I had been a part of 6 different choirs and been a part of 4 different stage productions.



April 2023 Spotlight
Faith Cox

I am a second-year Ph.D. student in the Biochemistry, Cell, and Molecular Biology program in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology track. Prior to coming to UTMB, I conducted research on emerging avian retroviruses and taught course-based research experiences about bacteriophage isolation and characterization. I have known since I was quite young that I wanted to have a career in science and ask questions, but my undergraduate experiences solidified my desire to do research. My research in Thomas Smith's lab focuses on conformational changes of murine norovirus in response to environmental conditions and how those changes affect immune evasion and disease pathologies. I also serve as the secretary of the Graduate Student Organization. My biggest goal is to make a sustained, positive impact on other trainees and help them as others have helped me. A couple of fun facts about me are I am part of the 2% of the population that successfully got Taylor Swift tickets when they went on sale (I love music) and I have two cats that I absolutely adore.  



March 2023 Spotlight
Dr. Shefali Banerjee

I started as a postdoctoral fellow in Mariano Garcia-Blanco’s lab in 2021 where I am focusing on unravelling the mechanisms of DEAD-box RNA helicase 39B (DDX39B) function in RNA alternative splicing. I completed my PhD from National University of Singapore where we were looking at microRNAs as therapeutic targets for mitigating vasculopathy during dengue. I started my first postdoc stint at University of California, Davis, where we explored the adaptive mechanisms employed by poxviruses- a DNA virus - to overcome host-species barriers and adapt to new hosts. We discovered that adaptive mutations in the viral RNA polymerase may have important roles in changing the transcriptional environment in response to host restriction during cross-species adaptation. I have had a significant background in virology but in all my past projects there has been an important component of RNA biology which has always piqued my interest. So, in Mariano’s lab I decided to switch gears and explore RNA biology with a specific focus on alternative splicing. DEAD-box RNA helicases are integral to RNA metabolism and consequently have important immune functions. Our group has previously shown that DEAD-box RNA helicase 39B has a strong genetic association with MS risk where DDX39B depletion increases IL7R exon 6 skipping which encodes for proinflammatory soluble IL7R. I am focused on understanding what cis-acting and trans-acting factors dictate DDX39B-mediated RNA alternative splicing outcomes. The goal is to identify key factors involved in DDX39B function which can be tweaked and design therapeutic interventions targeting RNA splicing in diseases.

 In my free time I like to listen to and practice my Indian classical music. I also like running and I am currently back on fitness journey to get back on track and run marathons.


Braun-Schein, Catherine01

February 2023 Spotlight
Dr. Catherine H. Schein

Dr. Schein received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Biochemistry with several minors, her MSc from MIT in biochemical engineering, and a PhD in Industrial Microbiology/Biotechnology from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich Switzerland (ETHZ).  She continued from postdoctoral fellow at the University of Zürich into interferon/ cytokine research and development at Biogen, where she ran large scale production of IFN-α2 for preclinical trials and wrote project proposals for the scientific board. After becoming an Oberassistentin at the ETHZ, she worked in T7-RNA polymerase crystallography and studying the interaction of IFNs with ribonucleases (in work funded by the Zürcher Krebsliga). She joined the faculty of the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in 2006 and is currently an Adjunct professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, as well as a Faculty in the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the UTMB.

Dr. Schein’s research has focused on clarifying the structural and sequence relationships between epitopes of allergenic proteins (especially through the Structural Database of Allergenic Proteins, SDAP) and designing physicochemical property consensus (PCPcon) antigens for flaviviruses (Dengue), enteroviruses (Polio and Coxsackie A/B), and alphaviruses (Venezuelan and eastern Equine Encephalitis, Chikungunya). Her work has shown that PCPcon proteins fold like the wild type proteins they are based on, retain function and can be designed to stimulate serotype specific or broad-spectrum protective antibodies.  She has also published on protein solubility for structure determination and therapy and docking and repurposing of molecular libraries in drug design.  Her work, published in over 100 peer reviewed papers and book chapters (H-factor= 42; I10=89), has been funded by grants from NIAID, USDA, EPA, US-FDA, UTMB-Mitchell Center, UK-US Bioscience Initiative, Sealy Center for Vaccine Development and other internal and external sources. 



January 2023 Spotlight
Dr. John Papaconstantinou

Dr. John Papaconstantinou received his PhD in biochemistry at Johns Hopkins University and continued his training as a postdoctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Baltimore, Maryland. Following teaching appointments at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Connecticut, the University of Tennessee, and the University of Georgia, he was recruited to the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in 1979. Dr. Papaconstantinou is currently a tenured professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and is the Bertha and Robert Bucksch Distinguished Research Professor of Aging.

Dr. Papaconstantinou’s research program has focused on the role of inflammation and oxidative stress in promoting aging and, more recently, on the specific role of p38αMAPK signaling in the regulation and progression of aging. Throughout his tenure at UTMB, Dr. Papaconstantinou has demonstrated a strong commitment to the teaching of graduate and medical students, postdoctoral fellows, and mentoring of junior faculty. Dr. Papaconstantinou, known affectionately by his students as “Dr. Papa,” has served as a lecturer and small group facilitator in at least twenty different courses at UTMB. He has served as the primary mentor for over 50 graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, visiting professors, and junior faculty. His excellence in teaching has been recognized by numerous awards, including the Mary and J. Palmer Saunders Professorship for Excellence in Teaching, the Department of Human Biological Chemistry and Genetics Educator Award, and election to the UT Academy of Health Science Education. He is the recipient of multiple patents; he has been published in more than 175 peer-reviewed journals. His research ranks in the top five percent in the U.S. for National Institutes of Health funding.