Rajan Lab: July 2019- From Right - Michelle (top); Ava, Terry, Camille and Akhila.

Rajan Lab: July 2019- From Right - Michelle (top); Ava, Terry, Camille and Akhila.

Faculty portrait (BSD) - Akhila Rajan-1_2.jpg

Akhila Rajan

We identified how fly fat communicates with neural circuits to release insulin in response to nutrient state. We also discovered how fat cells secrete the appropriate amount of fat hormones depending on nutrient state. Many health disorders - obesity, diabetes, anorexia- arise from improper hormone secretion and fat-brain communication. Hence, the remarkable molecular and physiological conservation between humans and flies, allows my lab to address complex questions that have the potential to improve human health, while uncovering fundamental biological mechanisms.

Away from the bench, I enjoy music (both classical and hip-hop) while baking. But most of all, I relish exploring with my inquisitive toddler.


Ava Brent/ Staff Scientist

The broad focus of my research is the genetic and environmental influences that affect every facet of life, from embryonic development to adult homeostasis, from human disease to evolution. Working with a variety of invertebrate as well as vertebrate systems, I have considered a number of specific questions: What developmental processes underlie early embryonic patterning in insects, and how have these processes changed over the course of evolution? What are the mechanisms by which the various components of the vertebrate axial musculoskeletal system are specified and organized during development such that proper form and function are ensured? How did the vertebrate axial skeleton evolve from an invertebrate chordate ancestor?

In the Rajan lab, my focus is to understand how genetic and environmental inputs converge as an organism senses and responds to its internal and external environment in an effort to maintain energy homeostasis. What consequences arise when that maintenance program becomes dysfunctional? And, of particular interest to me, how are peripheral inputs received and interpreted by neural circuits, and then translated into systemic instructions that bring about physiologic change throughout the organism?

When I’m not thinking about such questions in the lab, I can be found playing and exploring with my two lively little boys.


Terry Hafer/ Graduate Student

Prior to joining the Rajan Lab, I had a wide variety of research experiences, from virology to development and neurobiology. Originally from the East Coast, I graduated from Penn State where I studied neuronal responses to injury in Drosophila. From there, I transitioned to Columbia University where I studied the link between genome architecture and neuronal cell fate specification in Minoree Kohwi’s lab. I moved to Seattle to join UW’s MCB program and escape the humid summers and snowy, barren trees in the winter. I am generally interested in mechanisms by which environmental factors such as diet or injury can affect organismal physiology and cellular biology. In the Rajan Lab, I am studying the secretion of Upd2 (Leptin ortholog) from fat and how its secretion can be affected by factors such as high-sugar diets and starvation. Although flies do not have a pancreas or liver like us humans, the conservation of nutrient sensing signaling pathways between the two is absolutely fascinating to me! Outside of the lab, I spend my time hiking, backpacking, playing racquet sports, volleyball, listening to crime podcasts, enjoying what the beautiful Pacific Northwest has to offer, and wondering if I will ever move back to the East Coast. The PNW is a great place to live and do science!


Michelle Poling/ Research Technician

During my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Davis, where I graduated in 2017 with a B.S. in Biotechnology, I focused on the idea of using biological systems to create products. Working in Dr. Justin Siegel’s lab I designed plasmids with specific mutations that when transformed into bacterial cells would result a multitude of different physiological changes such as in enzymatic activity, thermostability etc.,

I am eager to take the molecular biology skills I have learned in my previous lab experiences and apply them here at the Rajan lab. Attempting to answer the fundamental questions surrounding why metabolic disorders occur is something that hits close to home for many people, myself included. I am passionate about the problems we are trying to solve and excited to make an impact.

Originally from California, I love rooting for the Giants during baseball season. When I’m not on the bench, I can be found playing tennis, watching movies, and practicing photography.


Camille Sullivan/ Research Technician

June of 2018 I graduated from Princeton University with a B.A. in molecular biology. While at Princeton I worked in Dr. Bonnie Bassler’s laboratory, focusing on questions about quorum sensing proteins in Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Quorum sensing is the density dependent chemical communication system that regulates gene expression and virulence among bacteria. After spending the summer of 2017 working full time in the Bassler laboratory, I realized that research was something that I was passionate about. Working in the Rajan laboratory is a fantastic opportunity to expand my technical skills and to contribute to the understanding of the mechanisms of homeostasis in fruit flies. Specifically by determining the effects of nutrient surplus on neuronal mechanisms, as well as the manner in which adipocytes and brain neurons communicate. I am excited to be returning to the West Coast where I spend most of my time with my extended family. While at Princeton I also played varsity lacrosse and so I look forward to helping grow the game here in Seattle and playing a variety of pickup sports.