Akhila Rajan:

For my graduate work, in Hugo Bellen's lab at the Baylor College of Medicine, I investigated how cells communicate so that the appropriate cell types are specified during nervous system development. Then, I became curious about how organs communicate with each other, during alterations in nutrient supply. I modeled this inter-organ communication + nutrition question in fruit flies, as a post-doc, with Norbert Perrimon at the Harvard Medical School. This led me to identify how fruit flies fat cells communicate, stored energy supplies, to brain circuits. Remarkably, the molecule used by fruit flies to perform this feat of inter-organ communication, is the same one we humans use to communicate our overall fat stores to our brain circuits. This important hormone is called Leptin. In fact, plugging back the human gene into the fly makes up for the lack of fly’s own gene. In humans lack of Leptin leads to obesity. But too much of anything, especially Leptin, is a bad thing. In keeping with this, oversupply of Leptin in our blood due to increased fat stores is the main cause of common obesity, and is termed "Leptin resistance". And why too much circulating Leptin causes obesity is poorly understood. Having now established a Leptin-like model in fruit flies, a superb genetic model, positions us to tackle the mechanisms underlying Leptin resistance, and other more basic questions pertaining to energy balance (see "projects" section). At the bench, audiobooks are my constant companion. Away from the bench, I am an amateur food enthusiast. I enjoy experimenting with new recipes and reviving traditional ones from southern India.

Ava Brent:

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.

Laura Holderbaum:

My lab life began in 2006 as a research technician and lab manager for Dr. Nadia Dahmane at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, studying the role of ZNF238 in developing mouse brains.  A move to Boston in 2009 landed me in the lab of Dr. Norbert Perrimon at Harvard Medical School where I spent 7 years juggling fruit flies, databases and administrative support for his group of more than 40 members.  

I’m excited to be an inaugural member of the Rajan lab, and to contribute my varied skills to help build a strong and successful operation.  Professionally, I am eager to get back to more hands-on science.  Personally, I can’t wait to explore the beauty of the Pacific Northwest!

When I'm not at the bench or at the computer, I enjoy wandering around and taking photos of graffiti and urban treasures.