Spouses Awarded Prestigious Sloan, Pew Fellowships

August 03, 2007

Edward Brown, Ph.D.

This summer the University of Rochester Medical Center boasts winners of two of the most prestigious awards available to young scientists – and the winners are from the same family.

Edward Brown, Ph.D., has been named a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences, and his spouse Ania Majewska, Ph.D., has received an award from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Brown, one of just 20 scientists in the nation to be recognized by the Pew Charitable Trusts this year, will receive $240,000 toward his research, while Majewska will receive $45,000 to continue her work.

Majewska, an assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, is an expert on the brain’s synapses, the junctions between brain cells that are at the core of the brain’s incredible ability to form a powerful network from its billions and billions of cells called neurons. Synapses allow cells to pass messages along from one another instantly, laying the groundwork for all brain function.

Ania Majewska, Ph.D.

Majewska is focusing her research on tiny finger-shaped structures called dendritic spines found within synapses that allow nerve cells to transmit signals. The structures play a key role in the brain’s “plasticity,” the ability of the brain to shift its resources to new tasks. Majewska has found that these structures can change within the brain within just a couple of hours in response to the environment, a remarkable finding in an organ whose structure even recently was thought to be permanent. It now seems that dendritic spines are constantly appearing, disappearing, and reconfiguring themselves, always looking to make connections with other brain cells. Majewska’s work on the way the brain adapts to changing circumstances is important for understanding learning and memory, as well as for people who have been affected by a condition like stroke, where the protection and recovery of brain cells under stress is crucial to the person’s health.

A native of Poland, Majewska received her bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Stanford University and her doctorate in neurobiology and behavior from Columbia University. She has also recently received a Burroughs Wellcome Fund career development award in biomedical sciences; the Explorer Award from the Cajal Club, one of the most prestigious neuroscience professional societies; and a grant from the Whitehall Foundation.

Brown, assistant professor of Biomedical Engineering, received the Pew award for his work developing new ways to analyze breast tumors. Currently he is focusing on collagen, the most common connective tissue in the body and the actual material that holds much of our bodies together. A physicist, Brown has developed a new way to use light to look at collagen in tumors and has evidence that a high turnover rate for collagen in a person may help cancer spread. The work raises the possibility that doctors might some day be able to predict the likelihood of a patient’s breast cancer spreading to other parts of the body based on the properties of the collagen, thus helping doctors decide which patients are most in need of aggressive chemotherapy and which ones could forego that treatment.

Brown received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Wake Forest University and his doctorate in physics from Cornell University. He is at the forefront of using a new way to see inside living tissue by using short bursts of high-intensity light to see deep beneath the surface. Many scientists at Rochester and elsewhere are using the technique, called two-photon imaging, to look at the brain, yielding images of living tissue with much higher resolution than technologies such as PET or MRI scans; Brown is one of the first scientists to apply the technique to cancer. He has received an Era of Hope Scholar Award from the Department of Defense for related work studying how breast tumors create the blood vessels they need to survive.

Brown and Majewska – one of several husband-wife scientific teams at the University – arrived together at the University in 2005. Previously they lived in Boston, where Majewska was a post-doctoral associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brown did research on tumor biology at Harvard.

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