An early-career boost for scientist studying aging

Neurobiologist Claire Bénard receives Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship

By Alison Duffy

UMass Medical School Communications

March 02, 2011

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Claire Bénard, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology, has received an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship for 2011, a prestigious grant awarded to early-career scientists and scholars in recognition of their achievement and potential to contribute substantially to their field.

“Recognition like this is very important at this stage of my career. It is an honor to be identified as having great potential to contribute to neuroscience.” Dr. Bénard said. “It helps me attract other funding and it also helps me recruit people to my lab.” 

Bénard, who is 36 and has been at UMMS for just a year and a half, has already made a major impact on the field of neurobiology and aging. Her work focuses on understanding the mechanisms by which the brain’s architecture and function are maintained throughout life—and how they are affected by age. Once the nervous system develops in the embryo and its structure is laid out, how does it withstand challenges such as growth, body movements, the addition of new neurons, as well as internal and external stressors? “How is the nervous system flexible enough to accommodate changes, and yet robust enough to maintain the integrity of its circuits and neuronal connections?” she said. 

Bénard’s work has shown that there are mechanisms dedicated to protecting the nervous system, ensuring that neurons and axons preserve their precise position and function within a neuronal circuit. She has identified several proteins in mutant C. elegans worms that become defective in neuronal architecture later in their life: neurons and axons develop flawlessly but later become abnormally and progressively displaced as the mutants age, affecting the worms’ ability to carry out behaviors properly, such as detecting food. 

In her Sloan Fellowship application, Bénard proposed to determine how these maintenance proteins—called ZIG-1 through ZIG-8—function to preserve the nervous system throughout life, and identify novel maintenance-specific molecules responsible for protecting the integrity of neural circuits. She aims to “provide a groundbreaking understanding of the universal mechanisms that protect the brain’s neurons and circuits,” insight that she hopes may eventually lead to the development of clinical therapies for neurodegenerative diseases in people. 

“Claire Bénard was a great recruit for the Department of Neurobiology. She is a terrific colleague and exudes an infectious passion for her work,” said Steven Reppert, MD, the Higgins Family Professor of Neuroscience and chair and professor of neurobiology. “She has great research potential and is very deserving of a Sloan Research Fellowship. Her study of the mechanisms underlying nervous system maintenance in the nematode C. elegans opens up a completely new area.” 

Bénard received her PhD in 2003 from McGill University with support of pre-doctoral scholarships from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and FCAR (Fonds pour la formation des chercheurs et l’aide à la recherche, a Canadian funding organization); she received fellowships from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada for her postdoctoral training at Columbia University. 

About the Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowships 

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation named 118 outstanding researchers, including 16 in neuroscience, as recipients of the prestigious Sloan Research Fellowships for 2011. Awarded annually since 1955, the fellowships are given to early-career scientists and scholars in recognition of achievement and the potential to contribute substantially to their fields. 

According to the foundation, fellows were drawn from 54 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, and include researchers with an extraordinarily broad range of interests: an astronomer who studies the birth of new planets; a computer scientist who examines how changes in computer network architecture can save energy; an economist who investigates the game-theoretical foundations of cooperation; and a mathematician who uses geometry to model how the brain represents stimuli. 

“The scientists and researchers selected for this year’s Sloan Research Fellowships represent the very brightest rising stars of this generation of scholars,” says Paul L. Joskow, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “The foundation is proud to be able to support their work at this important stage in their careers.” 

Administered and funded by the Sloan Foundation, the fellowships are awarded in close cooperation with the scientific community. Potential fellows must be nominated for recognition by their peers and are subsequently selected by an independent panel of senior scholars. The $50,000 fellowships are awarded in chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, evolutionary and computational molecular biology, neuroscience and physics.