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Kellianne Alexander named HHMI Gilliam Graduate Fellow

GSBS student studying neurobiology in Michael Francis lab

By Samantha Cruz, Megan Bard and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

July 31, 2019

The Women in Science video series on UMassMedNow highlights the many areas of research conducted by women at UMass Medical School.

Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences student Kellianne Alexander has been awarded a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Graduate Fellowship.

Alexander, a PhD candidate in the lab of Michael Francis, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology, studies synaptic remodeling of the C. elegans motor circuit and the molecular mechanisms that regulate synaptic refinement.

“This fellowship will ultimately help me to one day establish an independent laboratory and become a leader in fostering more involvement of underrepresented groups in science,” Alexander said.

“Although relatively junior in terms of her training, Kellie carries herself with the poise and maturity of a senior student or even postdoc, and I’m certain that the training and support offered by the Gilliam Fellowship will be pivotal in advancing these qualities further,” said Dr. Francis.

Chosen as one of 44 award recipients of 218 applicants, Alexander “will be a leader in science committed to advancing diversity and inclusion,” according to the HHMI announcement.

The three-year, $150,000 grant includes a stipend for professional development that allow Alexander to meet with other fellows and advisors at two annual conferences held at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and the Janelia Research Institute in Ashburn, Virginia.

With support of the HHMI grant, Alexander will investigate molecular mechanisms controlling synaptic remodeling using the C. elegans model system.

“Prior work studying this process has focused on the remodeling of presynaptic components. My preliminary work provides some of the first analysis of postsynaptic remodeling in dorsal D-class neurons and suggests that many of the genes controlling presynaptic remodeling are not important for postsynaptic remodeling,” said Alexander.

To date, she has isolated five mutants in which there is a failure to eliminate juvenile connections that are normally removed during remodeling.

“My proposed work will advance our understanding of the molecular mechanisms controlling synaptic remodeling and potentially provide insight into new therapeutic targets for neurological diseases,” she said.

In addition to supporting her work in the lab, the HHMI Fellowship allocates funding for Alexander and Francis to use toward fostering diversity and inclusion in science.

“Diversity, in general, is very important in science because when you open the doors to everyone you get some really great science, some diverse ideas and new angles to combat the same problem,” she said. “Building a strong network of diverse colleagues is essential for my development as a scientist.”

As a GSBS student, Alexander has been a participant in several key UMMS training programs.

“In addition to being a bright young scientist, Kellianne has been a great ambassador for UMMS,” said Brian Lewis, PhD, associate professor of molecular, cell, & cancer biology, assistant vice provost for outreach and recruitment, and associate dean for diversity and prematriculation programs in GSBS. He said Alexander has served as a peer mentor to students enrolled in the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program.

As an undergraduate at UMass Boston, Alexander, participated in an NIH-funded Summer Research Program in 2014. She matriculated into the UMMS Pathway to Graduate Study Program in 2015 before successfully transitioning into the GSBS PhD training program in 2016.