Two faculty members from the MIT Department of Biology have been selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) for the inaugural cohort of HHMI Freeman Hrabowski Scholars.
Seychelle Vos, the Robert A. Swanson Career Development Professor of Life Sciences, and Hernandez Moura Silva, an assistant professor of biology and core member of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard, are among 31 early-career faculty selected for their potential to become leaders in their research fields and to create diverse and inclusive lab environments in which everyone can thrive, according to a press release.
Freeman Hrabowski Scholars are appointed to a five-year term, renewable for a second five-year term after a successful progress evaluation. Each scholar will receive up to $8.6 million over 10 years, including full salary, benefits, a research budget, and scientific equipment. In addition, they will participate in professional development to advance their leadership and mentorship skills.
The Freeman Hrabowski Scholars Program represents a key component of HHMI’s diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. Over the next 20 years, HHMI expects to hire and support up to 150 Freeman Hrabowski Scholars — appointing roughly 30 scholars every other year for the next 10 years. The institute has committed up to $1.5 billion for the Freeman Hrabowski Scholars to be selected over the next decade. The program was named for Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president emeritus of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, who played a major role in increasing the number of scientists, engineers, and physicians from backgrounds underrepresented in science in the United States.
Seychelle Vos studies how DNA organization impacts gene expression at the atomic level, using cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM), X-ray crystallography, biochemistry, and genetics. Human cells contain about 2 meters of DNA, which is packed so tightly that its entirety is contained within the nucleus, which is only a few microns across. Although DNA needs to be compacted, it also needs to be accessible to, and readable by, the cell’s molecular machinery.
Vos received a BS in genetics from the University of Georgia in 2008 and a PhD from University of California at Berkeley in 2013. During her postdoctoral research at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany, she determined how the molecular machine responsible for gene expression is regulated near gene promoters.
Vos joined MIT as an assistant professor of biology in fall 2019.
“I am very humbled and honored to have been named a HHMI Freeman Hrabowski Scholar,” Vos says. “It would not have been possible without the hard work of my lab and the help of my colleagues. It provides us with the support to achieve our ambitious research goals.”
Hernandez Moura Silva
Hernandez Moura Silva studies the role of immune cells in the maintenance and normal function of our bodies and tissues, beyond their role in battling infection. Specifically, he looks at a specific type of immune cell called a macrophage and its role in the proper function of white adipose tissue — our fat. White adipose tissue in a healthy state is highly populated by macrophages, including very abundant ones known as “vasculature-associated adipose tissue macrophages,” which are located around the blood vessels. When the activity of these adipose macrophages is disrupted, there are changes in the proper function of the white adipose tissue, which may ultimately link to disease. By understanding macrophage function in healthy tissues, Hernandez hopes to learn how to restore tissue homeostasis in disease.
Moura Silva received a BS in biology in 2005 and an MSc in molecular biology in 2008 from the University of Brazil. He received his PhD in 2011 from the University of São Paulo Heart Institute. Moura Silva pursued his postdoctoral work as the Bernard Levine Postdoctoral Fellow in immunology and immuno-metabolism at the New York University School of Medicine Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine.
He joined MIT as an assistant professor of biology in 2022. He is also a core member of the Ragon Institute.
“For an immigrant coming from an underrepresented group, it’s a huge privilege to be granted this opportunity from HHMI that will empower me and my lab to shape the next generation of scientists and provide an environment where people can feel welcome and encouraged to do the science that they love and be successful,” Moura Silva says. “It also aligns with MIT’s commitment to increase diversity and opportunity across the Institute and to become a place where all people can thrive.”