Catalyst Symposium helps lower “activation barriers” for rising biology researchers

For science — and the scientists who practice it — to succeed, research must be shared. That’s why members of the MIT community recently gathered to learn about the research of eight postdocs from across the country for the second annual Catalyst Symposium, an event co-sponsored by the Department of Biology and The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

The eight Catalyst Fellows came to campus as part of an effort to increase engagement between MIT scholars and postdocs excelling in their respective fields from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds in science. The three-day symposium included panel discussions with faculty and postdocs, one-on-one meetings, social events, and research talks from the Catalyst Fellows.

“I love the name of this symposium because we’re all, of course, eager to catalyze advancements in our professional lives, in science, and to move forward faster by lowering activation barriers,” says MIT biology department head Amy Keating. “I feel we can’t afford to do science with only part of the talent pool, and I don’t think people can do their best work when they are worried about whether they belong.” 

The 2024 Catalyst Fellows include Chloé Baron from Boston Children’s Hospital; Maria Cecília Canesso from The Rockefeller University; Kiara Eldred from the University of Washington School of Medicine; Caitlin Kowalski from the University of Oregon; Fabián Morales-Polanco from Stanford University; Kali Pruss from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis; Rodrigo Romero from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; and Zuri Sullivan from Harvard University.

Romero, who received his PhD from MIT working in the Jacks Lab at the Koch Institute, said that it was “incredible to see so many familiar faces,” but he spent the symposium lunch chatting with new students in his old lab.

“Especially having been trained to think differently after MIT, I can now reach out to people that I didn’t as a graduate student, and make connections that I didn’t think about before,” Romero says.

He presented his work on lineage plasticity in the tumor microenvironment. Lineage plasticity is a hallmark of tumor progression but also occurs during normal development, such as wound healing.

As for the general mission of the symposium, Romero agrees with Keating.

“Trying to lower the boundary for other people to actually have a chance to do academic research in the future is important,” Romero says.

The Catalyst Symposium is aimed at early-career scientists who foresee a path in academia. Of the 2023 Catalyst Fellows, one has already secured a faculty position. Starting this September, Shan Maltzer will be an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University in the Department of Pharmacology and the Vanderbilt Brain Institute studying mechanisms of somatosensory circuit assembly, development, and function.

Another aim of the Catalyst Symposium is to facilitate collaborations and strengthen existing relationships. Sullivan, an immunologist and molecular neuroscientist who presented on the interactions between the immune system and the brain, is collaborating with Sebastian Lourido, an associate professor of biology and core member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Lourido’s studies include pathogens such as Toxoplasma gondii, which is known to alter the behavior of infected rodents. In the long term, Sullivan hopes to bridge research in immunology and neuroscience — for instance by investigating how infection affects behavior. She has observed that two rodents experiencing illness will huddle together in a cage, whereas an unafflicted rodent and an ill one will generally avoid each other when sharing the same space.

Pruss presented research on the interactions between the gut microbiome and the environment, and how they may affect physiology and fetal development. Kowalski discussed the relationship between fungi residing on our bodies and human health. Beyond the opportunity to deliver talks, both agreed that the small group settings of the three-day event were rewarding.

“The opportunity to meet with faculty throughout the symposium has been invaluable, both for finding familiar faces and for establishing friendly relationships,” Pruss says. “You don’t have to try to catch them when you’re running past them in the hallway.”

Eldred, who studies cell fate in the human retina, says she was excited about the faculty panels because they allowed her to ask faculty about fundamental aspects of recruiting for their labs, like bringing in graduate students.

Kowalski also says she enjoyed interfacing with so many new ideas — the spread of scientific topics from among the cohort of speakers extended beyond those she usually interacts with.

Mike Laub, professor of biology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and Yadira Soto-Feliciano, assistant professor of biology and intramural faculty at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, were on the symposium’s planning committee, along with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer Hallie Dowling-Huppert. Laub hopes the symposium will continue to be offered annually; next year’s Catalyst Symposium is already scheduled to take place in early May.

“I thought this year’s Catalyst Symposium was another great success. The talks from the visiting fellows featured some amazing science from a wide range of fields,” Laub says. “I also think it’s fair to say that their interactions with the faculty, postdocs, and students here generated a lot of excitement and energy in our community, which is exactly what we hoped to accomplish with this symposium.”

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