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Q&A: Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy

“Persistence is important in science and life,” the award-winning neuroscientist says

By Daniel P. Smith

The wins keep coming for Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy.

Since arriving at Northwestern in 2014, Kozorovitskiy, an assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology, has collected several notable honors and grants, a run that includes her recent recognition as a 2016 Searle Scholar.

The Searle honor, one of the most prestigious early career awards for biomedical scientists and chemists, provides Kozorovitskiy $300,000 over the next three years.

Kozorovitskiy sat down recently to discuss her research and its implications.

What are your primary research interests?

When we think about neurons in the brain and their modes of communication, we often think about fast neurotransmission — the brain’s typical electrical signals that lead to the release of “excitatory” or “inhibitory” neurotransmitter molecules. But this fast signaling is heavily regulated by a large group of other molecules and proteins that work in complex ways to regulate classical neuronal communication. Without neuromodulation, we would not be able to sleep, eat, move and feel emotions. It is this slower and diverse set of neuromodulatory mechanisms we would like to understand across multiple brain regions.

How did you get interested in neuroscience? 

As a sophomore at Princeton, I learned that the adult brain is not immutable — new neurons are born in some brain regions throughout life. I was instantly hooked and wanted to know more. I learned that this opens the door to harnessing these cell populations for therapeutic use, and also forces us to reconsider what it means to be an active neural circuit and to think more deeply about information encoding in the brain.

What are the greater implications of your lab’s research?

The majority of successful neuroactive drugs on the market target the so-called “G protein-coupled receptors,” a large class that includes receptor proteins that sense neuromodulation. Until recently, these systems have been challenging to study in precise ways. Our fairly basic research is helping to lay a foundation that will help others build better drugs and therapies for neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as mental health problems like major depressive disorder.

What’s your reaction to the mounting number of awards? 

I’d like to show you my list of rejections, too. Persistence is important in science and life. For the awards I’ve won, I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude to the foundations and to my supporters at Northwestern and beyond. And, of course, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to translate our findings into discoveries as quickly as possible.

How will the most recent Searle Scholar award help advance your research?

The theme of my Searle Scholar proposal marries the topic of neurogenesis, which got me hooked on neuroscience as an undergrad, with cutting-edge means for studying neuromodulation, so it holds a special place in my research portfolio. With $100,000 annually over the next three years, I can carry projects to completion and federal funding. I should be able to hire a grad student, pay for all the needed reagents and even invest in some technology development for studying neuromodulatory circuits.

17 May 2016

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