Dr. Jiyoen Kim and Dr. Alejandra Gonzalez-Gonzalez receive the 2023 NRI Zoghbi Scholar Awards


Dr. Jiyoen Kim and Dr. Maria Alejandra Gonzalez-Gonzalez recently received the 2023 NRI Zoghbi Scholar Award, a special prize established in 2017 by Dr. Huda Zoghbi,  founding director of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute (Duncan NRI) at Texas Children's Hospital, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and a distinguished service professor at Baylor College of Medicine. 

This award honors the many generations of trainees who have worked in the Zoghbi lab and at the Duncan NRI by supporting their career development. It is open to senior Duncan NRI postdoctoral fellows who anticipate transitioning to independent investigator positions to provide critical mentorship and grant support as these senior trainees embark on their independent research programs. The selection committee comprising Baylor College of Medicine faculty, Drs. Mingshan XueMirjana Maletic-SavaticMeng WangChristophe Herman, and Jeannine Chin, provide detailed feedback and mentorship to all Duncan NRI trainees who apply for this award. 

A postdoctoral fellow in the Zoghbi lab, Dr. Kim, was named the 2023 NRI Zoghbi Scholar and will receive $50,000 to support her research and a $ 3,000 personal prize. Dr. Gonzalez - mentored by Dr. Mirjana Maletić-Savatić, Duncan NRI investigator and associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine – was selected for the second prize and will receive $25,000 towards her research and a $1500 personal prize.

Dr. Kim's proposed research:
Many neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders are caused by excess amounts of certain proteins in the nervous system. Currently, large-scale cell-based screens are used to discover regulators of such highly regulated proteins. However, these screens require multiple rounds of strenuous validations to identify the candidates followed by several tests on live animals. 

In her research proposal titled, “In vivo Screening Methods Targeting Levels of Tau Protein within Mouse Brains”, Dr. Kim proposes to bypass cell-based screens by developing a high-throughput genome-wide in vivo CRISPR/Cas9 screening method by ablating genes on a global scale and studying the resultant functional effects. Successful completion of this proposal will result in a powerful new tool as well as result in the discovery of many promising and effective drug targets. 

Dr. Gonzalez-Gonzalez’s proposed research:
Chronic epilepsy is one of the most common neurological conditions worldwide. In the US alone, more than 3.4 million people suffer from it. Unfortunately, 30-40% of these patients are resistant to current treatment paradigms and experience progressive cognitive decline and poor life quality. In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) as an alternative therapy for epilepsy. Despite 25 years of clinical use, the exact mechanism by which it acts remains unclear. 

The goal of Dr. Gonzalez’s project titled, “Molecular mechanisms underlying vagal nerve stimulation effect on neurogenesis in epilepsy” is to explore whether VNS causes an increase in the formation of new functional neurons, which in turn improves epilepsy outcomes by changing neuronal activity over time, reducing neuro-inflammation, and improving learning and memory. Her ultimate hope is that a better understanding of the relationship between VNS and neurogenesis will uncover a new treatment modality that will be useful to not only reduce seizures but also slow down or prevent progressive cognitive and memory decline in such patients.