2014 Symposium Speakers

Maria Barna, PhD
Stanford University

Dr. Maria Barna is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Developmental Biology and Genetics at Stanford University. Dr. Barna obtained her B.A. in Anthropology from New York University and her Ph.D. from Cornell University, Weill Graduate School of Medicine. She completed her thesis work in the lab of Dr. Lee Niswander in the Developmental Biology Department at Sloan Kettering Institute in 2007. Dr. Barna was subsequently appointed as a UCSF Fellow in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of California, San Francisco. She has been on the faculty at Stanford University since 2013.

Dr. Barna’s lab studies how intricate control of gene expression and cell signaling is regulated to give rise to the diversity of cell types and tissue morphologies in developing organisms. The Barna lab aims to deepen our understanding of how cells “know where to go” by probing cells and tissues at the molecular and nanoscale levels. Work in the Barna lab is focused in two areas. The first is investigating “specialized ribosomes” and mRNA translation in control of gene expression genome-wide in space and time during development. The second research effort is centered on employing state-of-the-art live cell imaging to visualize cell signaling and cellular control of organogenesis. This research has led to the identification of a novel means of actin-dependent cell-cell communication in developing organs that interconnects and facilitates the precise transmission of molecular information between cells.

Dr. Barna has received a number of distinctions including being named a Pew Scholar, Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, and top ’40 under 40’ by the Cell Journal. She also received the Basil O’ Connor Scholar Research Award and the NIH Directors New Innovator Award.


K. Christopher Garcia, PhD
Stanford University, HHMI

K. Christopher Garcia, Ph.D is a Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology, and of Structural Biology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He received his B.S. in Biochemistry from Tulane University, and his Ph.D. in Biophysics from Johns Hopkins University. After two years of post-doctoral work at Genentech, Inc. under Dr. David Goeddel in the Deptartment of Molecular Biology, Dr. Garcia moved to a second post-doctoral fellowship at The Scripps Research Institute in the laboratory of Professor Ian Wilson, where he succeeded in determining the first crystal structures of the T cell receptor and then its complex with peptide-MHC. In 1999, Dr. Garcia started his lab at Stanford University School of Medicine where he also became an Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Dr. Garcia was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2012.

Collectively, Dr. Garcia’s laboratory is investigating structural and functional aspects of cell surface receptor recognition and activation, in receptor-ligand systems with relevance to human health and disease. The receptor systems studied derive principally from the immune system (TCR/MHC, cytokines), but additionally encompass several systems that are also important in neurobiology (Semaphorins) and development (Wnt). A focus is on “shared” pleiotropic receptors, to understand the biophysical basis by which different ligands are able to elicit unique intracellular responses and functional outcomes. A recent effort in the lab has been to “de-orphanize” cell surface receptors, the vast majority of which remain un-paired with a ligand. In Dr. Garcia’s seminar, he will discuss a range of new results on de-orphanizing receptors that mediate cell-cell adhesion, and also a structural investigation for how the molecular architecture of a known receptor-ligand pair involved in synaptic adhesion impacts on function.


H. Robert Horvitz, PhD
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, HHMI

Dr. H. Robert Horvitz is the David H. Koch Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He
is also a Neurobiologist (Neurology) at the Massachusetts General Hospital, a Member of the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and a Member of the MIT Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. In 2002, Dr. Horvitz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.

Dr. Horvitz received S.B. degrees in Mathematics and in Economics from MIT in 1968. He performed his graduate studies at Harvard University in the laboratories of Drs. James Watson and Walter Gilbert and received his Ph.D. in Biology in 1974.
Dr. Horvitz joined Dr. Sydney Brenner at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, and there began his studies of the development and behavior of the microscopic roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. Since 1978, Dr. Horvitz has been an Assistant, Associate and Full Professor in the Department of Biology at MIT.

Dr. Horvitz’s research involving C. elegans has helped define evolutionarily conserved molecular genetic pathways important in human biology and human disease, including the pathway responsible for programmed cell death, or apoptosis. Dr. Horvitz has won numerous honors and awards in addition to receiving the Noble Prize in 2002, and is a member of boards of trustees, advisory boards and committees both nationally and internationally. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Institute of Medicine and the American Philosophical Society and is a Foreign Member of
the Royal Society of London. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Academy of Microbiology. Dr. Horvitz received an Honorary M.D. from
the University of Rome and Honorary D.Sc. degrees from Cambridge University and Pennsylvania State University.



Denise Montell, PhD
University of California, Santa Barbara

Denise Montell is the Duggan Endowed Professor of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She earned her B.A. degree with honors in Biochemistry and Cell Biology from University of California at San Diego, her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Stanford University, and then carried out postdoctoral studies at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. She rose through the ranks from Assistant to Associate to Full Professor of Biological Chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine where she also served as director of the graduate program in Biological Chemistry and founding Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences Center for Cell Dynamics. After more than 20 years at Johns Hopkins, and 25 years in Baltimore, Denise and her husband Craig returned to California in 2013, accepting positions as the Duggan Endowed Professors of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology a the University of California, Santa Barbara. Denise has two children: Amanda, a recent graduate of NYU and Brandon, a senior at Brown University.

The Montell laboratory’s mission is to uncover the fundamental mechanisms that control how cells build and maintain normal adult tissues so we can harness these mechanisms for the benefit of human health. The lab investigates mechanisms of stem cell maintenance, cell fate specification, cell differentiation, morphogenesis, and migration. Another crucial feature of tissue homeostasis is maintaining the proper balance of cell survival and death. In order to eliminate abnormal or dangerous cells, organisms have evolved cell suicide mechanisms. However excess cell death can cause degenerative diseases, so it is crucial to achieve the proper balance between survival and death. The Montell lab has discovered that cells that have progressed far along the programmed cell death pathway known as apoptosis (Greek for “falling to death”) can actively reverse the process and survive. This process, which Dr. Montell has named anastasis, (Greek for “rising to life”) has implications for cancer, degenerative disease, and regenerative medicine.


Joshua Sanes, PhD
Harvard University

Dr. Joshua Sanes is the Jeff C. Tarr Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University and is the Paul J. Finnegan Family Director, Center for Brain Science, Harvard University. Dr. Sanes received a BA from Yale and a PhD from Harvard. He served on the faculty of Washington University for over 20 years, before returning to Harvard in 2004 as Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and founding Director of the Center for Brain Science. 

Dr. Sanes studies the formation of synapses, the connections that transmit information between nerve cells. His current work focuses on how specific connections form in the visual system to generate the complex circuits that underlie the processing of visual information. He and his colleagues have also pioneered new ways to mark and manipulate neurons and the synapses they form. Their work has been published in over 300 papers. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is on the editorial board of several scientific journals, including Cell and Neuron, and is a member of the working group planning the BRAIN Initiative. He has served on the Board of Scientific Counselors and the National Advisory Council of the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (NIH), the Council of the Society for Neuroscience, and advisory panels for the Klingenstein Neuroscience Fund, Searle Scholars Fund, Max- Planck Institute, Wellcome Trust, Stowers Institute, National Academy of Sciences, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.


Alexander F. Schier, PhD
Harvard University

Dr. Alexander Schier is the Leo Erikson Life Sciences Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University. He obtained his Ph.D. from the Biozentrum in Basel, Switzerland, where he studied the transcriptional regulation of homeobox genes in Walter Gehring’s lab. He spent his postdoc in Wolfgang Driever’s lab in Boston, where he screened for and characterized mutants affecting zebrafish development. He started his lab in 1996 at the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine and joined Harvard University in 2005.

Dr. Schier’s lab has contributed to the understanding of the molecular basis of embryogenesis and behavior and to the development of zebrafish as a model system. The research in his laboratory focuses on three areas: vertebrate embryogenesis, sensory neuron development and function, and sleep and wakefulness. Members of his lab have gone on to faculty positions at leading institutions, including Princeton, Caltech, UCLA, University of Toronto, U Mass Amherst, Yale, NYU School of Medicine, University College London, MPI Dresden, University of Tokyo, UCSD, and MPI Tuebingen.


Robert A. Weinberg, PhD
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Researc, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dr. Robert A. Weinberg is the Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dr. Weinberg received his B.S. (1964) and Ph.D. (1969) degrees in Biology from MIT. He undertook postdoctoral research at the Weizmann Institute and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, and then returned to MIT in 1972. In 1982, he was appointed Professor of Biology at MIT and that year became one of the Founding Members of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, also in Cambridge, MA. In 2006 he was appointed as Director of MIT’s Ludwig Center for Cancer Research.

Dr. Weinberg and his colleagues used transfection to identify the first human cancer-causing gene, the ras oncogene, and
the first known tumor suppressor gene, RB, the retinoblastoma gene. Subsequently, his group isolated the hTERT gene encoding the telomerease enzyme and used this gene, together with others, to create the first genetically defined human cancer cells. Their discovery that a series of transcription factors (Twist, Goosecoid, FOXC2) can program multiple steps of the invasion- metastasis cascade holds the promise of revealing how cancer cells within primary tumors are able to metastasize.

Among Dr. Weinberg’s many honors and awards are the Discover Magazine 1982 Scientist of the Year, the National Academy of Sciences/U.S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology, the Sloan Prize of the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, the Bristol-Myers Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research, the Harvey Prize from the American Society for Technion/Israel Institute of Technology, the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the Keio Medical Foundation Prize, the 1997 National Medal of Science, the 2004 Wolf Foundation Prize, and the Prince of Asturias Science Prize. He is a Member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the Institute of Medicine and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Larry Zipursky, PhD
University of California, Los Angeles, HHMI

Larry Zipursky is a Professor of Biological Chemistry in the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He received his A.B. in Chemistry from Oberlin College, his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from Albert Einstein College
of Medicine, where he did his thesis research in the Hurwitz laboratory and conducted postdoctoral research in Seymour Benzer’s laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

Dr. Zipursky studies the role of cellular interactions regulating the development of the nervous system from cellular interactions regulating cell fate determination to the recognition mechanisms underlying the formation of precise patterns of synaptic connectivity. Current work in his laboratory is focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms regulating the formation of neural circuits in the visual system of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and cellular recognition mechanisms which enable neurons to distinguish between self and non-self.

Dr. Zipursky is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.